The Inspiration of Henry Kaiser and Vanport

“This achievement has been largely forgotten by Oregonians,” wrote Peter Marsh in his fantastic 2021 book Liberty Factory: The Untold Story of Henry Kaiser’s Oregon Shipyards.

That achievement helped win WW II and might prove instructive today as a strategy for Oregon and the rest of the nation as they address the homeless crisis, which of course primarily comes down to this obvious fact—there isn’t enough housing—and attempts to provide it are frustratingly slow despite that in many places, like Portland, the money was allocated years ago. YEARS.

Wait, forget instructive. Kaiser’s achievement might offer the inspiration and solution.

Let us consider Henry Kaiser, the former shipping magnate and founder of a health care empire.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and America entered WW II, America needed transport and war ships and needed them fast. It was a national emergency.

Henry Kaiser built the ships, including the famous Liberty ships, approximately 1500 of them, at his Portland and Vancouver shipyards on the Columbia River.

There was a critical need for housing to house the Kaiser shipyard workers to win WW II. It was a national emergency after all.

Henry Kaiser built the housing on 650 acres in a flood plain of the Columbia River. He bought the land. The housing he built became Vanport and became Oregon’s second largest city in less time than a college football season.

Portland City Hall initially balked at Kaiser’s Vanport initiative, probably because it boggled limited imaginations of employees and threatened to expose their sloth. But Kaiser had the ear of FDR and FDR sent Eleanor to Portland and she told City Hall to get out of the way. They did. This was Eleanor talking! There was a world war going on!

Do we ever need an Eleanor Roosevelt in charge of the homeless crisis in America today? This is a federal issue. It’s a national emergency. The federal government is charged with promoting the general welfare. The general welfare of America is corroded when hundreds of thousands of Americans are living on the streets and in the woods.

Henry Kaiser built 10,414 apartments and homes in 110 days. That became Vanport and 44,000 shipyard workers and their families eventually lived in a community that included amenities such as the first large scale child care center in the world and an extension college that later became Portland State University.

I should also add that the Vancouver Housing Authority built housing for 35,000 people working for Kaiser’s Vancouver shipyard across the Columbia River in roughly the same amount of time.

It was a monumental accomplishment of private initiative to house people in a national emergency and not a single monument to Kaiser exists in Portland. As of this writing, not a single print newspaper in Portland has bothered to review the book and get this story back in play. Moreover, I suspect no one governing the homeless crisis in Portland or associated with the Homeless Industrial Complex has ever heard of the incredible Vanport story, except for the fact that a flood wiped out the city in 1948 and killed 15 people.

Let me address a few points:

Yes, the housing was substandard. Yes, it was built in a flood plain. Yes, we didn’t have land use and construction regulations at the time. And yes, we didn’t have a hundred agencies and organizations involved because they didn’t exist at the time. There was basically one entity, more of a force, Henry Kaiser and his dedication to build ships to win the war. Well, that and to turn a profit, which he certainly did.

But Vanport was housing nonetheless with running water, plumbing, electricity and sanitation. It wasn’t tents or pods or shelters or shanties or RVs buried in squalor. It was built in less than four months!

In some instances, the City of Portland and Portland voters have allocated funds or approved tax measures to build low-income housing and erect emergency shelters four years ago and construction hasn’t even started. What is going on?

Vanport housed people who wanted or needed to work. American needed these people. It makes a difference in a person’s life if your country needs you. Not Wal-Mart or Nike or McDonalds, but your state or country. I mean, what if an Oregon politician framed it that way? And went down to the encampments and started talking, not making speeches, but acting like he or she was on the front lines of a crisis, a state of emergency, and asked the residents to get involved?

Tom McCall would have done it. So would have Bud Clark and Vera Katz. Certainly Barbara Roberts.

A final point: Once an American with immense wealth who wanted to become wealthier got in the business of building ships and emergency housing to serve the country. He cut through red tape and marshaled extraordinary material resources and human will in response to a national crisis. He built houses because we needed housing and he built them with lightning speed. He had a President and a President’s wife behind him.

Take from that what needs to be taken. There is a lot there.

This essay also appears as part of my New American Diaspora newsletter that I hope readers will subscribe to read my pieces about Oregon’s homelessness issue. You can subscribe here: