Herbert Hoover is not a well-regarded President. But he did have a lot to say about home ownership even as the country was going through the Great Depression. Here are some of Hoover’s thoughts from 1931:
“Next to food and clothing, the housing of a nation is its most vital problem. . . . The sentiment for home ownership is embedded in the American heart [of] millions of people who dwell in tenements, apartments and rented rows of solid brick. . . . This aspiration penetrates the heart of our national wellbeing. It makes for happier married life. It makes for better children. It makes for courage to meet the battle of life. . . . There is a wide distinction between homes and mere housing. Those immortal ballads, ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ and ‘The Little Grey Home in the West’ were not written about tenements or apartments. . . . They were written about an individual abode, alive with tender associations of childhood, the family life at the fireside, the free out-of-doors, the independence, the security and the pride in possession of the family’s own home. . . . Many of our people must live under other conditions. But they never sing songs about a pile of rent receipts. . . .”
Over these warm words and some 1,900 others like them President Hoover had worked with a full heart for two months. One evening last week he took them all, in the form of a keynote address, to Constitution Hall and there, in a voice brimming with emotion, delivered them to the assembled delegates of the President’s Conference on Home Building & Home Ownership. At this great gathering President Hoover again demonstrated his ability and leadership in an unofficial activity outside the constitutional realm of the Presidency.
The conference’s major purpose, President Hoover said, was “to stimulate industrial action,” not “to set up government in the building of homes.” To promote home owning the President urged a better system of home financing, thus keying his program in with his proposed Home Loan Discount system (TIME, Nov. 23).
Of course, Hoover gets some of the blame for not being able to move the country out of a position where it was difficult for many Americans to imagine homeownership, let alone a steady job. But these and other quotes from Hoover suggest he was a President who was committed to helping average Americans move from a monthly rent to a mortgage even in dark economic times. He suggested homeownership would lead to better social outcomes plus lead to feelings of nostalgia, “independence,” “security,” and “pride.”
This is also a reminder that the American value of homeownership was not just a post-World War II phenomenon. The rate of suburbanization was impressive in the post-war period but there had been a wave of suburbanization in the more prosperous 1920s that was interrupted by the Great Depression. I have occasionally found it interesting to think about how suburban growth patterns would have been different without the Great Depression and World War II. Several things might have happened earlier, like the building of interstates or the mass building of suburban communities (exemplified by the Levittowns). Perhaps the whole process might have simply taken longer, giving citizens and politicians more time to react and adjust.
I also wonder how Hoover’s goals of homeownership are viewed by today’s scholars who look back at this period: did these sentiments directly contribute to prolonging the Great Depression? How many of Hoover’s ideas ended up getting implemented in some form by subsequent leaders?