Matthew B. Gilmore
By Matthew B. Gilmore
A startling (if cryptic) heading appears in the April 27, 1918 Washington Herald, “May oust tenants from District Homes.” Legislation then pending in Congress, known as the Swanson housing bill (sponsored by Senator Claude A. Swanson of Virginia), would give the Secretary of Labor the authority to commandeer private residences in Washington, DC for housing war workers — whether that home was currently occupied or not. Astounding if true.
The Evening Star had reported earlier in the month, on April 1st, on the Congressional debates on an amendment to provide $10 million for war worker housing in Washington. Representative Henry A. Barnhart of Indiana called for investigation of those (obdurate) homeowners accused of refusing to do their part to house war workers and ensured that commandeering language was included in the bill.
A week later the Star was reporting an extremely ambitious combination of measures introduced by Congressman John P. Maher of New York for expanding housing by means of reverting back to the original residential use of buildings which had been subsequently converted to office use. Other provisions included $5 million to construct temporary housing and $1 million for permanent housing, a fund for those opening boarding houses, the purchase of existing residential properties, and a push on the room registration office to find space for 10,000 workers in existing properties.
The dimensions of the pending housing crisis were documented by Major Z.L. (Zenas Lemuel) Potter. At first glance Minnesotan Potter was not obviously a logical choice for the job given that he had been an advertising manager for National Cash Register Co. before the war.  However, he had a distinguished and extensive pre-war career in social surveys and welfare research, investigating conditions in Topeka, Kansas, Newburgh, New York, and Springfield, Illinois (to name a few). He was called to serve in the Ordnance reserve in February 1918.
Potter gathered statistics on the growing influx of workers into the District and surveyed Washington for available housing and sites with potential for the construction of housing. Among other findings stated in his report was the following:
“. . . it appears that between that date [March 1] and December 31 about 26,300 additional civilian employees with 2,600 members of their families and about 1,000 officers with 1,500 members of their families, a total of about 31,400 persons, will require housing in Washington. Of this total about 18,400 are expected before July 1 and 13,000 between July 1 and December 31. This is at the rate of about 1,065 per week until July 1 and about 495 per week thereafter. It is estimated that from 60 to 65 per cent will be women.” 
The projections might shift but the gravity of the situation was clear — Washington’s population in 1910 had been 330,000. Adding the population of a small city, accommodating nearly a 10% increase in population in just nine months (and with the months quickly ticking past) would be a huge logistical, legislative, and financial challenge.
Rest of the story….
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