President Truman, State of the Union Address, January 14, 1946 — Housing Portion

The more things change, the more they stay the same

From President Harry S. Truman’s January 1946 State of the Union address. Early in the speech, the President addresses the economic outlook, which involves both inflation and housing speculation. (Sound familiar?)

I. THE ECONOMIC OUTLOOK

Prophets of doom predicted that the United States could not escape a runaway inflation during the war and an economic collapse after the war. These predictions have not been borne out. On the contrary, the record of economic stabilization during the war and during the period of reconversion has been an outstanding accomplishment.

We know, however, that nothing is as dangerous as overconfidence, in war or in peace. We have had to fight hard to hold the line. We have made strenuous efforts to speed reconversion. But neither the danger of a postwar inflation nor of a subsequent collapse in production and employment is yet overcome. We must base our policies not on unreasoning optimism or pessimism but upon a candid recognition of our objectives and upon a careful analysis of foreseeable trends.

Any precise appraisal of the economic outlook at this time is particularly difficult. The period of demobilization and reconversion is fraught with uncertainties. There are also serious gaps in our statistical information. Certain tendencies are, however, fairly clear and recognition of them should serve as background for the consideration of next year’s Federal Program. In general, the outlook for business is good, and it is likely to continue to be good — provided we control inflation and achieve peace in management- labor relations.

Civilian production and employment can be expected to increase throughout the next year. This does not mean, however, that continuing full employment is assured. It is probable that demobilization of the armed forces will proceed faster than the increase in civilian employment opportunities. Even if substantial further withdrawals from the labor market occur, unemployment will increase temporarily. The extent to which this unemployment will persist depends largely on the speed of industrial expansion and the effectiveness of the policies of the Federal Government.

Along with extraordinary demand there are still at this time many critical shortages resulting from the war. These extraordinary demands and shortages may lead to a speculative boom, especially in the price of securities, real estate, and inventories.

Therefore, our chief worry still is inflation.

While we control this inflationary pressure we must look forward to the time when this extraordinary demand will subside. It will be years before we catch up with the demand for housing. The extraordinary demand for other durable goods, for the replenishment of inventories, and for exports may be satisfied earlier. No backlog of demand can exist very long in the face of our tremendous productive capacity. We must expect again to face the problem of shrinking demand and consequent slackening in sales, production, and employment. This possibility of a deflationary spiral in the future will exist unless we now plan and adopt an effective full employment program.

Later in the speech, Truman would discuss the need for a national housing program.

(i) National housing program.

Last September I stated in my message to the Congress that housing was high on the list of matters calling for decisive action.

Since then the housing shortage in countless communities, affecting millions of families, has magnified this call to action.

Today we face both an immediate emergency and a major postwar problem.

Since VJ-day the wartime housing shortage has been growing steadily worse and pressure on real estate values has increased. Returning veterans often cannot find a satisfactory place for their families to live, and many who buy have to pay exorbitant prices. Rapid demobilization inevitably means further overcrowding.

A realistic and practical attack on the emergency will require aggressive action by local governments, with Federal aid, to exploit all opportunities and to give the veterans as far as possible first chance at vacancies. It will require continuation of rent control in shortage areas as well as legislation to permit control of sales prices. It will require maximum conversion of temporary war units for veterans’ housing and their transportation to communities with the most pressing needs; the Congress has already appropriated funds for this purpose.

The inflation in the price of housing is growing daily.

As a result of the housing shortage, it is inevitable that the present dangers of inflation in home values will continue unless the Congress takes action in the immediate future.

Legislation is now pending in the Congress which would provide for ceiling prices for old and new houses. The authority to fix such ceilings is essential. With such authority, our veterans and other prospective home owners would be protected against a skyrocketing of home prices. The country would be protected from the extension of the present inflation in home values which, if allowed to continue, will threaten not only the stabilization program but our opportunities for attaining a sustained high level of home construction.

Such measures are necessary stopgaps — but only stopgaps. This emergency action, taken alone, is good — but not enough. The housing shortage did not start with the war or with demobilization; it began years before that and has steadily accumulated. The speed with which the Congress establishes the foundation for a permanent, long-range housing program will determine how effectively we grasp the immense opportunity to achieve our goal of decent housing and to make housing a major instrument of continuing prosperity and full employment in the years ahead. It will determine whether we move forward to a stable and healthy housing enterprise and toward providing a decent home for every American family.

Production is the only fully effective answer. To get the wheels turning, I have appointed an emergency housing expediter. I have approved establishment of priorities designed to assure an ample share of scarce materials to builders of houses for which veterans will have preference. Additional price and wage adjustments will be made where necessary, and other steps will be taken to stimulate greater production of bottleneck items. I recommend consideration of every sound method for expansion in facilities for insurance of privately financed housing by the Federal Housing Administration and resumption of previously authorized low-rent public housing projects suspended during the war.

In order to meet as many demands of the emergency situation as possible, a program of emergency measures is now being formulated for action. These will include steps in addition to those already taken. As quickly as this program can be formulated, announcement will be made.

Last September I also outlined to the Congress the basic principles for the kind of decisive, permanent legislation necessary for a long-range housing program.

These principles place paramount the fact that housing construction and financing for the overwhelming majority of our citizens should be done by private enterprise. They contemplate also that we afford governmental encouragement to privately financed house construction for families of moderate income, through extension of the successful system of insurance of housing investment; that research be undertaken to develop better and cheaper methods of building homes; that communities be assisted in appraising their housing needs; that we commence a program of Federal aid, with fair local participation, to stimulate and promote the rebuilding and redevelopment of slums and blighted areas — with maximum use of private capital. It is equally essential that we use public funds to assist families of low income who could not otherwise enjoy adequate housing, and that we quicken our rate of progress in rural housing.

Legislation now under consideration by the Congress provides for a comprehensive attack jointly by private enterprise, State and local authorities, and the Federal Government. This legislation would make permanent the National Housing Agency and give it authority and funds for much needed technical and economic research. It would provide additional stimulus for privately financed housing construction. This stimulus consists of establishing a new system of yield insurance to encourage large-scale investment in rental housing and broadening the insuring powers of the Federal Housing Administration and the lending powers of the Federal savings and loan associations.

Where private industry cannot build, the Government must step in to do the job. The bill would encourage expansion in housing available for the lowest income groups by continuing to provide direct subsidies for low-rent housing and rural housing. It would facilitate land assembly for urban redevelopment by loans and contributions to local public agencies where the localities do their share.

Prompt enactment of permanent housing legislation along these lines will not interfere with the emergency action already under way. On the contrary, it would lift us out of a potentially perpetual state of housing emergency. It would offer the best hope and prospect to millions of veterans and other American families that the American system can offer more to them than temporary makeshifts.

I have said before that the people of the United States can be the best housed people in the world. I repeat that assertion, and I welcome the cooperation of the Congress in achieving that goal.

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Mike Moffatt

Senior Director, Smart Prosperity. Assistant Prof, Ivey Business School. Exhausted but happy Dad of 2 wonderful kids with autism. I used to do other stuff.