Berkeley a century ago was “facing an acute housing problem,” the First National Bank advised Aug. 7, 1920, in the Berkeley Daily Gazette. The situation would “greatly inconvenience many hundreds of incoming university students and large numbers of prospective new (permanent) residents.”

One partial solution advocated by the business community was making Berkeley homes that were for sale temporarily available for rent. There were an estimated 100 vacant houses on the market in Berkeley. Looking at the overall situation in 1920, the U.S. economy was somewhat weak, but it would start to turn around in 1921, and Berkeley civic leaders were constantly touting the amount of local investment and activity in construction. There was plenty of undeveloped land on which to build throughout the city.

Yet Berkeley had an “acute” housing shortage. Why? Housing demand. University enrollment was rapidly increasing, bringing more students to Berkeley. The university itself did not provide any campus-operated housing and would not build even one dormitory for another decade or so. And Berkeley was being promoted as a desirable place to do business and live for nonstudents.

In other words, the housing situations faced by Berkeley today and a hundred years ago have considerable similarity. Today we hear some vocal people claiming a primary cause of the present-day housing shortage is government regulation and zoning. But in 1920 Berkeley was just beginning to experiment with the most rudimentary zoning, and local and state government were avid cheerleaders for housing development, yet the city still had a housing crisis. A compelling major cause was rapidly increasing housing demand, not government restraint on supply.

Hospital plan endorsed: The campaign to have a city-run emergency hospital in Berkeley gained traction in 1920 when the local American Legion branch, Berkeley Post #7, endorsed it on Aug. 3 that year. The Legion was motivated to take a position because of an accident that a disabled veteran, Paul Burlingame, experienced at UC Berkeley, where he was a student.

Burlingame had a wartime leg injury and fell down the steps in California Hall on the campus. He was mistakenly taken to the Roosevelt Hospital in Berkeley rather than the Student’s Infirmary on the campus. At the private hospital — which had the city’s contract to provide emergency services — he had to wait 90 minutes to see a doctor, then was sent to a military hospital.

In early August, the Roosevelt Hospital increased its monthly charge to the city for emergency services to $250 from $150. That was additional motivation to seek a city-run alternative.

Veteran passes: Richard McCoy, a Civil War veteran and longtime leader of the local Grand Army of the Republic (Union veterans) died Aug. 2, 1920, in his home at 2128 Ward St. He was 78 and had been a resident of Berkeley for about 15 years. His wife of 53 years survived him, as did their seven grandchildren.

I’ve periodically noted before in this column how close we are to what seems the far distant American past. McCoy died a century ago, and he had been a soldier in the Civil War which had ended 55 years previously. So just more than 150 years — only two lifetimes — separate our present day from that monumental conflict that reshaped U.S. history.

UC courses: As the fall 1920, academic term approached at UC Berkeley it was noted that 48 university academic departments would offer 1,480 courses taught by 544 separate instructors. Classes would start Aug. 14. It was estimated that at least 500 of the fall students would be from abroad.

Steven Finacom holds this column’s copyright and is a Bay Area native and community historian in Berkeley.

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Author: Steven Finacom