History of Army Family Housing

Family receives the keys to their new Wherry-Capehart home

The Army has a long history of providing housing for military personnel. Because of the hierarchical nature of the military, Army housing needed to accommodate personnel of several different ranks. During the early part of the 19th Century, officers were either unmarried or lived on post without their families, the latter owing to the bleak living conditions on post. At this time, the post commander was typically the only officer with the luxury of a house. Although the Army "tolerated NCO marriages before 1940 they discouraged marriage and even prohibited enlisted men from marrying until WWII."1  By the mid-20th Century, the Army initiated a family housing program for non-commissioned officers' (NCO). This housing was located away from the officers' housing area and the parade ground and was generally designed as a less ornate version of the style of architecture used on post.

United States military family housing can be divided into four major development periods:

  • Inter-War, 1919-1939,  
  • Wherry and Capehart housing, 1950s,  
  • Section 801 and 802 programs, 1980s, and
  • Privatization, 1996 to present.

Inter-War Period

400 Area, exterior

The Inter-War period spans from the end of World War I, November 1918, to the beginning of World War II, September 1939. Permanent construction, which had stopped during World War I, was resuming by the late 1920s, a development which led to the construction of more family housing on military installations than ever before. However, this construction boom experienced a very slow and shaky start.

Initially only a limited number of housing units were built and those constructed came under severe criticism. The living conditions on most installations were deemed unsafe, and in 1926 Congress took action. Public Law 25 was passed allowing the Secretary of War to construct

Gerber Village single-family home, interior view of
living room

new installations, including housing, using the profits from the sale of decommissioned posts. Before construction began, the Army questioned officers' wives to determine if they preferred individual houses or apartments with a central mess. The wives unanimously chose single-family homes. The construction of family housing areas soon began to resemble little villages with the individual houses arranged in neighborhoods around curving streets and parks.

Between 1927 and 1929, the Construction Service division of the Quartermaster Department constructed housing for approximately 181 NCOs' families and 238 commissioned officers' families. 2 & 3  By 1931, the construction program had provided permanent housing for 19,800 enlisted men, 304 NCOs' families, and 292 commissioned officers' families. The Work Relief and Public Works Appropriations Act of 1938 allocated more than $13 million in Work Progress Administration and $52 million in Public Works Administration funds for the construction of Army housing. This money was spent at 64 installations for a total of 1,091 quarters, completed by January 1940. 4

Gerber Village duplex,
elevation drawing

Both the NCO and officer housing constructed at this time used standardized plans. Although there were a variety of standardized plans available for officer housing, the most common house type was a two-story, single-family home. Meanwhile, NCO family housing developed into neighborhoods with buildings similar to the civilian suburban cottages and bungalows constructed during the same time period.

The construction of permanent housing came to an end by the 1940s in preparation for wartime mobilization associated with World War II.

Under the provisions of the Lanham Act of 1940, the Army acquired a number of housing units during the Second World War from the Federal Public Housing Administration (FPHA). The units provided temporary housing for war workers and service members. By the end of the war,

Civilian Defense

FPHA had constructed over 700,000 housing units, primarily near defense industries. Constructed quickly and economically, these housing units were designed to provide basic shelter, nothing more; even the most standard building codes were waived for their construction.

At the end of World War II in 1945, an estimated 15 million service personnel returned home to the United States, a country already experiencing a housing shortage. The military needed to maintain a large peacetime fighting force due to the build-up of nuclear weapons after the war, this created peacetime Army during the late 1940s which was seven times larger than it had been in the 1930s. Adding to the need for housing, the Army started to provide family housing for enlisted men, something which had not been done prior to World War II.


In cases where government housing was not available, eligible officers and soldiers received a basic allowance for quarters (referred to as BAQ). Military personnel were able to use the allowance for housing in the private market.

Preferring to quarter its personnel on its installations, the Army made family housing a priority. In 1948, the Army established the goal "to provide quarters on post for all authorized military personnel." 5  That same year Congress passed Public Law 626, implementing three significant policy changes:

  1. Cost limitations were repealed, and size limitations were implemented. 6
  2. Family housing was made available for enlisted men. This was considered an incentive for men to remain in the Army after their enlistment period ended.
  3. The $5,000 spending limit was repealed. The limit had been placed on the construction of buildings or installations without approval of the Secretary of War.

The law also required that family housing meet certain space requirements: 1,080 sq. ft. for enlisted men; 1,250 square feet for warrant officers, flight officers, and commissioned officers of or below the rank of captain; 1,400 sq. ft. for majors and lieutenant colonels; 1,670 sq. ft. for colonels and 2,100 sq. ft. for general officers. Additionally, the law included provisions for the construction of "multi-type" family housing, consisting of units for eight families, or "apartment-type" housing, with six families to a unit. 7

Wherry-Capehart Housing: The Cold War

Kenneth Spicer Wherry
(R–Nebraska), U.S. Senate, 1942-1951

Homer Earl Capehart
(R–Indiana), U.S. Senate, 1945-1963

During the late 1940s, Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska introduced a bill to add Title VIII to the National Housing Act of 1934. Under the Wherry plan, developers leased land from the Army and obtained low-interest loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in order to construct, own, and maintain the residences. Although this housing was built on government land, Wherry housing was not considered government quarters. The bill specified that rent priorities would be given to military families and personnel could use their BAQ money to rent these quarters. Therefore, the cost of Wherry housing needed to be kept low to ensure that rent would not exceed the military housing allowances. President Harry Truman signed the bill into law Aug. 8, 1949. Although many people did not consider this the complete solution to the housing shortage problem, preferring housing to be built with military construction funds, for the next six years the Wherry plan was considered the best available option.

In the spring of 1954, scandal rocked the FPHA. A congressional investigation of corruption proved that Wherry projects were not immune to fraud. The program died a slow death, with few new Wherry projects initiated after Aug. 2, 1954. Several months later, in the spring of 1955, the Senate Banking and Currency Committee began hearings on legislation to replace the Wherry program. This new legislation was sponsored by U.S. Senator Homer E. Capehart of Indiana, and the bill was signed by President Eisenhower on Aug. 11, 1955. Unlike the Wherry project, Capehart projects came under military control as soon as they were completed, so military personnel forfeited their housing allowance. The military then used this money to pay off the Capehart mortgages. Capehart housing was built to larger specifications than the Wherry projects and consisted of more single-family and duplex-style homes than its predecessor. Conflict was associated with the program from the beginning, however, when Wherry owners lobbied against the construction of Capehart housing knowing that people would stay away from their smaller and sometimes more expensive units, ultimately fearing that the Capehart units would fill up, leaving the Wherry units with high vacancy rates.


Fairfax Village, elevation

In response to these and other concerns, the Housing Act of 1956 included a provision that any installations planning to construct Capehart housing had to first purchase the existing Wherry projects from the private developer at a formula price below the fair market value. By the summer of 1959, the Department of Defense had purchased 70 percent of the almost 84,000 Wherry units. During the early 1960s, the Defense Department had also obtained some 115,000 Capehart housing units, including 63,000 units obtained by the Army. Scandal and disapproval associated with Capehart projects led Congress to no longer extend the program, and in 1962 it voted to build family housing exclusively with appropriated funds.


Section 801 and 802 Programs: The Reagan Years

The 1960s would see family housing on the decline. Once again funding was at a minimum with the onset of war in Southeast Asia. In an effort to try and make military service more attractive, since it was now a volunteer force, a brief surge of family housing construction occurred in the mid 1970s. However, by the late 1970s the funding was again reduced. By the 1980s, family housing was once again a high priority for the Defense Department.

Woodlawn Village, elevation

In 1983, the Reagan administration proposed a new housing program, the "Housing Assurance Program," to encourage private developers to build new rental housing units near installations, not on government land. These units, unlike the Wherry-Capehart developments, would not be purchased by the Defense Department, but rather remain in the private sector.

On Oct. 11, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the Military Construction Authorization Act, legislation that established Section 801 and 802. These projects could not be built at any installation without showing that there was a family housing deficit on post. The installation could also receive authorization for construction if it was able to provide documentation indicating family housing within the community had been at least 97 percent occupied for 18 consecutive months. Initially set up as pilot programs, Section 801 and 802 were continually renewed until 1991, when they became permanent.

Section 801 housing was well under way by the end of 1986. Like the Wherry-Capehart projects, it experienced some difficulties. Maintenance became a problem, so much in fact that by the spring of 1987 the Defense Department announced that it would operate and maintain the projects in the future. By 1987, Section 801 housing left a sour taste, with some members of Congress noting that it was "overpriced, it was suspiciously popular with the Defense Department, and after 20 years of payments, the government got nothing." 8

Woodlawn Village, elevation

Although Section 801 build-to-lease projects encountered many problems in the early years, it did manage to build much-needed military family housing, while Section 802 did not. Section 801 housing had been based on the government's cost to build and operate, while Section 802 was based on the service members' ability to pay. Since ceiling costs were low and most rents were frozen for the life of the agreement, Section 802 projects did not entice contractors and those who did get awarded contracts had a difficult time finding financing.

By 1993, the Army had over 4,000 built-to-lease housing units. Neither Section 801 nor 802 lived up to the expectations put on the programs. Because of budget problems in the 1990s, neither Section 801 or Section 802 projects were being built.

With all the projects of the 1950s, the 1980s, and early 1990s, the housing cost more than many service members could afford if the housing had been on the private market. The government had the burden of operating and maintaining houses owned by developers.


Privatization: Post Cold War

By 1996, the Army was once again looking for a new way to provide and update family housing. Congress passed the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI) on Feb. 10, 1996, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authored a program called the Residential Communities Initiative (RCI) to privatize Army family housing.

Town Center

The MHPI was designed and developed to attract private sector financing, expertise and innovation to provide necessary housing faster and more efficiently than traditional Military Construction processes would allow. The Office of the Secretary of Defense has delegated to the Military Services the MHPI and they are authorized to enter into agreements with private developers selected in a competitive process to own, maintain and operate family housing via a fifty-year lease. Military Service members receive a Basic Allowance where they can choose to live in private sector housing, or privatized housing. 9

By October 2005, the Department of Defense had completed 53 transactions for privatization projects totaling over 111,000 family housing units. 10

The demand for military family housing is a reflection of the changes within the military. The occurrence of military conflicts has dramatically affected troop levels and, thereby, the necessity for family housing. Additionally, the competition for military resources has impacted the financing and development of housing. Buildings composing the residential developments of places such as Fort Belvoir are valuable pieces of history.

1 R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates, Inc. National Historic Context for Department of Defense Installations, 1790-1940. (Baltimore, Md.: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, 1995), 92.
2 Muriel Zimm Ray. The Well Planned Post. (Masters Thesis, Washington, DC: George Washington University, 1994), 30.
3 Funding limitations in 1928 were set at $12,500 for Company Officers' quarters, $14,500 for Field Officers, and $5,000 to $7,000 for non-commissioned officers.
Kathryn M. Kuranda et al. Housing an Army: The Wherry and Capehart Era Solutions to the Postwar Family Housing Shortage (1949-1962), by R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates, Inc. (Frederick, Md: US Army Environmental Center, 2003), 3-18.
4 Ibid.
5 Dr. William C. Baldwin. Four Housing Privatization Programs: A History of the Wherry, Capehart, Section 801, and Section 802 Family Housing Programs in the Army. (Alexandria, Va.: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Office of History, October 1996).
6 Kuranda et al., Housing an Army, 3-21.
7 Ibid.
8 Baldwin, Four Housing Privatization Programs.
9 http://www.acq.osd.mil/housing/mhpi.htm accessed numerous times, August to November 2006.
10 http://www.acq.osd.mil/housing/ accessed November 2006.

National patterns in post construction: Brian Lione
Evolution of family housing: Derek Manning
History of housing after WWII to today:
William C. Baldwin

Fort Belvoir Residential Communities LLC • administrator@fortbelvoirhousinghistory.com