August 7, 2019

Our long commitment to affordable housing

Henry J. Kaiser and his construction industries sought to create a safe and stable place to call home

Newspaper article describing Edgar Kaiser’s plans for affordable housing, September 15, 1968.

Kaiser Permanente has long recognized that housing is critical to health. Without a safe, stable place to call home, it is nearly impossible to focus on basic health and medical needs. This belief is not only at the center of a current Kaiser Permanente program to solve homelessness, but it was a priority of Henry J. Kaiser and his industries dating back to World War II.

In 1968, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson appointed Henry J. Kaiser’s son, Edgar Kaiser, as chairman of a new national, public-private partnership to build low-income housing. Edgar Kaiser believed the unemployed could become productive members of the workforce through government programs supporting jobs and basic necessities.

Within 2 years, Henry J. Kaiser’s industrial construction company Kaiser Engineers broke ground for the first of 373 low-income townhouse units in Dade County, Florida. This was fruit of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new “in-city” program, created to attract private industry in solving the affordable housing crisis. KE saw the project as an experiment to develop new approaches in systems planning, management, and construction. A 1971 article in Kaiser Builder magazine boldly stated, “Although the size and complexity of urban housing problems are staggering, they can be overcome if government and industry together apply the human and material resources of the nation.”

New 2- and 4-bedroom affordable townhouses nearing completion in Florida, 1971.
New 2- and 4-bedroom affordable townhouses nearing completion in Florida, 1971.

Edgar Kaiser was following the lead of Henry J. Kaiser, whose commitment to affordable housing began during WWII, with dormitories and family units built to house shipyard workers, and continued after the war, creating more than 10,000 affordable homes in Los Angeles and San Jose, California, and Portland, Oregon, for the general public.

Between 1942 and 1945, Henry J. Kaiser recognized the need to provide basic infrastructure to attract and retain workers flocking to his shipyards in California and Oregon. The pace and scale of housing and ancillary facilities was enormous. The city of Richmond, California, quadrupled in size. Kaiser, in partnership with the U.S. Maritime Commission, built thousands of dormitories for single men, as well as modest, multiplex residences for families. In Portland, where Kaiser encountered local resistance to the inflow of African American workers, he built Vanport, the second-largest city in the state. 40,000 workers were housed in over 10,000 units of one to 4 rooms.

Anticipating a housing crisis after the war, on March 9, 1944, Kaiser spoke against a “repetition of that drab similarity which characterized the unhappy period when our forebears built block after block of shelters which had no individuality.” He saw the opportunity to build homes grouped together in complete communities — including health, recreation, school, and commercial centers — for the families of America everywhere in America. In 1945, Henry Kaiser announced the formation of Kaiser Community Homes. As was his nature, Henry Kaiser took the unusual step for a major developer in expressing concern not just for affordability, but also for aesthetics and social benefit.

Those who worked for Henry Kaiser often modeled the values he expressed. In the late 1970s, KE executive David C. Slipher was the Hawaii governor’s special housing advisor. Only 20% of that state’s residents could afford a home — the lowest rate in the nation — and Slipher sought to change that. He supported changes in mortgage structuring and land use zoning, succeeding at seeing a shift from upper income new housing to affordable housing on the islands.

Vanport worker apartments under construction, 1942.
Vanport worker apartments under construction, 1942.
Graph showing availability of housing units in Richmond, California, 1942.
Graph showing availability of housing units in Richmond, California, 1942.