The G.I. Bill: A Story of Buildings

Source: Wikimedia Commons

All good government stories start with a Washington, DC hotel, and the G.I. Bill–72 years old today–isn’t much different. From it’s humble beginnings on napkins and stationery, to the desk of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, as it was known, is very much a story of buildings.

Prior to WWII, the dream of homeownership was just that for most average Americans. A dream. And for returning veterans, it may have seemed an impossible one, at that, until Harry W. Colmrey, a Kansas lawyer who’d had his own difficulties transitioning back to civilian life after WWI, took up the issue of veterans rights while staying in the Mayflower Hotel. Over the course of five months, Colmrey hand wrote the draft of the G.I. Bill on hotel stationery and napkins. Within a year of his initial draft, President Roosevelt signed it into law.

The Mayflower Hotel. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The provisions of the G.I. Bill were relatively straightforward: provide educational and training opportunities for servicemen returning from WWII; increase their access to home, farm, and business loans through federal guaranty; and provide unemployment pay. With oversight of the Veterans Administration, the programs flourished–especially the loan guaranty, which backed almost than 2.4 million home loans for WWII veterans between 1944 and 1952.

That’s a lot of homes. Specifically, that’s a lot of new suburban construction. And, although the true measure of the G.I. Bill’s impact on suburbanization is a matter of some debate, the legislation signed into law 72 years ago today almost certainly contributed momentum to a national population redistribution. In an era of rapid movement from the city to new and increasingly far-flung suburbs, Veterans were responsible for 20% of new home purchases.

Although the program was initially aimed at WWII vets, and was highly restricted, a series of expansions and extensions in the later Twentieth Century opened benefits up to more veterans, for a longer period of time. Whereas the initial terms of the Bill were limited to a 5 year scope, an early revision in 1945 gave servicemen ten years to take advantage of their new benefits. Expansions in the 1950s and 1960s increased the loan guaranty from the initial 50%, not to exceed $2,000, to a 60% guaranty capped at $75,000. In 1966, the so-called Cold War G.I. Bill extended benefits to post-Korean War veterans.

While the G.I. Bill is frequently credited with helping to usher in an era of considerable prosperity, the effects of the suburban flight it helped to sustain were not without dire consequences. When combined with the later Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the increased mobility of white, middle-class strivers left cities inhospitably divided by roadways and inhabited only by those who couldn’t afford to move: in many cases, poor people of color.

Neither was its application flawless. Black veterans were all but excluded from the housing benefits of the Bill, as banks routinely refused to make loans to people of color, even with a federal guaranty. Further, many suburbs included deed restrictions that forbade black homeowners even if they could find a willing lender. No provisions in the G.I. Bill, or in immediate succeeding legislation mandated housing fairness for veterans, and without such provisions innumerable black veterans found themselves entirely without benefit. And the arguably greater gift of the G.I. Bill–concessions which allowed for the accumulation of wealth by a middle class previously excluded from such accrual–was reserved only for veterans with the appropriate skin tone. The demographics of entire swaths of suburban and exurban America were thus set.

As we celebrate the 72nd Anniversary of this piece of legislation, we do so in a landscape, in part, of its own shaping–from the development and population of outer ring suburbs to the very populations they support. Much of the way our suburbs look–for better and worse–can be traced back, in some part, to a carefully drafted consideration of veterans needs, scrawled on stationery in room 570 of a DC hotel.


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