Post-war era — report claimed overcrowding created slum conditions

by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)

Even before William Courage, Winnipeg’s general supervisor of emergency housing, filed his report on the shortage of adequate housing, he told city council that every one of the 370 units used for emergency shelter had been filled to capacity and new applications were coming in daily, although not all the applicants were in a serious situation as they had some sort of shelter.

“It is assisting frustrated families to re-adjust themselves that we are chiefly concerned with at the present time,” said Courage, as reported in the July 27, 1948, Winnipeg Free Press.

Courage warned that overcrowding was creating slum conditions in some parts of the city.

Courage said in his report — described as the most comprehensive housing report in the city’s history to that time — that private enterprise was unable to produce sufficient housing units at a price suitable to low-wage earners (December 22, 1948, Free Press).

“The need for more low cost housing is daily becoming more evident and it is only due to the close co-operation between our department, the emergency housing department and the sheriff’s office, that we have been able to forestall evictions long enough to enable us to get some accommodation, which, in some instances, has not been entirely adequate; at least we have been able to prevent families from being put out on the street with no place to go.”

He said that, “If unchecked, the spread of slum areas will further decrease property values and tax revenues, while increasing civic administrative costs.”

The report indicated that overcrowding had led to an increase in juvenile crime and child mortality.

James Cowan, the secretary of Winnipeg’s Fact Finding Board, told those attending a meeting of the Local Council of Women on February 27, 1948, that he found a veteran who served overseas for three years, as well as his young British wife and their seven-week-old baby, living in half a basement without a partition.

In another place, Cowan found the widow of a veteran and her three daughters living in rooms heated by a stove. When he visited the widow, the temperature in the rooms was a bare 38°F.

Courage advocated for increasing government assistance for the construction of low-cost rental units.

According to a survey by F.C. Austin, the city’s chief inspector of the sanitation and housing division, of 772 dwellings in all parts of the city, using as a gauge “one person per room” as was the case in a federal government report, he found that 69.5 per cent of Winnipeg families lived in overcrowded housing conditions, and another nearly 9,500 housing units were immediately needed.

The housing crisis was exacerbated by the steady influx of Displaced Persons (DPs) from former war zones in Europe.

On May 17, 1948, city council approved 335 home sites for the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (forerunner of today’s Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) to build low-rent dwellings.

The construction of the 335 houses was projected to give Winnipeg about 1,400 low-rent dwellings, “including the wartime houses already erected, with a rent scale from $22 to $37,” according to a May 18 Free Press report. “Members of the special committee considered that this would be within the income of all veterans.”

The city’s contract with the federal housing agency stipulated that in the event of a veteran not taking up a property built under the scheme, it could be offered to a non-veteran.

Alderman Charles Edward Simonite objected to the housing scheme, saying: “We have chosen the poorest districts in Winnipeg in which to place these houses ... Every house is shoved in a corner near the C.N.R. tracks, near the nuisance grounds or in the north-west corner of the city.”

Simonite and some councillors also objected to the plan’s provision to grant tax relief on the properties for 50 years. Alderman Frank Leslie Chester estimated the city would lose $1.5 million in taxes over the 50-year period.

Alderman John “Jack” Blumberg, although he voted for the plan, described the houses being erected for veterans in the city as shacks and in a few years a number of “shack towns” would be created.

“There are too many pessimists in this council and too many men continually knocking housing for veterans,” countered Alderman James Black.

At a meeting of the Winnipeg House Builders Association (today’s Manitoba Home Builders’ Association) between October 29 and November 8, 1948, the association urged the federal government to get out of the house building industry. The association claimed that individual builders would build 80,000 housing units in 1948, while the government with all its authority and powers would build just 7,000.

Members of the association claimed the federal government’s activities “are not worth a nickel to housing generally ...”

Ottawa didn’t immediately get out of the housing market, but gradually shifted its focus from building homes specifically for veterans to mortgage insurance that was eventually made available to all Canadian prospective homeowners.

The Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation was created in 1944 by a revision of the National Housing Act “to meet the impending emergency of the post-war,” according to a January 30, 1948, column in the Free Press by F.B.W.

“It (the National Housing Act) provides housing for home owners under a joint loan system with an approved lending institution; housing for rental purposes also on a joint basis with a lending institution; and rural housing.

“Under section one, the joint loan must not exceed 95 per cent of the first $2,000 of the lending value of the house (the purchase price of a modest home at the time was about $2,500 to $3,000); 85 per cent of the amount by which the lending value exceeds $2,000 and does not exceed $4,000; 70 per cent of the amount by which exceeds $4,000. The Dominion’s (federal government’s) share is restricted to 25 per cent, and the rate of interest is 4 1/4 (per cent).

“Meanwhile, the government had entered into three other forms of assisted housing, the chief and most spectacular of which was the Wartime Housing Limit. This began as a civilian operation in wartime and has developed to be the mainstay of veterans’ housing.”

Veterans were able to receive housing assistance under the Veterans Land Act and what was known as “integrated” housing sponsored by the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The stipulation was that builders had to agree to build houses to National Housing Act standards at a sale price approved by the corporation.

The builder was “protected against loss by a clause under which the corporation will if necessary buy the house from him at the end of six months at a price slightly less than the agreed sale price. The average price paid is approximately 10 per cent (down) under current sale prices” (Free Press editorial, February 2, 1948).

The National Housing Act provided loans for housing and then the federal government created the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to help in home purchases by insuring mortgages with down payments of only 25 to 30 per cent. Prior to the war, down payments of 50 to 60 per cent of a home’s purchase price had been required with the remainder held by trust companies. In 1954, the mortgage field was opened to banks, and the down payment began its slide to 10 per cent. Today, buyers are able to obtain a CMHC-insured mortgage with only five per cent down on a house amortized over a 25-year period.

The value of building permits issued by the city climbed from $4.4 million in 1944 to $11.9 million in 1946. In 1948, their value hit $18.6 million, and they would continue to climb over the next three decades.

In 1954, single-family starts were recorded at 3,118, with the greatest growth in St. James, East Kildonan and Fort Garry. The demand was the highest in the city's history, although 20,000 homes had been built since 1948.

“In 1945, no country in the world was more confident than Canada, or had a better cause to be,” wrote Ralph Allen in his book Ordeal by Fire. The nation was confident, but that had to be translated into improvements in quality of life demanded by Canadians following the sacrifices they made during the six war years and the financial hardships of the decade-long Great Depression.