Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: How World War II shaped Pittsfield housing
In 1940, the U.S. government passed the National Defense Housing Act, also known as the Lanham Act. This legislation enabled the feds to allocate $150 million to build public housing for defense industry workers throughout the country. The stipulation was that houses could cost no more than $3,500 each to build, and that they had to be de-mountable, i.e., they could be taken down or moved easily at the end of the war.
During the war, many low-income families from rural areas migrated to cities, where family members obtained jobs at defense-related plants. Temporary housing became the government's number-one priority for public housing.
Rep. Fritz Lanham of Texas, who sponsored the bill, was an opponent of low-income public housing. He fought to keep this housing as temporary and in no way interfering with the private housing market.
With Pittsfield's General Electric Co. having defense contracts, low-cost temporary housing was well-needed. The city ended up with 99 basic wooden box houses that were demountable. These were located off Benedict Road, an area that became known as "Victory Hill," to project wartime optimism. The homes were not far from GE, and the bus routes were quickly added for the residents' convenience.
The first homes were completed in 1943 on Tower Drive, Amity Street and Community Street. By then, construction costs had risen to about $5,000 per structure. In 1943, the Lanham Act was amended to ensure that such federal houses be removed no later than two years after the president declared the end of the war emergency.
The housing could only remain if there were unusual circumstances. In those cases, the Pittsfield Defense Housing Committee would have some say-so on the disposition of the housing. There was a written co-management agreement between this committee and the government's Federal Public Housing Authority.
That agency also provided a community center with dining and recreation space for residents and well-baby clinics offered by the Pittsfield committee. To qualify for such housing, a family had to be designated "in-migrant" civilian war workers employed by or to be employed at GE.
In-migrant was defined as having the head of the family currently living beyond a reasonable commute to work of a cost of more than 50 cents and three hours' time of a round trip. An employee who came into the area after July 1, 1941, and lived in a trailer, shack, hotel, with relatives or was evicted from a home to be demolished also would qualify.
The occupancy standard, with number of bedrooms, was based on the size of the family. Two-year-olds had to have a bedroom separate from parents, and children of opposite sexes had separate rooms from age 5 or 6 on. When opened in 1943, the monthly rent for the 14 one-bedroom homes was $38.25. The 60 two-bedroom homes were $41.25, and the 26 three-bedroom units went for $44.50. Rent included gas, electricity and water, but not heat. (Although 100 houses were built, one apparently was destroyed by a gas explosion.).
Despite the low rental cost, Victory Hill houses were a constant source of controversy from the day they were inhabited. Criticism and attacks were engendered by the Massachusetts Federation of Taxpayers Association, which railed against the government for subsidizing public housing that amounted to shacks with flimsy construction, poor insulation, no basements and similar issues.
The government always saw this housing as a temporary situation, and thus intentionally had houses built below the acceptable standards for permanent housing. Residents early on were content with the living arrangements, most likely due to the inexpensive rental costs and having their own places.
(To be continued: What happened after the war ended?)
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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