Courtesy of the American Sociological Review

American Sociological Review, Vol. 11 (February, 1946): 57-66

Overseas Service, American Red Cross

U.S. Bureau of Agricultural Economics


A study of the largest housing project in the United States, Vanport City near Portland, Oregon, was undertaken in the winter of 1943-44 to ascertain why families had been moving out of the project at the rate of 100 a day. Residents, officials and employees, especially the school authorities and teachers, and agencies in Portland were complaining about the high turn over but could not explain it. Even when the rate had become stabilized and only 35 families were leaving per day (in a population of about 9,500 families), the administrative procedures and development of community life still were hindered by constant change of tenants. Such quotations as these, printed in a Portland newspaper in June 1944, obtained from people leaving the Project, had been repeated for some time in Vanport itself,

"We've got lonesome out here. We've been away from the farm and kin folks for so long we can't stand it any more."
"Living out here costs too much. We haven't anything left from the paycheck at the end of the week. It's too hard to get around with these crowded busses."
"A crowded place like this is no place in which to bring up a family."
"It rains all the time..."
"You can't get any sleep in our place here...."
"My husband has got to go into the Army soon and we want to go back to our old town and visit first before he goes."

Even such random quotations show three major categories of reasons for moving: (1) dissatisfaction with the project; (2) dissatisfaction with the area; and (3) change in family situation. Which of these three affected the most residents and which affected residents most intensely?

In an attempt to get all the reasons for migration and the relative importance of each, a comparison of statements from samplings of three groups was made: officials responsible for the administration, present residents (autumn and winter, 1943), and former residents.

(1) The questioning of the third group, conducted last, was the most thorough and yielded the most complete and probably the most valid answers. A questionnaire was sent to 1,000 families who had moved out of Vanport between September 8, 1943, and January 20, 1944, the thousand constituting approximately one-third of those who had left complete addresses in that period. They were selected by taking every third name on the list of former residents, with an addition of 87 names selected at random to make up an even thousand.

The questionnaire contained four parts:

I. Check-list of characteristics of Vanport that residents might dislike, divided into two lists, Housing (heating system, cookstove, lack of telephones, etc.) and Community (unpleasant neighbors, general illness in Vanport, shopping facilities, etc.)

II. Questions on personal background: reason for coming to area, former occupation permanent home, original plans for remaining, reason for leaving.

III. Questions to elicit attitudes toward school system, extended service for out-of-school hours, recreation, Portland people. (Section inserted at special request of Superintendent of Schools.)

IV. Request for remarks.

It had been expected that, at the most, no more than 20 per cent of the questionnaires would be returned. Post offices returned 187; of the remainder which supposedly were all received, slightly more than one-third were answered. This unexpectedly high return possibly indicates that recently-departed tenants had strong opinions and feelings toward the project. In any case, the showed interest.

The showed interest further by their initiative in making comments and suggestions. Fifty-five per cent of the questionnaires included volunteered remarks. Obvious difficulty for some in spelling, grammar and penmanship did not deter them.

(2) Sixteen "present residents" were interviewed principally to obtain the range of complaints so that the check-list of the mailed questionnaire could be made. The residents were not selected statistically and there was no intention of treating their replies statistically. Despite the small number of interviews and somewhat haphazard method of their choosing, these people suggested all complaints on housing and community facilities-such as poor cookstoves and inadequate shopping centers-that later appeared as the top 10 complaints in these two categories in the questionnaire survey. On disagreeable social factors, however, they did poorly, perhaps because they were less willing or less able to talk about Vanport people while still living on the project or when meeting the questioner face to face.

(3) Opinions of eight Vanport officials in positions of administrative policy-making, on deficiencies and problems of the project and also their explanations of the turnover rate, were obtained from interviews and from public statements made in printed articles and at public meetings. In listing and appraising complaints they had two sources of information that others lacked.

1) More or less formal complaints by tenants.

2) The stated reasons for moving from Vanport which residents were asked to submit upon leaving.

However, it was found that tenants did not express themselves so honestly or fully to the officials as they did when their identity was concealed.


The mere statement that Vanport City was a temporary war housing project consisting of multiple-unit frame buildings does not tell what the residents were complaining about, since there has been variation in housing projects. Vanport was structurally quite different from most public war housing, having been built by the Maritime Commission. Therefore, we must see what sort of place Vanport was.

Vanport City, the second largest "city" in Oregon, was built and occupied in about 11 months. The order to proceed was issued on September 14, 1942; the first families moved in December 14 of the same year; and, except for 1,000 apartments which did not yet have furniture, the project was completely filled by the end of August 1943. (This study was begun two months later.) The Vanport school system, federally financed and administered, had opened seven schools for 4,000 elementary school children in April 1943. Vanport contained 718 two story frame apartment buildings, built in groups of four around a utility building. All were the same light green, although the monotony was relieved somewhat by a few curving and diagonal streets. Each building housed usually 14 families, in one, two, or three-room flats, and a very few four-room flats. The total number and rental of each type was as follows:

Single Double Triple Four-room
Total number 2062 5360 2062 254
Rent per apartment week $7.00 $8.75 $10.15 $11.55

Vanport was full and had a waiting list until the spring of 1944. At the time of this study it was occupied only by shipyard and the other races were accepted as residents although the number of non-whites was restricted. Especially in the early days two men-but never two girls-were allowed to occupy a "single." Most occupants, however, were families.

The utility building in the center of each block of four apartment buildings contained the laundry facilities, with two electric washing machines for 56 families, and the heating unit supplying hot-air heat and hot water to the apartments. Neither of the last two was provided at night, a hardship for people going off swing and on graveyard shifts. There were no telephones. The apartments were supposed to be fireproof and the walls were found to be so, but not the ceilings. Also ventilation holes from one apartment to another facilitated the spread of noise at all times and of fire occasionally.

Furniture and blankets were provided, but not other furnishings. The cookstove, in the combined living-room and kitchenette, was a "rangette" with two electric plates and a small oven. There was no refrigeration except a cupboard for ice. It must be remembered that this was temporary war housing and that building and furnishing materials, especially those made of metal, were hard to get. Nevertheless, people missed facilities that they were accustomed to or had expected to receive from a government project. For example, they complained about such regulations as the provision of only one key for a family and the charge of $1.25 of unlocking a door when the key was lost or forgotten.

Although transportation and mail service had been poor until May, 1943, they were much improved by autumn. But Vanport remained muddy throughout its first year of occupancy, having been built on a newly reclaimed swamp. In regard to most community facilities, Vanport was inadequately supplied for nearly two years and never acquired some of the typical elements of a community of 38,000 people, for example, a newspaper. At the time of this study (winter of 1943-44), the project, had only two shopping centers, operated as concessions with a limited range of goods, one post office, one cafeteria and a lunch counter, one motion picture theater, and a library. There were no skating rinks, bowling alleys, taverns, or other privately financed recreation and eating places, except the movie house. There were 5 public recreation buildings with excellent facilities. No church buildings were provided, but all denominations were allowed to use the school buildings for meetings.

As there was no high school, boys and girls were transported to Portland to attend high school. The elementary schools, with 270 teachers handling 2,000 children modern specialized equipment in classrooms, clinics, and cafeterias. To help the working mothers, the four nursery schools, with an enrollment of 900, were open from 5:45 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. seven days a week. Later, they gave 24-hour-a-day service. All meals could be provided the youngsters if mothers paid the small fees. Also, on the same basis, their children of school age could be cared for by the Extended Service which provided outside of school hours a service like that of the nursery schools. Although 500 children were cared for by the Extended Service, there still were hundreds of children on the project unattended while parents worked or slept on the day or swing shift. A later study of the East Vanport project, 52 per cent of whose tenants came form the older Vanport, showed that 45 per cent of the mothers were working out of the home. Undoubtedly, the same per cent of Vanport women, or more, also worked.

The hospital was run privately under the administration of the Oregon Physicians' Service, a group prepayment program sponsored by the Oregon Medial Society. A patient could pay for each service separately or could pay for each service separately or could have medical and hospital coverage by prepayment of 60 cents a week. For most of the first year, patients had to prove ability to pay before being admitted to the hospital. The County Public Health and Welfare Departments expanded their service to include Vanport. At first these two, with the Sheriff's Office, had to handle all welfare problems. Vanport was outside the corporate limits of Portland and was itself unincorporated.

Organizations started slowly within Vanport itself. Informal groups and their activities, such as the parties of teen-agers and the "sings" of men from the southern hills, developed here and there on the project within a few natural interest groups. However, at the same time the Recreation Department and the Project Services Department were having great difficulty starting neighborhood councils and clubs. The councils were intended to be representative planning and advisory groups and leaders in neighborhood activities. As there was no formal council members and as most of the residents did not know about the councils and did not seem to think of Vanport as a real community anyway, it was nearly impossible to initiate them. (However, by the third year of project life they were fairly well organized.) Residents regarded Vanport life as temporary and Vanport administration as a large furnished-apartment rental agency, and in most respects the management functioned as one, although it must be noted that its 800 employees worked not only in such departments as Maintenance, Accounting and Property but also in the Fire Department, Project Services and other public service jobs.

Compilation of social statistics on the tenants, made by the project administration, was not complete when the writers' original report on causes of turnover was made. Since the winter of 1943-44, survey work at both Vanport and East Vanport has shown that these projects have had a population of young people, with very few dependent elderly people (left at home in Nebraska), and the white workers had been skilled workers, operatives, foremen and non-farm laborers, although many did come form smaller towns and villages, while the Negroes had been non-farm laborers, a few were farmers.

The residents came from every state and from Alaska, but mainly from the Pacific Northwest and Intermountain states and the Midwest, including the southern plains states of Oklahoma and Texas. The three principal reasons for their coming to the Portland-Vancouver shipyards, according to answers on the mailed questionnaires, were, in this order, (1) they thought it their duty to go into defense work (2) they thought they would like such a job better than the old one, and (3) they sought higher wages. Only 37 per cent of the 232 answering this question said that they had been recruited by shipyard representatives. Of these, 36 per cent (or 40 families) said they had been disappointed in the housing, which had been one of the recruiting arguments. Probably this is not a significantly high proportion under war circumstances.

There was supposed to be no segregation of races at Vanport. However, Negro families were assigned only to certain apartment buildings grouped in three sections of the project, and separate waiting lists and rental files for Negroes and whites were maintained, a policy which was not openly admitted by the Housing Authority for many months. There was, however, no segregation in public places. Not only were the two races allowed to use the recreation buildings and attend school together, but the school system hired two Negro women to teach mixed classes and a Negro assistant librarian.

The Superintendent of Schools said that he gave three answers to people from the south who objected to non-segregation in the schools: "You are now in the north, and you cannot expect to impose southern tradition on the northerners." "You do not actively protest against working with Negroes in the shipyards," "In the south, you trust the care of your children to Negro women," implying that the Vanport association with Negroes could not be any closer than that.

In the autumn of 1943, about seven per cent of the apartment buildings were occupied by Negroes. "Discrimination" appeared in the complaints of the Negroes and "non-segregation" in the complaints of the whites. Nevertheless, although there were occasionally harsh words between the races, there was never between them.

Another kind of non-segregation sometimes bothered the residents, namely, the mixing of the work shifts. Both men and women worked on each of the three shifts, hence some people were at home trying to sleep on each of the three. Since families were not grouped according to shift and in many cases could not be effectively segregated, with various members of the same family working differently shifts, there was almost constant noise day and night in all neighborhoods.

Vanport residents as a group gave the impression of being small town and rural people. At any rate, Portland people regarded them as poor farm people, no matter where they were from; and a social stigma came to be associated with Vanport and its residents. The high school students, for example, claimed that they definitely felt the stigma in the Portland high schools that they attended. Even some of the other war housing projects rated higher socially than Vanport. Now let us see how the Vanport people reacted to such surroundings.


The replies to the questionnaire have most interest in two contexts: former residents' complaints against Vanport compared with the officials' ideas about such complaints; and the complaints compared with actual reasons for moving from the project. In other words, did people really leave Vanport because of the inadequacies or disagreeable features that they often criticized or for reasons having nothing to do with the project? And, did the officials really know why residents were moving out?

In table 1 are the complaints against the housing, with some indication of the intensity of disapproval. Without considering the strength of each complaint but taking only the relative number of people who checked each one, we find that they appear in this order: cookstove (many women must have filled out these questionnaires), fear of fire, provision of heat, mud, cost of living, laundry facilities, and so on down through less critical complaints.


The Worst (XX) Less Bothersome (X)
Rank No. Per Cent Rank No. Per Cent
1 Cookstove 52 18.6 1 Mud 81 29.0
2 (Provision of) heat
Fear of fire
49 17.6 2 Cookstove 78 27.9
3 Mud 31 11.1 3 Fear of fire 71 25.4
4 Cost of living 29 10.4 4 (Provision of ) heat 67 24.0
5 Laundry facilities 24 8.6 5 Cost of living 53 18.9
6 Size of apartments 15 5.4 6 Laundry facilities 37 13.3
7 Lack of phones 14 5.0 7 Furniture 34 12.2
8 Bugs, fleas, rats, roaches 12 4.3 Lack of phones 31 11.1
9 Furniture 10 3.6 Unattractiveness of Vanport 30 10.7
10 Unattractiveness of Vanport 7 2.5 Bugs, fleas, rats, roaches 21 7.5

Even though respondents had a longer list of complaints about the Vanport community and its location than about its housing from which to choose, they agreed on a few items with surprising frequency. In 279 replies, the complaints appear in this order, without regard to intensity: Negroes and whites in same neighborhood (144), shopping facilities (105), noise (101), children bothering one (99), discrimination against Vanport people by Portlanders (82), and Negroes and whites in same school (68). Transportation fear of theft, climate, and other elements of Vanport life appeared next with about equal frequency. Table 2 shows the replies in detail.

Even in making their own suggestions for improvement, the respondents showed the same emphases, although the exact position of any item on the check-list in Part I of the questionnaire did not seem to influence people's response to it, either in marking the list or in citing the same item among suggested changes at Vanport. The items are now familiar:

segregation of Negroes (29);
more heat or better regulated heat (21);
segregation of shifts (19);
more control of children (18);
better cooking facilities (15);
improvement in Project administration (14);
additional shopping centers (11);

and down through a long list of suggestions to, among others, "representative government" and "more and wider sidewalks," two each, and "more churches," and "better milk delivery," one each.

That the social organization of a typical community was not expected, was in fact on a par with a small irritation over milk delivery, and that the criticisms were concentrated on the practical necessities of daily living comes undoubtedly from the special wartime temporary character of the population and the project. Among the interviewed residents appeared expressions of instability and dissatisfaction because of the disruption of family life and change in status, felt in the "Vanport stigma." They had a feeling that there was no time for organizations, and they simply had no desire for organizations in Vanport. They were homesick; felt that they were living temporarily, day to day; and wanted only to "finish the job and go home." A few felt that Vanport was all right, "as good as could be expected"; and a very few enjoyed life there.

Such were the attitudes and complaints; but which ones actually influenced people to move from Vanport? the two principal reasons for moving, in terms of number of families, had nothing whatever to do with the project and the third probably had little to do with it. They were (1) entry of the head of the family into the armed forces, (2) conditions of the job, and (3) illness in the family. (This refers to illness of the family at Vanport; illness at the old home was listed separately.) The fifteen most numerous "reasons" for leaving are listed in table 3. If all "illness" entries were combined, this would be by the far the most frequent explanation for moving, totaling 72. It cannot be assumed that a claim of sickness was in all cases merely a rationalization to cover up homesickness, trouble on the job or other factors, although such cases probably were common. If even half of the families were rationalizing and the other half answering factually, sickness still would be the most important factor. To many people the interesting disclosure of the above list may be that although former residents in their complaints and in their suggestions had reiterated their disapproval because Negro and white races were not segregated, nevertheless, the non-segregation policy of the Housing Authority was the fifth, and of the school system twelfth, in the list of reasons for moving. In other words, there was a difference between talk and action.


Rank No. Per Cent Rank No. Per Cent
1 Negroes and whites in same neighborhood 74 26.5 1 Negroes and whites in same neighborhood 70 25.1
2 Shopping facilities 48 17.2 2 Noise 65 23.7
3 Negroes and whites in same school 39 13.9 3 Children bothering you 63 22.6
4 Children bothering you
4 Discrimination against Vanport people by Portlanders 61 21.9
5 Discrimination against Vanport people by Portlanders 21 7.5 5 Shopping facilities 57 20.4
6 Transportation 19 6.8 6 Fear of theft 39 13.9
7 Fear of theft
Neighbors or partner
7 Getting mail
8 Climate
Medical Facilities
8 Transportation 37 13.3
9 General Vanport illness 14 5.0 9 General Vanport illness
Illness of family
Neighbors or partner
10 Getting mail
Influence of other children on your child
10 Distance from work 34 12.2
11 Illness of your family 11 3.9 11 Church facilities 31 11.1
12 Church facilities 10 3.6 12 Influence of other children on your child 30 10.7
13 Racial discrimination 7 2.5 13 Negroes and whites in the same school 29 10.4
14 Conditions on the job 6 2.1 14 One-half day school 21 7.5
15 Distance from work
Recreational Facilities
15 Lack of high school 17 6.1
16 Lack of high school 4 1.4 16 Medical facilities 15 5.4
17 Lack of Vanport newspaper 3 1.1 17 Racial discrimiation in the administration 13 4.7
18 Recreational facilities 11 3.9
19 Condition on the job 8 2.9
20 Lack of Vanport newspaper 5 1.8

The superintendent of schools also pointed out, in an interview several months before the questionnaires were returned, this discrepancy between talk and action. By October 1943, not more than five families had threatened to remove their children from school because of mixed classes. Some time later, he said that two families had refused to send their children to school, an illegal act and treated as such. This small number in an elementary school population of 4,000 should not alarm those fearing open racial antagonism on such a project. Even beyond the time limits of this study, there still had been no violence between the races living at Vanport up to May 1945, at which time the number of Negro residents was nearly double the number in the winter of 1943-44 when the erstwhile residents of Vanport were questioned.


Rank Number
1 Member of family entered armed forces
Condition of the job
2 Illness of self and family 24
3 Heating system 20
4 Noise 19
5 Negroes and whites in same neighborhood
Sickness at home
6 Illness caused by climate
Size of apartment
7 Lonely and homesick
Cost of living
8 Association with undesirable people 14
9 Children bothering one 13
10 Business to attend to at home
Home in Portland better and more convenient
Had moved to Vanport temporarily
General illness in Vanport
Trouble with neighbor or partner
Crowded conditions
11 Distance from work
12 Dampness
Negroes and whites in same school
Fear of fire
Furniture provided (or not provided)
One-half day school
Shopping facilities
13 Treatment by administration 7
14 Insects and rats
Lack of play yard for children
Family bought a home
Provision for refrigeration
* In answer to question, "What are a couple of your main reasons for leaving Vanport?" on 279 questionnaires, 512 items were given

Among the top 10 reasons for moving, the only ones for which the Housing authority could be considered fully responsible were the heating system and the regulation of heat; the cookstove; size of apartment assigned to each family size, amount of cupboard space and other space factors; and the amount of noises. This last could not be entirely the fault of the project planning and administration although the thin walls and other characteristics of the housing were important. There undoubtedly are minimum standards of comfort that most Americans from all parts of the country (especially those who have lived in town) insist upon and which must be recognized in planning, the most important being indoor warmth.

At the same time, the residents were not blameless. Some of the physical unpleasantness of the Project was due to them. Although East Vanport had a full-sized cookstove, individual heating units, more room per family size, and a yard for each family dwelling unit, thus correcting several of the weaknesses in Vanport planning, and although all families were earning quite good wages, nevertheless 90 per cent of the white families and 100 per cent of the Negro families were on the lower half of Chapin's Living Room Scale. That is, they would be rated below lower middle class, in the terminology of the scale. The bad appearance of Vanport and East Vanport apartments was due partly to crowding, the Negroes especially having "boarders," partly out-of-home work by women, and partly to indifference to care of a temporary home, as well as to original standards and social rating. Whatever the "causes," the project housing was not improved by its residents.

Both interviews and questionnaires show that neither administration nor residents had adjusted fully to a three-shift life. The noise, the troubles between neighbors, irritation caused by children, the heating problem (heat and hot water not being provided 24 hours a day), the lack of a 24-hour nursery school (corrected later) were evidence of the conflict between the new nighttime work and the old day-time habits and regulations, and people left the project because of them. They could get along without clubs and churches, but they could not get along without sleep.

What did the officials know and think about the turnover? They had received through the rental department and other sources about the same range of complaints from residents as in the preceding tables. But their explanations of the turnover were more limited:

Vanport Factors Partially Vanport Factors Non-Project Factors
Neighbors Change of residence to be nearer work Actuality of 6-day weekand rumor of 40-hr. week
Noise Illness Business or harvest at home
Mud Homesickness Receipt of furniture that had been en route

The officials overlooked completely the factors, both outside the project and within it, affecting most of the families, except illness; namely, leaving the job to enter the armed services, and the heating system. The cookstove also did not get the attention it deserved.

The greatest divergence of viewpoint from the attitude of residents appeared in the problems which the officials considered important and were trying to solve:

Lack of Vanport newspaper.
Effect of the turnover on development of a representative council.
Irregularity of attendance at Neighborhood Council meetings.
Direction of the socially minded individuals into the right channels.
Effect of the turnover on the morale of the school staff.
One-half day school.
Control of the unorganized gangs of children.
Tenants who skipped without paying their rent.
Adequacy of the washing machines.
Difficulty in obtaining the right coal for the heating system.
Insufficiency of chairs for apartments.
Housekeeping problems resulting in ill-will among neighbors.
Effect of the decreased allotment for the Maintenance Department.

In the first four or five of these, the administrative officers were, rightly, looking beyond current material difficulties which could be handled by administrative action alone, such as the purchase of particular kinds of coal. They were considering elements in the formation of real community, which would require action by both tenants and Housing Authority employees. They did not, however, have any regular channels for reaching the tenants such as weekly project news sheets or information bulletins, and they did not have any definite plan for representative government other than informal Neighborhood Councils which were really discussion groups that people were invited to attend but which had no designated responsibility.


The attitude of most people, whether administrative officers or tenants, seemed to be that Vanport was just a housing project and not a community, although Vanport people were not accepted in the Portland community other than as purchasers of goods and commercial recreation, and there was no other than purchasers of goods and commercial recreation, and there was no other community close enough or large enough to include Vanport City. With a highly concentrated population that contained at its peak close to 40,000 people, Vanport was a social hybrid, with some characteristics of a town, other characteristics of a great disjointed apartment building, and some elements of a camp of migratory construction workers. Some of the weaknesses that both residents and officials recognized were merely expectable transitory elements of a new, hastily-assembled project and of an abnormal, hastily-assembled society. For example, in this "community" of construction workers there were many young adults, apparently too many children for anyone's comfort, and few old people. Also, even though Vanport provided such urban services as a fire department and supervised recreation centers; it was an abnormal town: there could be no property ownership, and no private business could be started without concession and supervision from the Housing Authority.

The interesting question as to what does make a community cannot be discussed here, but the following conclusions touch upon the community question.

1. Most people came to Vanport and many left for reasons not connected with the facilities and reputation of the project. They came because they had secured work in the area, they had to have a place to live and housing was scarce. They left because they had to give up, or wanted to give up, the job and leave the area, or in fewer cases because they found a home that they liked better. In other words, Vanport did not draw them and hold them as an established community attracts and holds people.

2. The residents came to Vanport and left it as separate families, for personal reasons. They had a common feeling, perhaps deceiving themselves a little regarding their motives, that they wanted to work in the shipyards to contribute directly to war production, but still they did not come to found a community.

3. Evidence that the residents while in Vanport also were functioning as separate families, without regard to others there is provided by the interest in personal convenience and comfort, by the frequent complaints against neighbors, and by the weak interest in social organization.

4. At most, residents were interested in the neighborhood, shown by criticism of neighbors and concern over racial segregation in the neighborhood school and playgrounds.

5. Only when face to face with the larger nearby community, Portland, and its indifference and condescension, did residents think of Vanport as a social entity rather than a place to eat and sleep.

6. Each individual complaint against the project may not be serious by itself; but the great volume of complaint is to be taken seriously. The housing was not well planned for family living, even for temporary quarters, and the provisions for social life were made slowly and without fundamental plan.

Although residents would not take the initiative in organizing social life and seldom expressed a need for it, nevertheless the high incidence of "illness" among those who moved away from Vanport makes one suspect that they missed it, illness being the most acceptable cover-up for loneliness or any other unadjustment. Some undoubtedly were organically, rather than functionally, ill; but many simply were unable to adjust to the hurly-burly of the shipyards and of Vanport, the anonymity, restlessness, and disruption of their living habits and living organization.

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