On September 3, 1918, Seattle's "More Homes Bureau," organized and backed by a coalition of civic and trade groups, launches a successful campaign to build thousands of new dwelling units to meet Seattle's critical wartime housing shortage. The city faces the loss of $200 million in government contracts unless it provides housing for the influx of war workers, and responds to the challenge with an ambitious and unprecedented plan to build 5,000 new homes. The program proves so successful that it garners national notice and is recognized as a unique approach to addressing a public crisis through the private sector.
The Demands of War
The United States' entry into World War I on April 6, 1917, created an immediate and critical need for the products to make war, and Seattle, with its abundant forests and established shipbuilding and airplane industries, was a contender for major war contracts having an estimated value of $200 million. All that stood in the way was the federal government's insistence that the city, already suffering from a housing shortage, come up with some way to provide adequate shelter for the influx of war workers. There was an explicit threat that if the city could not house its workers, at least some of the government contracts would be diverted to areas that could.
Seattle had been growing rapidly even before the war, and housing was in short supply. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the city's population grew from approximately 80,000 to more than 237,000 and would hit 315,000 within another 10 years. Two major factors stifled the local housing market. The first was a huge increase in the cost of labor and materials, much of it caused by the demands of war. The second factor was a concern that once the war was over, and the industrial surge abated, most of the war workers would leave Seattle to return to their homes elsewhere, leaving the city with a housing glut. But there was much at stake, and many of Seattle's businesses and trades banded together to meet the challenge.
Master Builders Help Get the Ball Rolling
One of the first steps to tackle the housing shortage was taken by Edgar S. Booker, president of the Seattle Master Builders Association. In February 1917, Booker held the first of several meetings with members of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Commercial Club, and local government officials. These meetings led to the establishment of a housing bureau that matched vacant rooms, apartments, and homes with those in need. Although it managed to provide a place to live for approximately 14,000 people, the demand was far greater than the supply. Much more would be needed if Seattle was to contribute fully to the war effort.
By late July 1917 the housing shortage had become acute, and once again Seattle's business and trade leaders came together. The result was the creation of a "More Homes Bureau," which was designed to encourage and facilitate new home construction. The heart of the plan was based on the sort of patriotic drives common in wartime and used, for example, to sell bonds or collect scrap metal. Under the leadership of J. R. Douglas of the Metropolitan Building Company, the More Homes Bureau set up shop in donated space on the ground floor of the Cobb Building in downtown Seattle. Primary sponsorship was attributed to the Chamber of Commerce and the Commercial Club, but the cause was actively supported by the Master Builders and several other business and trade organizations.
The More Homes Bureau Gets to Work
The bureau had two primary goals: first, to obtain pledges from businesses and individuals to put up 5,000 new homes in Seattle by January 1, 1919, and second, to provide a one-stop "department store" to provide comprehensive support to prospective home builders.
The pledge campaign started with the preparation of a list of 3,000 prospects who would be solicited to build one or more homes. The list was compiled by identifying everyone who owned five or more vacant lots in the city, every person holding real property valued at $20,000 or more, and potential home owners who, although not wealthy, were thought to be interested in building houses for themselves.
The bureau then recruited 450 business leaders to act as canvassers, and divided them into teams. Each team was given a list of prospects and the goal of obtaining, from as many as possible, signed pledges to build homes. Even before the formal pledge drive began, at least 1,000 promises to build one or more homes had been given. One selling point was the savings in time and money that could be achieved if all potential builders acted cooperatively, working from standard plans and purchasing building materials at quantity prices.
Hitting the Streets
On September 3, 1918, the 450 volunteers were loosed on the city with the goal of obtaining 4,000 additional pledges. Both Seattle newspapers followed their progress daily, with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporting on September 4, 1918:
"Thirty canvassing teams of the More Homes Bureau, which started out yesterday morning on a week's campaign to obtain 4,000 pledges to build one or more dwelling houses, each brought back many pledges. Ten teams obtained more than ten pledges each, and one team captured the leadership with a total of sixty pledges ... .
After the first day's test, Chairman P. E. Sands and Manager Carl Bush, of the pledge committee, were more than ever confident that at least 5,000 new dwelling houses would be built or under construction before Christmas" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 4, 1918).
Five Days, More Than 3,600 Homes
The campaign lasted five days, and although it fell somewhat short of expectations, by the time the canvassing teams were done they had obtained pledges for 3,659 new houses or their equivalent in apartments.
Despite this shortfall, the bureau had another arrow in its quiver -- its role as a self-described "Home-Building Department Store." In addition to the focus on targeted prospective builders, the bureau engaged in a vigorous advertising campaign directed at the general public, encouraging people to take advantage of the bureau's assistance, appealing to their patriotism, and emphasizing the potential for profit. One such ad exhorted:
"Make up your mind right now to build all the houses you can -- one, five, a dozen. Then get in touch with our organization, and see in how many ways we can be of useful assistance to you -- advising you about the site, type of house, architecture, building loans, labor, where lowest prices are obtainable on building materials, and even arranging with contractors of standing so your house may be built with many others at quantity prices, with organized efficiency" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 3, 1918).
Pledge committee manager Carl Bush noted that "hundreds if not thousands of people who had become interested by our publicity visited the bureau offices to inspect the plans and to obtain information as to how to build" (American Industries: The Manufacturers' Magazine). By November 1, 1918, just two months after the campaign began, no less than 2,000 homes had been completed and occupied, and hundreds more were under construction.
World War I ended with Germany's defeat on November 11, 1918, and a temporary slump in Seattle housing construction followed. The More Homes Bureau stayed in existence until nearly all of the pledged houses were built, many by members of the Seattle Master Builders Association.
By mid-1919 residential building permits had fallen from about 500 per month to slightly more than 100. The bureau had by then ceased operations, but its leadership made clear that it stood ready to reactivate if circumstances demanded. As it turned out, the 1920s saw a boom in Seattle's housing market, and the More Homes Bureau, having substantially met its wartime goals, was heard from no more.