The ratepayers’ votes of 1935 and 1953

Since the city of Winnipeg’s creation in 1873, there had been a built-in barrier to the construction of public housing. The city’s charter, an act of the provincial legislature prohibited the city from doing any large-scale borrowing—and the construction of public housing would require large-scale borrowing—without seeking the approval of the city’s property owners in what was called a ratepayers’ vote. Given the restrictions that existed on the right to vote for city councillors and mayor—in 1935, for example, it was estimated that 30,000 adult Winnipeggers were left off the voting list because they lived in single rooms—it was difficult to elect a council that was prepared to think about building public housing. [1] And it was to prove impossible to get a majority of the city’s property owners to vote for a measure that would only benefit people who did not own property. In both 1935 and 1953, property owners vetoed proposed public housing projects. The evidence suggests that if all Winnipeggers had been allowed to vote, the projects would have been approved.

The 1935 referendum

As mayor, John Queen led the fight for public housing in the 1930s. City of Winnipeg Archives.

In the fall of 1934, Independent Labor Party leader John Queen was elected mayor in a very tight race. [2]Queen had been the unsuccessful Labour candidate for mayor in 1932 and 1933, including a commitment to establish a “municipal housing scheme” in each campaign platform.[3]

Queen, with the support of the Independent Labor Party and Communist Party members of Winnipeg city council, proposed a $500,000 public housing and housing renovation program. Housing units would be built on city-owned land, amortized for 35 years, and administered by the Winnipeg Housing Commission. [4] The plan’s supporters noted that 80 per cent of the funding would be paid in wages, which they predicted would create $2-million worth of business in Winnipeg.[5]

Quite correctly, Queen believed the odds of winning a ratepayers’ vote to fund public housing were quite slim. His only option was to ask the provincial government to exempt the project from the requirement to hold a referendum.[6] While such exemptions had been granted in the past for other large-scale capital projects, the rural-dominated provincial government of the day, declined to exempt the housing project from the requirement for ratepayers’ approval.[7]

As a result, the plan was put to a vote as part of the November 1934 municipal election. It was opposed by the so-called Citizen members of council, people who had been endorsed by the conservative Citizens’ League. One Citizens’ representative on council, Cecil Rice-Jones, objected to the city taking on what he viewed as a federal responsibility, while C.E. Simonite said that any houses that the city built would quickly turn into slums: an argument that ignored the fact that the existing slums had been built by private builders.[8]

The Winnipeg Board of Trade claimed that the plan was not “economically sound,” although it was prepared to support the federal government making low-cost loans to landlords to renovate existing rental properties.[9] Home and Property Owners’ Association secretary-treasurer J. Feilde said that property owners should vote down the city’s housing proposal, which he termed “a huge joke.”[10]

The Winnipeg Building Trades Council backed the proposal and decried the opposition of “certain interests imbued with selfish motives, who have on every occasion opposed housing schemes no matter in what form they were submitted. It would not be fair to mention names at this moment, but certain members of the city council are certainly past masters of the art of Playing Dr. Jeckill [sic] and Mr. Hyde.” [11]

On election day, the housing bylaw was defeated 11,312 to 4,459 with 1,154 votes rejected (it appears many voters marked their ballots with a cross when they should have written a numeric figure.) Queen was re-elected to his position as mayor receiving 32,013 votes to his opponent’s 21,070. As can be seen from these figures, of the 53,083 Winnipeggers who voted for mayor, only 16,925 owned enough property to be allowed to vote on the housing bylaw.[12] Had all Winnipeg voters been allowed to vote on the housing project, the outcome might well have been very different

The 1953 referendum

In a report issued at the beginning of 1953, William Courage, the city’s head of Emergency Housing, warned that the city “was faced with the chronic hard core of Winnipeg’s basic housing problems.” He noted that many of the city’s emergency shelters had “all the elements of substandard slum dwellings.” Eighty percent of the 1,427 applications for emergency housing came from households with two or more children, 50 per cent from households with more than four children. Once more, he said that the only solution lay in the development of low-income housing.[13]

That year council agreed on public-housing plan that would build 848 units on two sites. The $8.7-million capital costs were to be split three ways, with the federal government paying 75 per cent, and the provincial and municipal government each paying 12.5 per cent. The federal government would contribute 75 per cent for the rent subsidy while the city would pay the remainder.[14] Frank Wagner, the chair of the city’s housing committee, argued that the city would make $141,000 a year on the project since the municipal operating subsidy would be $74 a year, but the property tax would be $240 a year.[15] Council approved the housing plan in principle on August 4, 1953, after hearing Wagner describe city housing conditions as being “worse than ever.”[16]

But, as in the past, it had to go before a ratepayers’ vote.

Trade unionist and Co-operative Commonwealth Federation politician Donovan Swailes played a leadership role in the 1953 referendum on public housing.

The city’s longstanding political divide was reflected throughout the referendum campaign. The Winnipeg and District Trades and Labour Council distributed 20,000 copies of a leaflet written by CCF member of the legislature Donovan Swailes.[17] The national Community Planning Association also backed the plan, saying it would likely lead to a reduction in civic spending on social welfare.[18]  The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce doggedly opposed the housing bylaw: according to the Free Press, it was “against providing housing for one small group of about 850 families at the expense of the other ratepayers.”[19] The Winnipeg Real Estate Board chose to focus on the fact that the housing, while intended for low-income people, included support for people who might be described as the ‘working poor.’  “This housing is planned for those where family income is under $3,500. Why should you as homeowners be the only group to be charged for such housing.”[20]

The requirement for a ratepayers’ vote meant that a minority of Winnipeg voters would determine the future of public housing. Just over 27,000 people cast ballots in the eventual ratepayers’ vote, which was held in conjunction with the 1953 municipal election. In the same election, nearly 56,000 people voted in the mayoral contest which was open to all eligible voters. In other words, nearly 29,000 Winnipeggers who were eligible to vote were not eligible to vote on the public housing proposal.[21]

Property owners were asked to cast ballots on two housing bylaws: one that would grant approval in principle for the project, the other that would authorize the funding. [22] The vote on approval in principle was 16,921 against and 10,227 in favour, while the vote on the funding was 16,873 against and 10,314 in favour.[23] Had the 29,000 non-property-owning adult Winnipeggers been allowed to vote

The 1953 defeat left the supporters of public housing in disarray. Even though a growing number of Winnipeggers, including a majority of city councillors, now recognized the need for public housing, the dead hand of laws that favoured the narrow interests of property owners had strangled their efforts for a second time. It would be another decade before any public housing was built in Winnipeg. Those changes would require the election of a reform-minded provincial government that was committed to addressing urban issues and a Winnipeg mayor who, while a conservative at heart, was determined to destabilize the city’s political elite.

Back to The Struggle for Affordable Housing in Winnipeg

[1] “Adult suffrage passed by civic legislation body,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, February 23, 1935; “Committee gives approval to adult suffrage in city,” Winnipeg Free Press, February 23, 1935; Stefan Epp-Koop, “We’re going to run this city”: Winnipeg’s political left after the General Strike, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015, 130–131.

[2] Brian McKillop, “Citizen and Socialist: The Ethos of Political Winnipeg, 1919–1935,” Master of Arts thesis, University of Manitoba, 1970, 203–207. For examples of opposition to the Bradshaw recommendations, see “Letters to the editor,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, September 1, 1934.

[3] “John Queen opens his campaign for chief magistracy,” Winnipeg Free Press, November 15, 1932; “John Queen nominated as I.L.P. candidate for mayoralty of Winnipeg,” Winnipeg Free Press, October 30, 1933.

[4] “Ward 2 I.L.P. candidates pledge selves to rase living standard if elected,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, November 14, 1935;“Aldermen favor spending of $500,000 on home building,” Winnipeg Free Press, October 3, 1935; Winnipeg may vote on $500,000 housing scheme in November,” Winnipeg Free Press, October 3, 1935; “Stobart gives details of city housing plan,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, November 21, 1935.

[5] the construction of 120 four-room homes

[6] “Housing plans advanced by city council,” Winnipeg Free Press, March 19, 1935; “Council favors housing plan without vote,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, March 19, 1935.

[7] “Legislators decry slum conditions,” Winnipeg Free Press, March 19, 1937.

[8] “Aldermen favor spending of $500,000 on home building,” Winnipeg Free Press, October 3, 1935; Winnipeg may vote on $500,000 housing scheme in November,” Winnipeg Free Press, October 3, 1935; A.V. Thomas, “Housing certain to be big civic election issue,”Winnipeg Evening Tribune, October 19, 1935.

[9] “Board states house building scheme unsound,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, November 20, 1935.

[10] J.F. Fielde, “City council’s housing problem,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, October 30, 1935; “Feilde sees need of taxes being reduced to safeguard city,” Winnipeg Free Press, November 22, 1935.

[11] “Building Trades Council Backs Housing Bylaw,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, November 21, 1935.

[12] “Queen re-elected: Bylaw beaten,” Winnipeg Free Press, November 23, 1935.

[13] “Housing lack acute, city warned,” Winnipeg Free Press, January 28, 1953.

[14] “Meet to scan costs of civic housing scheme,” Winnipeg Free Press, February 5, 1953; “Vote for the Housing By-Laws,” Winnipeg Free Press, 26 October 1953.

[15] “Housing plan outlined,” Winnipeg Free Press, August 18, 1953.

[16] “Council okays plan for low-rent homes,” Winnipeg Free Press, August 5, 1953.

[17] “Unionists Plan Leaflet Drive in Support of Housing Bylaw,” Winnipeg Free Press, 7 October 1953.

[18] “National planning group backs city housing plan,” Winnipeg Free Press, October 23, 1953.

[19] “Chamber Thumbs Down Housing For ‘One Group,’” Winnipeg Free Press, 23 October 1953.

[20] “Attention Ratepayers” We are OPPOSING the Housing By-law because:,” Winnipeg Free Press, 26 October 1953.

[21] “Civic Election Results Are Listed Poll by Poll,” Winnipeg Free Press, 29 October 1953; “Some Liked the Idea but That’s All,” Winnipeg Free Press, 29 October 1953.

[22] “Civic Election Results Are Listed Poll by Poll,” Winnipeg Free Press, 29 October 1953; “Some Liked the Idea but That’s All,” Winnipeg Free Press, 29 October 1953.

[23] “Civic Election Results Are Listed Poll by Poll,” Winnipeg Free Press, 29 October 1953; “Some Liked the Idea But That’s All,” Winnipeg Free Press, 29 October 1953.