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William K. Divers Oral History Interview, February 12, 1970

Oral History Interview with
William K. Divers

Member of the staff of the Federal Emergency Public Works Administration, 1933-37; member of the legal staff of the U.S. Housing Authority, 1938; regional director of fifteen midwest states, U.S. Housing Authority, 1939-40; assistant general counsel and special assistant to the director of the defense housing division, Federal Works Agency, 1941; regional representative of the National Housing Agency, 1942-43; special assistant to the National Housing Expeditor, 1946; assistant administrator of the National Housing Agency, 1947; chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, 1947-53, and member, 1953-54.

Washington, D.C.
February 12, 1970
By Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Divers Oral History Transcripts]

This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened September 1971
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Divers Oral History Transcripts]


Oral History Interview with
William K. Divers

Washington, D.C.
February 12, 1970
By Jerry N. Hess


HESS: Mr. Divers in checking your scrapbooks last week, I found several clippings of interest and I would like to start off today by quoting from one. It was a clipping from the South Omaha Sun of March the 21st, 1940 giving some of your background. Some things I think we had better check on. It says:

“Mr. Divers assisted in drafting the limited dividend housing law enacted in Ohio in 1932, and the Ohio housing authorities law enacted in Ohio in 1933, which was the first housing authority law enacted in the United States.”

What can you tell me about the background of the what came to be the first housing authority law enacted in the country?

DIVERS: I'm not sure that the report is correct. I do not recall whether Ohio was the first housing authority or New York State had the


first housing authority law. I do know that Ohio did not if it did not have the first one, it had the second one. You know of my interest in housing, and my connection with housing, and I was brought into this by Ernest J. Bohn who was subsequently the executive director of the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority. Ernie Bohn, as he was widely known among public housers, was very active in housing legislation in Ohio, and he solicited my support, which I .gladly gave, from the southern part of the state, and he had he was widely known and respected and active politically in the northern part of the state. And together, we were successful in rounding up enough support for this law to get it enacted. At that time, legislators were quite willing to pass legislation which had any prospect of creating jobs and improving economic conditions. And it was not difficult,


really, to get legislation through. Our principal problem was an educational job, to explain the legislation to the appropriate committees, to answer their questions and to follow up to see that it was passed in suitable form to perform the functions we proposed. Actually, I would describe my part in this as minor compared to that .of Ernie Bohn and some others who worked on the legislation.

HESS: A11 right, fine.

At the end of our last interview we were discussing Mr. Nathan Straus, Administrator of the National Housing Authority, and had mentioned Mr. Leon Keyserling and David Krooth, the general counsel and the assistant general counsel of the National Housing Authority. What can you tell me about those two men?

DIVERS: Well, Leon Keyserling is a lawyer who has


become rather widely known as an economist. He was the general counsel of the United States Housing Authority. He had worked with Senator [Robert F.] Wagner in having the housing legislation passed and subsequently was selected as general counsel by Senator Wagner and Nathan Straus. Keyserling was one of the most able men that I have ever run into, in or out of Government. He had some faculties which I wish I had.

HESS: What were those?

DIVERS: I have seen him dictate a twenty or twenty five minute speech to his secretary, read it over once, and make a few corrections, and then get up, and without a note, deliver it word for word. He had a remarkably photographic memory and once he saw this on paper and had dictated it, he was able to reproduce it word for word,


period for period, paragraph for paragraph. I mean you could see the punctuation when he delivered it and he was a very convincing speaker in addition. I did not agree with his philosophy at times or his approaches, but I have always recognized his ability.

HESS: In what areas did you disagree with him? On what particular program, plans, or perhaps methods of carrying out those plans?

DIVERS: Well, I think that Mr. Keyserling was primarily interested in promoting programs with which he was identified and where he was prominent. I tried at all times to take an overall view and to try to work in any programs on which I was working with other Government programs, and frankly, to consider the interest of the public as being the prime factor in all of the decisions that were made. I think that


too seldom is that position taken in Government that even today we see Government agencies that are pushing their own programs hard with reference to other Government programs or other Government agencies and not putting the interest of the public first in their deliberations.

HESS: Do you feel that there were times that Mr. Keyserling did not put the interest of the public first?

DIVERS: I would say this, that he probably put the interest of the public first as he saw it, and I put the interest of the public first as I saw it, and we didn't see things the same way.

HESS: Can you remember an illustration of a particular program you were both interested in that might show some of the differences that we have been discussing?


DIVERS: Oh, I think I can. I think one example stands out in my mind. This is the question of the amount of subsidy that would be used to reduce rents in the low rent or low income housing which was being produced by the local housing authorities under contract with the United States Housing Authority. The United States Housing Authority was granted, by Congress, a limited amount of dollars and these dollars could be used either to reduce the rent, for example, on a hundred thousand units paying fifteen dollars, or fifty thousand units paying thirty dollars a month, and the more the subsidies were used to reduce rent, the lower the income of the families you could serve. I felt that Congress had given us a directive to serve the lowest income families that we possibly could serve, and at that time there were ample families who met those requirements,


and we were thinking primarily in terms of widowed mothers who had children and who had to work and, at that time, were lucky if they made twenty five dollars a week. We were thinking in terms of families where the principal wage earner might have been injured in an accident and was unemployable either for life or for a period of several years. And I was in favor of using the number of dollars we had to reduce the rent as much as possible and to reach the lowest income families we could reach. Mr. Keyserling and some others in the Authority, who prevailed I might say, felt that by using a limited number of dollars they could spread the program and maybe build twice as many units. I felt it was more important to build half as many units to reach the lowest income families possible and I felt this way for another reason. I felt that by


serving the lowest possible income group, we couldn't possibly have any conflicts with private enterprise. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure, but this decision by Keyserling and his and the people who agreed with him may not have been the beginning of the end of the popularity of the low rent, low income housing program, because . . .

HESS: Who did it become unpopular with first? Homebuilders?

DIVERS: Well, I suspect that it was always unpopular with some homebuilders and FHA was also nibbling at the heels of the low income housing program and trying to demonstrate how they could build housing which was suitable for low income families, but the National Association of Real Estate Boards was one of the principal opponents. I guess the United States Savings and Loan


League was also in that category. I think if the leaders of all these businesses could have been brought together with the Housing Agency in one room, and the press was not present, that they probably could have agreed on a set of objectives which all of them could support.

HESS: Why wasn't that done?

DIVERS: Well, I guess one of the reasons is that it's seldom done in Government.

HESS: Is that a failing of Government in these programs?

DIVERS: I think so. I think so. I think that there's too little cross fertilization between private business and Government, and I'm happy to see that a program is under way now which I read about recently in which three hundred to five hundred Government employees would go


into jobs in private business each year, and three hundred to five hundred private business executives or junior executives would go into Government for periods of eighteen months to two years. I really think that many of our troubles arise out of the lack of effort by Government to draw the business community in, I mean that the whole effort now is being made to draw the community into Government planning and I