Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at Democratic State General Committee Luncheon, Roseburg, Oregon, February 9, 1960

Better Housing for a Better America

We have heard considerable talk in recent months about our national goals. Some of them seem rather vague - some of them seem rather far off. But I want to talk briefly about one national goal which is not vague at all - a very simple goal - and one which is not far off if we can elect a Democrat as the next President of the United States.

That goal was stated in eloquent terms in the National Housing Act of 1949 - an Act which was the product of a Democratic Congress and a great Democratic President. That goal was, very simply, "a decent home in a suitable environment for every American family."

It is hard to realize that in this, the richest country on earth, we have not yet reached that goal. It is even harder to realize that in this land of abundance there would be opposition to such a goal. But the hard facts of the matter are that in the last eight years almost every effort to turn that goal into a reality - almost every major effort by the Congress to provide decent housing for all Americans - almost every important improvement in our housing legislation - has been opposed, stalled, watered-down or vetoed by a majority of Republicans in Congress and by the Republican Administration.

And the history of our housing failures over the last eight years is not written merely in dry statistics or impersonal government reports. It can be found inscribed in every city and state in this nation. It is recorded by the fifteen million American families who live in sub-standard housing - by the five million urban homes which still lack plumbing of any kind - by the seven million urban homes which need to be totally replaced. It can be seen engraved on the lives of the six million American children who live in the miserably overcrowded hovels that inevitably breed delinquency, crime and disease - slum dwellings which defile the promise of the American dream.

The housing problem is not merely an economic problem. It is not merely a political issue. It is a human problem. The issue is "a decent home in a suitable environment for every American family" - and thus the history of our failures has been described in a visible, shameful, human record.

But what concerns me now is that we have not only failed to meet the housing need of the past eight years - we are not even planning to meet the still greater needs of the sixties. During the next ten years our population will continue to grow at a rate of three million a year - three million more people every year requiring a million new homes - decent homes in a suitable environment. In addition, we must do something about the 15 million families in substandard housing. And in addition, even if all our housing needs today were met and the population were not increasing, homes now in use will be deteriorating and need replacement at the rate of 300,000 a year.

In short, we need and will need more homes than ever before - homes which people of all incomes can afford. But the fact is that today we are building fewer homes than we did in 1950. We have adopted financial policies deliberately designed to discourage building. We have strangled already inadequate government programs. And we have failed to fulfill our hopes and our heritage.

But the people of Oregon need no one to tell them the story of our housing failures. Oregon timber is a major supplier of the needs of the housing industry - for that one industry alone uses one-third of all the timber produced in the United States. When home-building increases - when the nation's housing needs are met - then Oregon prospers. But when housing falters, when necessary construction is not begun - then Oregon suffers - and your suffering reflects the nation's hardship. The Oregon trees which are not felled, the Oregon planks which are not cut, represent slums and inadequate homes for the people of Boston and New York and Chicago and Washington.

Here in Roseburg, Federal housing policies have a special significance. For all the nation has paid tribute to the courage and determination with which this city triumphed over the tragedy of last August 7. Your self-discipline in the face of disaster, and your tireless efforts for recovery, will rank high in the annals of this state and nation. But it is an unfortunate fact that our Federal housing policies - policies of high interest and less credit - have made the rebuilding of Roseburg more difficult and more expensive. Roseburg, I know, is not looking for any Federal handouts - but you are in need of fair and forward-looking policies - and it should be clear by now that you will need a Democratic Administration to obtain them.

This is the year to do something about this issue. - This is the year we must do something. This is the year to about-face and start marching toward the goals of the Housing Act of 1949. To do this, words will not be enough. Criticism will not be enough. Even a larger Democratic majority in Congress will not be enough. We must have a forward-looking housing program under a forward-looking Democratic President in the White House.

1. The first step in that new President's program must be to reverse the disastrous high interest rate policies of this Administration. The harsh facts of the matter are that under present interest rates a $20,000 home on a 30-year mortgage costs a total of $43,200. The interest cost is actually greater than the cost of the house itself! And $9,000 of this interest - well over one-third of it - is the direct result of the high interest rate policies of this Administration - $9,000 which might have furnished the house, or expanded it, or stayed in the family budget.

Such policies have made it impossible for millions of Americans to buy a home. They have shrunk the supply of money available for home financing. They have made mortgages difficult to get and expensive to maintain. They have destroyed the mortgage insurance programs for veterans. They have caused a depression in the housing industry. They have made it the one major industry in America which has not grown with a growing nation. These policies must be reversed - we must liberate the credit necessary to finance the construction of new homes - and thus make sure that those new homes will be built, here in Roseburg and around the nation.

2. Secondly, the next President's housing program must increase our effort to clear slums and renew cities. At our present rate of urban renewal it will take us anywhere from fifty to one hundred years to eliminate the substandard dwellings already in existence today - and at the end of that time there will be even more substandard dwellings than we now have. We must not only step up this program to provide a decent home for all Americans - we must also make certain that we have adequate provisions to relocate those who are displaced by new construction. Today half a million Americans are displaced each year by highway construction and slum clearance programs - and yet we are producing absolutely no moderate-priced housing to accommodate them. They literally have nowhere to go.

3. Third, a new administration must adapt the mortgage insurance provisions of the Federal Housing Administration to the needs of today's economy. The FHA was a product of the depression - it was formed to stimulate a stalled economy - to encourage building of all kinds. Its activities were not focused on specific areas of housing needs. As a result rising mortgage costs have priced low and middle income families out of the FHA program. Two-thirds of the FHA's activity today goes to provide housing for the upper one-third income group - even though it is in the lower groups where the critical housing shortage exists. The FHA's mortgage insurance program could act as a powerful stimulant to home construction - but its policies must be refashioned so that it can do the job.

4. Fourth, a new President must make a new start on the other housing areas so badly overlooked these last eight years - cooperative housing and public housing. No other Federal program fills this need - no new homes are on today's market for these groups. Every Democratic effort to get these two programs underway has met with opposition and veto. Yet if we do not act quickly millions more Americans will find themselves without adequate shelter.

5. Fifth, and finally, the President must lead a new effort to use the great resources of modern science and technology to develop new housing techniques. Today almost no money at all is spent for research in housing problems - and yet that kind of research might save us millions of housing dollars. Can we improve housing design to meet new standards? Can we lower the unit costs of housing construction and pass the saving on to the consumer? Can we develop housing programs which are integrated with state and city planning - so that today's constant conflict is halted? These are some of the questions which research could answer - and which are not being answered today.

Here is a five-point program to take us toward our goal - "a decent house and a suitable environment for every American family." That is not a very radical goal. That is not an impossible dream. It is instead our tradition and our inspiration - for all Americans, and, eventually for all people.

For, in the words of Norman Cousins: "When I enter my home, I enter with the awareness that my table is only half set, for half the men on this earth know the emptiness of want. The roof of my home is only half built, for half of my brothers are poorly sheltered. And when I think of peace, I can know no peace - until the peace is real."

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 906, "Democratic Committee luncheon, Roseburg, Oregon, 9 February 1960." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.