~ St. Catharines' Wartime Neighbourhoods

The Homes

Wartime Housing Ltd. was the name of a Canadian Crown Corporation that between 1941 and 1947, constructed 32,000 rental homes for the benefit of munitions workers, servicemen’s families and returning veterans.  It was the first time in Canadian history that government would undertake to build non profit, subsidized rental housing and was, therefore, a precursor to such important social  interventions as seniors and co-operative shelter.

With the vast new boom in industry because of the war effort it was soon found that not only overcrowding was taking place, but a great disruption to industrial production was arising because of housing shortages.  This caused some munitions plants by the fall of 1940 to undertake the construction of housing for their own employees.

When Wartime Housing Ltd. was created in 1941, surveys found that St. Catharines had some of the most severely crowded housing conditions of any Canadian city.  One survey found that the city had “lost skilled workers because of the lack of homes.”  In such circumstances, “scores of labourers from outside centres…flatly quit their jobs after a few weeks work.”

St. Catharines was repeatedly surveyed by Wartime Housing Ltd. to determine if industrial production was being disrupted by housing shortages. Surveys began with a courtesy call to the mayor.  The presidents and general managers of all firms having war contracts were supplied with a questionnaire on topics such as projected employment increases, and the “relationship between war production and the lack of adequate housing facilities.” Such estimates were checked against Munition and Supply’s inspections regarding the quantity and time of peak production. Contacts were also made with trust companies that managed local real estate, local hotels, and the YMCA and YWCA to appraise vacancy rates in houses and single rooms.  Municipal building inspectors were contracted to provide information about trends in residential construction and conversion.  Inquiries were made by having researchers walk likely routes to determine whether housing was located reasonably close to expanding industries.  Transit  was examined, which contributed to the revival of the streetcar system of the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Railway.

A creative  feature of wartime housing was its Tenant Relations department, which encouraged the development of community centres that fostered civic activism.  This included prenatal clinics, baby centres, libraries, garden clubs, cooking and sewing classes, first aid and public speaking courses,  supervised children’s play, youth organizations, home improvements associations and community councils.

In 1944, Wartime Housing Ltd. went beyond its original strict mandate of munitions workers housing because the families of soldiers overseas were faced with the threats of evictions and homelessness.  Soldiers’ fears about their loved ones at homes were quite disruptive to the war effort.  This was the origins of its later phase of Veterans Housing which continued until 1947 after victory in the Second World War was achieved.  In addition to the occupation of the Hotel Vancouver, there were widespread picket lines to prevent evictions and also home occupations. In response to this crisis, Minister of Munitions and Supply, C. D. Howe, on July 25, 1945,  approved Victor Goggin’s plans to have some 10,000 veterans rental housing projects built in 1946.

The surge of construction of  Wartime Housing in 1946 did eliminate the political pressures for more non profit rental housing that had resulted in massive pickets and occupations in the summer of 1945.  By 1947, this facilitated the sale of wartime homes to the tenants who were blessed to be living in them at this time.

Two years after the decision to terminate Wartime Housing Ltd., the federal government passed the 1949 Amendments to the National Housing Act, which provided new legislation for non profit subsidized rental housing. During the next decade, the only municipality in Niagara that would avail itself of its provisions was Stanford Township, now part of the City of Niagara Falls.  Such shelter did eventually, however, return to St. Catharines with the creation of the Ontario Housing Corporation in 1963.  In 1974, the passage of further amendments to the National Housing Act encouraged co-operative housing and shelter provided by private non profit groups such as Bethlehem Place.

Much of the material in this article is taken from John Bacher’s book, “Keeping to the Marketplace: The Evolution of Canadian Housing Policy”, McGill/ Queen’s University Press 1995. It was based on his 1985 doctoral dissertation, shaped largely by documents then available at the National Archives of Canada, transferred there by Defence Construction Limited, the Department of Munitions and Supply, and the Canadian Department of Finance.