Dakota Datebook

Home Not-So-Sweet Home

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

“Home sweet home” was not a term used to describe some of North Dakota’s newest homeowners today in 1921. These prospective homeowners were to have modern, affordable homes built for them by the Home Building Association. The Association’s laws said city homes were to cost no more than $5,000, but homeowners soon found that the Association had exceedingly underestimated this cost. In fact, on average, many of the homes cost 61 percent more than the estimated cost.

Among the unhappy homeowners was the NPL Commissioner of Agriculture and Industrial Commission member, John Hagan. After Hagan’s house was completed and he had moved in, Hagan found the house cost nearly $2,000 more than estimated. Like others who were outraged by the high cost of the houses, Hagan refused to pay the extra amount and moved out.

At this time the Home Building Association was just beginning their work, but its work would also soon be over. Officially established in 1919 by the Non-Partisan League, the Association was just one of the programs initiated under the Industrial Commission. The program intended to build 700 homes for farmers and working men, but poor planning, and even worse political actions, led to the end of the Association. In fact, during its short existence, the actual work of building homes both began and ended under the same administration, and the Association’s failure would become one of the factors in the decline of the NPL.

Several factors contributed to the Association’s failure, but among the most important was the poor planning of the Association. No contracts were drawn up for the 54 homes that were completed by the Association, but instead, the houses were built only on verbal agreements. Furthermore, the Association failed to keep track of the expenses, material and labor used, and the cost of each building during construction. This led to the inflated prices of the homes, and the refusal by homeowners to pay for them. Many of the cases were taken to court, and the homeowners were able to obtain them for little over the estimated cost. This resulted in a $320,000 loss for the Association.

The poor planning, however, was just part of the problem. An investigation conducted in December 1921 found that the Association and the Non-Partisan League were conducting business in violation of state statutes. Many of the homes had been built for government officials, which violated a statute that forbade officials helping themselves to public money or property. This was especially controversial since the houses were intended for more disadvantaged people. The Investigation Committee of 1921 said, “The League bosses pretended to enact this law for the poor working man who had no home. The story of the Home Builders Association shows that it was only political bait.”

Moreover, the Association borrowed money from another Industrial Commission program, the Bank of North Dakota. This activity was not allowed by law, and the action resulted in added debt for taxpayers. The Association had accrued a debt of over a half a million dollars by the time its laws were repealed and the Association liquidated in 1923. The Association did last two years longer than many responsible for its creation. Governor Frazier, Attorney General Lemke, and Commissioner Hagen were recalled from office over the controversy in a special election in 1921.

By Tessa Sandstrom

Sources:
Crawford, Lewis F. History of North Dakota. Chicago: 1931.
Drehl, F.E. Report on Homebuilders Association: December 31, 1922.
“Hagan refuses his home built by state body,” Bismarck Tribune. Nov. 18, 1921: 1.
“Fargo people refuse to pay cost on houses,” Bismarck Tribune. Nov. 29, 1921: 1.
North Dakota Legislature. Report on Legislative Investigation of Public Industries: 1921.
Record of North Dakota’s State Industries: Their History and Record Facts and Figures Showing Their Cost to the Tax Payer to date; Future Cost to be Met, etc. 1926.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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