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Wartime Housing

Alberta's larger urban centres faced a severe housing crisis during the Second World War. The shortage was the result of the financial crisis caused by the Great Depression. Few could afford to buy homes during the 1930s. So not surprisingly few new homes and apartments were built. The shortage was made worse by families and military personnel moving into urban centres for work and to take up new assignments. Many found it difficult to find accommodation of any kind. One family in Calgary took up residence in the basement of an occupied school until they were discovered and evicted by authorities. Stories of families living in chicken coops appeared in some local Calgary papers. Other families, most notably mothers and children, were evicted without notice and were not provided with any other temporary shelter. Mothers often could not afford to pay rent. Moreover, housing space was at a premium with the influx of Canadian and American military personnel arriving in Calgary and Edmonton.

Newspapers were full of stories of families looking for adequate housing. Landlords converted basements and garages into apartments. Some families had to relocate to small towns outside of Edmonton. In smaller cities like Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Red Deer, some citizens were living in sheds, garages and shacks. Others had no choice but to relocate to farms on the outskirts of town.

Roughly 48,000 American servicemen and contract employees – almost half of the city's entire population – spent some time in the Alberta capital. The American military leased every unoccupied space available and built more of their own.

To help alleviate the situation, the federal government established the Wartime Housing Corporation (crown corporation) with a mandate to assess and develop housing units across the country. During an eight year period this agency built 45,930 housing units, including several hundred in the vicinity of the Edmonton municipal airport, and assisted with the repair and modernization of thousands of additional units. Despite efforts to remedy the situation, Edmonton's housing situation in 1943 could only be described as dire.

The city’s Emergency Accommodation Bureau had 1,350 names on its waiting list. To make matters worse, rent gouging was commonplace. Nationwide rent controls were enacted but rarely enforced. In Edmonton, families were paying $30 a month for an 80-square foot (7-square metre) room with no running water. Military personnel were often found sleeping in hotel hallways or lobbies because the hotel rooms were already crowded and overfilled.

City officials in Lethbridge urged residents to open their homes to those in need. The Wartime Housing Corporation built small houses throughout the city and the Henderson Lake area, a new subdivision comprised of 75 homes, was built. As in other communities, some residents continued to live in squalid conditions. One- and two-room shacks with outhouses, bare wood floors and walls insulated with straw were not uncommon.


Rod Macleod, “Edmonton's Story: War and Oil: 1940–1972.” Edmonton: A City Called Home, 2004, Edmonton Public Library (accessed October, 2007).

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