“A national emergency now exists because of the critical housing shortage,” warned a report to the U.S. House of Representatives in February 1946. “Existing facilities are inadequate to house large segments of the population and large numbers of veterans are returning to civilian life in need of housing accommodations which are not available.” The problem was especially acute because housing construction had virtually stopped during World War II, after slowing to a crawl during the Depression. Much of the country’s housing stock dated from the nineteenth century and was substandard, with electricity, plumbing, and other systems that were outdated or nonexistent. “It is estimated that some 2,900,000 married veterans of the recent war will be in need of housing facilities by the end of the year 1946,” the report continued. “To meet the housing emergency there is an urgent need for some 3,000,000 moderately and low-priced homes and apartments during the next two years.”
A Senate report provided a grim perspective on the unprecedented challenge: “More houses must be commenced in 1946 than in 1925-the all-time peak year-and 50 percent more houses must be started in 1947 than in 1925.” Another Senate report warned: “If Americans ever lose faith in the free way of life, it will not be because they have been converted by totalitarian arguments, but because vested interests within the democratic system raise intolerable barriers to the satisfaction of popular needs. . . . The lack of decent housing within economic reach of all American families may once have been a national scandal. It is now a national tragedy.”
A Role for the Federal Government
Based on past performance, it seemed unlikely that the private housing industry would be able to meet the challenge, especially given the economy’s bumpy return to normalcy after the war. “Census figures establish that at least 500,000 new families are formed each year,” according to the Senate Committee on Banking and Commerce. “Yet the industry has averaged no better than half a million non-farm homes annually over the past quarter of a century. . . . It is inconceivable that such an industry will ever get around to replacing the 7 ½ million slum dwellings that ought to be torn down, the addition 4 ½ million dwellings that need major repairs, or the 15 million nonfarm homes that are more than 35 years old.”
Convinced that the federal government should play a major role in responding to the housing crisis, Congress passed the Veterans’ Emergency Housing Act in May 1946. The act implemented the Veterans’ Emergency Housing Program, which called for significant government involvement in housing production, particularly in controlling critical materials, allocating factories that had been used during the war for military purposes, and providing loans through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. The program had been developed by the Office of the Housing Expeditor, established by President Truman in January 1946. Its director, liberal attorney Wilson Wyatt, had not worked in the housing field, but had gained a national reputation for his accomplishments as the mayor of Louisville.
But not everyone is pleased…
Not everyone welcomed the government’s involvement-particularly private housing developers, who challenged the existence of a housing crisis. Boyd Barnard, president of the National Association of Real Estate Boards, cited census figures indicating an increase in housing units between 1930 and 1945-from 243.6 to 267 dwellings per 1,000 people. “We have heard the public housers and Housing Expediter Wilson W. Wyatt shout about three million houses that we are supposed to be short,” Barnard said. “This cry is, of course, all political buncombe.” He used an illustration to back up his claim: “If a young couple are living with the parents of one in a comfortable, single-family dwelling with only one bathroom, that dwelling is counted as a two-family unit but without private bath. The word twisters have figured out that the single-family dwelling is in fact two family units-and since neither one of these family units has its own private bath, there is no ‘private’ bath at all!” Barnard, of course, resented government involvement in the housing industry, which his association saw as a threat to the private sector. Their concerns had some merit, given the growth of federal public housing programs in the 1930s.
Prefabrication Seen as the Solution
The government was undeterred by these detractors, but was daunted by the challenge of jumpstarting the ambitious program. Prefabrication became the panacea that would save America by providing economical, up-to-date housing in unprecedented quantity. The government set the ambitious goal of having 250,000 prefabricated houses erected in 1946 and 600,000 in 1947.
It was in this context that Carl Strandlund conceived the Lustron house. “Mr. Strandlund could see the housing shortage melting away like a pile of snow under a blazing sun,” according to an article in Colliers magazine. The potent combination of his confidence and the crisis mentality in Washington produced the momentum that launched Lustrons.
“Acute Housing Shortage with More Houses than Ever Before.” Baltimore Real Estate News, November 1946, 37.
Bartlett, Arthur. “The House that Lots of Jack Built.” Colliers, November 5, 1949, 15, 68-71.
Kelly, Burnham. The Prefabrication of Houses: A Study by the Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation of the Prefabrication Industry in the United States. New York: Technology Press of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and John Wiley and Sons, 1951.
Knerr, Douglas. Suburban Steel: The Magnificent Failure of the Lustron Corporation, 1945-1951. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2004.
U.S. Congress. House. Committee of the Whole. Director of Housing Stabilization. 79th Cong., 2nd Sess. Report No. 1580.
U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Banking and Currency. Veterans’ Emergency Housing Act of 1946. 79th Cong., 2nd Sess. Report No. 1130.
U.S. Senate (81 Congress, 2d session). Subcommittee of the Committee on Banking and Currency. Problems of Independent Small Business Lustron Dealers. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1950.
 Congress, House, Committee of the Whole, Director of Housing Stabilization. 79th Cong., 2nd Sess. Report No. 1580.
 Congress, Senate, Committee on Banking and Currency, Veterans’ Emergency Housing Act of 1946. 79th Cong., 2nd Sess. Report No. 1130.
 Senate (81 Congress, 2d session), Subcommittee of the Committee on Banking and Currency, Problems of Independent Small Business Lustron Dealers (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1950), 38-39.
 “Acute Housing Shortage with More Houses than Ever Before,” Baltimore Real Estate News, November 1946, 37.
 Burnham Kelly, The Prefabrication of Houses: A Study by the Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation of the Prefabrication Industry in the United States (New York: Technology Press of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and John Wiley and Sons, 1951.
 Arthur Bartlett, “The House that Lots of Jack Built,” Colliers, November 5, 1949, 15, 68-71.