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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Wartime Housing Limited, 1941-1947 : an overview and evaluation of Canada’s first national housing corporation Wade, Jill


Between 1941 and 1947, a federal crown corporation called Wartime Housing Limited (WHL) successfully built and managed thousands of rental units for war workers and veterans. At the same time, an Advisory Committee on Reconstruction study (the Curtis report) described the enormous need for low and moderate income shelter throughout Canada and recommended a national, comprehensive, and planned housing program emphasizing low-rental housing. Instead, in 1944 - 1945, the federal government initiated a post-war program promoting home ownership and private enterprise; it neglected long-range planning and low income housing. Thus, an interesting question arises. Why did the federal government not reconstitute WHL as a permanent, low-rental housing agency to meet the huge need for low income accommodation following World War II? The thesis arrives at an answer through four steps: a definition of the 1940s housing problem; an examination of the federal government's response; an evaluation of WHL's performance; and an elucidation of the reasons preventing WHL's transformation into a permanent low-rental housing agency. By 1944, supply shortages, replacement requirements, and overcrowding associated with pre-1939 conditions and the immediate wartime situation produced an immense unsatisfied housing need felt most keenly by low and medium income groups, even in urban centres like Greater Vancouver that had encountered no serious long-term problem. In 1941 - 1944, federal reaction to the housing problem emphasized a directly interventionist, economy-related program in which WHL played a major role. When public pressure forced it to continue temporarily its WHL operations after 1944, the Dominion government demonstrated that it could participate directly in housing with the intention of meeting social need. WHL was a smoothly operating, efficient operation according to the fulfillment of its program objectives and to the testimony of its officials and tenants. Negative response from vested interests could not diminish the success of this new player in the housing field. WHL1s reconstitution as a low-rental agency did not occur for several reasons: the resolution of a bureaucratic conflict between the Finance and the Reconstruction and Supply Departments; the consensus among Finance officials and the business community in support of market-related, indirect intervention; the divisions among groups agitating for improved housing conditions; and the ambivalence of many Canadians towards home ownership and low-rental housing. The government exhibited a firm and continuing commitment to the market and a hesitant and temporary recognition of social need. Only a major attitudinal shift towards social need would ever bring about any fundamental change to housing policy. Since the 1930s, this market-oriented perspective has hindered advances in housing policy in the same way that for decades the poor law tradition had blocked government acceptance of unemployment relief. Clearly, in 1944 - 1945, the federal government had the opportunity to include housing in the emerging social welfare system. It did not. Attitudinal changes making possible wartime advances in social security simply did not carry over to the housing field in any lasting way. Thus, WHL represented a successful but temporary experiment in publicly-built housing.

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