Mrs. Hoover and Washington Housing Shortages: Part I

Some of the women who worked for the U. S. Food Administration, 1917. These women are in the Food Conservation Division.

Washington, D.C. witnessed notorious shortages of affordable housing for the many single women who filled government positions during World War I and World War II.  Several Hollywood films alluded to it, the most famous being director George Steven’s The More the Merrier, staring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and Charles Colburn.  Arthur plays a single woman with a two-bedroom apartment. She decides to rent out the room to another working woman.  Instead, Charles Colburn, a fast-talking businessman, cons his way into renting the space and then sub-rents his room to Joel McCrea, an inventor trying to land a government contract.  Colburn plays match maker in getting Arthur and McCrea together.  Being in a crowded apartment provided ample opportunity for close encounters and the usually Hollywood happy ending and an Academy Award for Colburn.

Lou Hoover faced a similar situation in finding housing for 300 single young women who took on the clerical demands of Herbert Hoover’s US Food Administration.  By the end of the war, she leased three homes.  The following November 10, 1917 letter from Mrs. Hoover to the Chief of Ordnance, Major General William Crozier, illustrates the problems of finding adequate housing.

I hate worrying you about such a trivial matter, and yet may I ask a moment’s consideration by you of the absolute necessity of the branch of your department about to move into 1710 I Street going into that particular house?

We have been rather worried over the position of the three hundred odd girls employed by the Food Administration.  They are nearly all strangers in Washington, and owing to the limited housing accommodations now, a majority live many miles from their work and often in most inadequate circumstances, while eating conditions for most of them are very unsatisfactory.  

It has therefor seemed necessary to have a rest-house for them within walking distance of their work, where they might have lunch and dinner, make friends amongst themselves, and where a few older women would be to whom they could come for solutions of their many individual problems.

A thorough search revealed the only possible house available as 1710 I Street, we saw the owner herself about it, she agreed to let us have it, our agent drew up the lease, she signed it, and we were making preparations to move in as soon as she could leave.

Yesterday she sent us word that while she abided absolutely by all she had done with us, another agent said, untruly, that she had given him the right to sign a lease for her, and that he had signed a lease with one of your departments for the same house!

One of my husband’s representatives interviewed everyone concerned and found that while all of our interviews and documents antedated corresponding ones between the Army men and the estate agent, no doubt the officers thought the agent had every right to negotiate.

Quite aside from the fact that of course you can put us out if you wish, we recognize that you ought to have everything that is essential to your work.

I am just asking—isn’t it possible that some other building in Washington would do for you?  The Food Administration is vacating a number of buildings during the next fortnight, but unfortunately they are not suitable for this particular purpose, and we can find nothing else that is.  Our object, of course, is a very serious one also in the national chain.  I hope you can find a solution!

With all apologies.

Major General William Crozier, taking the only action a gentleman could in the circumstance, indicated to Lou Hoover: “I am glad to be able to assure you that I can use another house for the purposes of my office, and shall not interfere with your occupation of the one you seek.”  The year lease was set at $10,000, a cost that is often claimed Lou paid herself.  Lou also took responsibility for the rent of another home at 17 Street, NW from a Frances Walker Waters at $150.00 dollars a month. 

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