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The New International, March 1935

 

Henry Stone

The Housing Question in America

From New International, Vol.2 No.2, March 1935, pp.47-50.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

 

1. What the Problem Looks Like

THERE ARE today in the United States approximately 30 million homes housing primarily one family per home, but for the poorer families running into the 2, 3 and even more families per single dwelling unit. Of the total, 13 million do not come up to the standard of minimum decency [1] and should be rebuilt or replaced. In addition, there exists an actual shortage of 5 million dwellings that are needed to accomodate those families with 8 or 10 persons squeezed into 3 room apartments or those staying with the rnother-in-law. The problem of the housing shortage and decent housing is no local problem: the large city as well as the small has its problem; the farm as well as the village. From the Mexican shacks in lower California to the East Side ghetto of New York City the crying need of a “decent” house makes itself felt wherever the poorly-paid city worker or mortgage-burdened hillside farmer continues to exist.

The city slum of course is the most obvious of the non-decent type of home, and should be considered first in any discussion of the problem as it exists today. All other phases, although important in their own right, must naturally give way before the burning need for slum clearance.

What is a slum house? It is something for which a proper description or definition would require the use of all five senses. An investigator may find any type of human misery he desires.

“A 3-room apartment will house 11 people, the baby sleeping in a cheap baby carriage; the husband, the wife, and the next youngest child in a three-quarter bed in a bedroom; 5 older children in another three-quarter bed in a dining-room; and a boarder on a folding cot in a kitchen.”

The bedroom may or may not have windows. The likelihood is that all rooms are dark, and what windows they do have face on narrow alleys. Air will be anything from foul to merely stale. All types and breeds of vermin from the tiny ant to the large cat-sized rat will roam through the building at will; cockroaches and bedbugs will infest not merely the furniture, but the very structure of the building itself. Baths will not exist. Toilets will be shared by from 2 tenants on the floor to an entire house – in which case they will be situated in the yard. Winter most likely brings with it a freezing of the water pipes, leaving entire houses without water for drinking or drainage purposes for days at a time. Of all the modern conveniences such as steam heat, hot water, bath, etc., the only one usually present in the city slum is electricity. In short, a slum house is one that lacks everything that goes to make up “decent living”.
 

New York City: A Record of Slum Growth Not Slum Clearance

One hundred years ago the elders of New York City, overawed at the condition of the then existing slums, ordered “something done about them”. The investigation of the year 1837 was the result. It was a most gratifying investigation indeed; far superior to many that have followed, and then again hardly up to the level of other investigations that were fathered by different horror-stricken gentlemen in other years. For 1837 marked but a beginning, and perhaps not even that, were one interested enough in the historical aspects of the problem to delve further back in the records. Investigation followed investigation with ever-increasing tempo until the year 1930 brought with it a veritable deluge of investigations and committees.

However, houses built in 1837 in New York are still standing today, and considered “home” by many an underpaid worker. More than half the tenements “condemned” by one of the official investigation committees in the year 1885 are still housing human beings. Between 200,000 and 250,000 of the windowless rooms attacked in 1901 (the year of the enactment of the New Tenement House Code) have continued to remain without the benefit of air or sunshine to this very day. At least 23,000 people were living in basements in 1932 – God only knows how this figure has increased statistically during the past two years. All told, there are “living” today in the slums of New York City about one and a half million individuals.

An example of how municipal regulation proceeds in the correction of abuses may be deduced from the report of a single year. Of the 57,233 buildings reported in 1930 for violation of the “new law”, 40,170 were dismissed, 27,063 were “filed”, and 19,441 were pending at the end of the year. Of the 2,926 brought to court 306 were dismissed by the magistrate, 1,976 ended in suspended sentences, and in 298 cases only were fines levied. These violations were of all types, from poor plumbing to lack of proper fire preventives. The result of such a record is obvious: continued unsanitary conditions and fire-trap dwellings. Last year alone 52 persons lost their lives in old law tenement fires.

The inauguration of the “liberal, labor-loving” LaGuardia as mayor of New York City changed conditions not a whit. He has actually cut the appropriations of the tenement house inspection force, leaving the staff very much under-manned. The LaGuardia policy can be summed up in the following quotation from a recent letter of his tenement house commissioner, Langdon W. Post:

“At the present time, therefore, a wholesale enforcement of the letter of the law would put something like one million [other sources estimate one and a half to two million – H.S.] people on the streets with no possible place to live.”

Mr. Post continues in this open letter by describing the actual fire hazard involved in these old law tenements, but admits that the present city administration can do nothing to change this appalling condition.

New York City, although it may lead the country in the size and volume of its slum districts, is by no means the only city in the United States having a slum region. A recent report) comparing slum conditions in this country and in Europe leads one to believe that perhaps even in shoddy housing as well as in most other things our fair nation takes the lead. No American city lacks its “gas-house district”. In Cincinnati, for example, a survey of 5,993 flats in the town’s malodorous “basin” district showed that 70% had outside toilets used by as many as 9 families. There were 80 bathtubs in the whole area. Half the flats had two rooms only and were occupied by 1 to 17 people. Rooms were dark and windowless and a third of the buildings (3, 4 and 5 stories in height) had only one egress.

Chicago’s Hull House district needs no introduction. In 1925, 1,500 homes had 140 tubs among them; a third had yard toilets; and 85% of them had no heat but stove-heat. Philadelphia’s streets go by such names as Noble, Christian, and Beth Eden. In 1929 yard toilets in these districts ran to 90% or over, and stove-heated homes to 95%. Every tenth home in the Beth Eden district had no water whatsoever. Pittsburgh has its “Hill” District and Northside; Columbus its Sausage-Row; and in all of them conditions are merely a duplication of the conditions in any one of them. For the sum total of the American cities there were in 1929 only 3 bathtubs for every 4 apartments, and one need not be a genius to guess what income group secured the greater proportion of these tubs. In 1928, Philadelphia had 10,000 privy houses and St. Louis a like amount. Dr. E.E. Wood, accepted as a reliable and widely recognized authority on housing, writing in 1931 and describing the extreme conditions, had the following to say:

“Most American communities have sections, large or small, inhabited predominantly by Negroes or the foreign-born, where neither city water nor city sewers penetrate. Filthy back-yard privies with overflowing vaults serve from 2 to a dozen families. Water is carried by hand into the house from well or hydrant.”

This is the picture of the large city slum.

But all the above relates to the great American cities, and these have always had their slums. How about Middletown, home of Mr. Babbitt and his native stock American worker? Zanesville, Ohio (population 40,000) shows of the families surveyed that 40% lack bathtubs and only 61% have plumbing systems. Des Moines, Iowa (“city of homes”) found in a recent survey that out of a total of 18,694 dwellings in the city, 5,000 were entirely without sewers or city water; 1,500 had no running water whatsoever. Stuart Chase in an estimate made in 1929 (which more than holds true for 1935) concluded that for Middletown, USA, most of the workers lived in the base-burner and unheated bedroom era; one in four of all the city dwellings lacked running water. An even higher percentage still used the old fashioned back-yard privy; and only two-thirds of the houses had sewer connections. Apparently, capitalism has as little regard for its native-born American worker as for the foreign-born.

As for the company town – crown of American efficiency – a study made by the Department of Labor (in 1920, unfortunately, but would 1935 show much improvement – they still are company towns) paints a dark picture indeed of the generosity of the American paternal capitalist, the welfare type. On the basis of an examination of 423 company towns, housing 160,000 employees, and constituting 47,580 dwellings, it was found that 17% of the homes had bath, toilet, running water, gas and electricity; 39% had gas or electric light only, and 6.4% had running water only. The room density in these “country towns” would begin at two and have the sky as a limit – or the undertaker.
 

The Farm

Figures for the necessary conveniences in the farm house swing wildly from one end of the country to the other. All that the American farm home seems to have over the city slum is the “country air”; and often this may be slightly tainted by the proximity of the back-yard telephone booth or cattle-barn. The 1930 census reported the following for percentage of farms equipped with running water or bath:

 

Running water

Bath rooms

Connecticut

63%

34%

Kentucky

  3%

  2%

No. Dakota

  7%

  3%

So. Carolina

  3%

  2%

In 1926, the Department of Agriculture, in a report of white farm families in n typical states, said in part:

“Almost three-fourths of the homes reporting have none of the modern improvements (indoor toilet, kitchen sink, running water, central heating, etc.).”

No agency, however, has yet succeeded in reducing the Mexican shacks of the Southwest or the huts of the Southern Negro share-croppers to any statistics whatsoever. For most such, it is far easier to indicate a minus and say that the house simply does not exist, except that there are human beings living in it.

These various settings make the grand picture that is called the “American home”, the home of the poor farmer and city worker. This is the dwelling of the two classes who through their toil brought about the ten years of the dizziest expansion these United States have yet seen.

* * * *

How is it possible, one must necessarily ask, that America should be so deficient in decent housing? We recall the huge totals of construction for the years 1927 and 1928 and have been reading for the past three years of the millions and even billions constantly “being appropriated” for housing and public works. It must come as a surprise to learn that there is today a shortage of 5 million homes and a total shortage of decent homes of about 18 million. An analysis of the construction figures since the war as well as a second glance at the huge totals being appropriated today for low-cost housing gives one an inkling as to what has actually been taking place.

Housing, like all enterprises under capitalism, has as its basis – profit. Slum eradication will take place only when it “pays”; thus far, it has attracted no private capital precisely because it does not “pay”. Slum removal and replacement by new modern apartments implies that the slum dweller is able to pay the higher rental of the new apartment. This assumption is false. The slum dweller is not able to pay the higher rent required of him to change over to a decent home, and it is for this reason that slum eradication has not gone forward. New construction of city homes for the past twenty years has barely kept pace with population increase. What spurts did take place during 1923-1927 reached their peak in 1925 and were forced by the laws of capitalist economics to begin to fall off long before the present depression began. Continued reliance on private initiative will merely see a repetition of the results of the era before and during the depression. The solution lies in governmental subsidy. A brief study of the figures points to this as the only way under capitalism.

For the past twenty years, despite the continued discarding of old machinery by industry as a whole and a general replacement of the obsolete methods of production by newer technique, as regards the human home no such general replacement has taken place. New construction, to repeat, has barely exceeded population increase. During the war-years and immediately following, construction of city homes actually fell behind the normal increase of non-farm population. Beginning with 1923, home construction began to spurt forward so that by the end of 1927 (the peak of construction was 1925) there was an excess of about l,250,000 new city homes to tempt the slum dweller. Unable to pay the rentals required for the newer apartments, the poorly paid worker represented no market whatsoever for the new buildings. Construction declined during 1928 and for 1929 was but 50% of the 1925 level. The year 1930 brought with it the crisis, and the bottom dropped from beneath home construction, completely wiping out the excess of home unit construction over population increase that existed in 1929. The record for the years in question ( Bureau of Labor) shows what has taken place. The figures indicate new dwellings in 287 identical cities:

1925

491,222

 

1930

125,322

1926

462,214

1931

  98,178

1927

406,095

1932

  27,381

1928

388,678

1933

  25,879

1929

244,394

1934
(estimate)

  24,000

Construction of new dwellings during the past three years (years of the Roosevelt ballyhoo) has been averaging about 5% of the 1925 peak, and during all these years. Sir Stork has been adding to our city population almost 1 million per year. The year 1933 and 1934 during which the papers were full of PWA, FHA, HOLC [2], and the thousand and one schemes of federal, state and city slum removal “projects” witnessed an actual decline from 1932. In New York City alone, there were 34,000 units built in 1928 as compared with 4.000 in 1933.

* * * *

It is with the above as a background that one can begin to understand why the federal survey conducted in the spring and summer of 1934 concluded that there existed an actual shortage of 5 million dwelling units. Dr. E.E. Evans in his Recent Trends in American Housing, published in 1931, asserted that “less than half the homes in America measure up to minimum standards of health and decency”. The real property inventory of 1934 conducted by the Bureau of Census divulged conditions concerning urban housing in the United States. The report, based on a total of 2,633,135 dwelling units in 64 representative cities, showed that nearly 50% of the family dwelling units were over 20 years old; that about 7.8% were vacant (no statistics to show in what class of dwelling these vacancies occur), and that 17.1% of the occupied units were crowded. About 44% of the structures were in need of minor repairs, 16% in need of major repairs, and 2% were listed as unfit for use. (It must be remembered that the Bureau report did not concern itself with decent housing which is after all the real problem.) What this country needs today is a housing program that will create half as many new decent homes as are standing today.
 

Government Construction

What has the government actually done during the recent campaign of slum removal, besides making newspaper copy? The year 1934 shows actual home construction less than that of 1933 and only 5% of the 1927 figure. The Roosevelt talk of millions and billions for “better homes for the people of the nation” has brought forth not even a mouse.

The federal government, in tackling the problem of home construction, has proceeded on at least 14 different fronts: HOLC, PWA, FHA, FERA and a few more of the alphabet agencies were created. Some of these agencies had as a specific task aid to the mortgage-holding property owner; others had as their task aid for the banks holding unredeemable mortgages. The PWA and the FHA had as their specific aim the stimulation of construction. The task of James A. Moffett, head of the FHA, was to induce private capital to invest its funds in new construction and rehabilitation. Where such efforts proved successful the government would take over the responsibility of guaranteeing the mortgages involved. The PWA, at whose head stands Harold J. Ickes, although at first its functions overlapped those of the FHA, has today gone in for complete federal financing and the construction of new homes. None of the schemes, however, has succeeded so much in making a ripple on the American scene, as could be deduced from nothing more than the acknowledgement of the fact that 1934 saw fewer homes built than 1933 and 1933 less than 1932.

But in the creation of these various agencies hangs a tale: the tale of the recent slug-fest between Ickes on the one hand (for the poor man!) and Moffett on the other (for the banker) – Roosevelt, referee.

In June 1934, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a radio broadcast, said:

“We seek the security of the men, women and children of the nation. That security involves added means of providing better homes for the people of the nation. That is the first principle of our future program.”

The entire nation applauded. Better homes? – why, certainly!

The problem arose, however, as to who should build these homes – private industry or the government.

Donald R. Richberg said last November: “The building of these homes ought to be done by private enterprise.” Ickes, in a report issued in the latter part of November, although not specifically replying to the above quotation, took exception to it. In condemning the practise of relying upon private capital he said, in part:

“Our much-vaunted private initiative as so often happens when the goal is a social good instead of a private profit, was unable or unwilling to undertake much that was worth while. With the failure of private enterprise to provide low-cost housing even with government aid [85% of the funds were to be advanced by the PWA in the form of a loan – H.S.] the Housing Division decided it would have to do its own constructing and operating.”

About this time, Mr. James A. Moffet, who left a $100,000 Standard Oil job to join the Roosevelt plan of becoming the head of the FHA, told reporters in a press interview that he was pleased with his agency’s progress. He suggested that Mr. Ickes’ funds might not be needed for housing because private capital was beginning to flow into the real estate mortgage field under the spur of his agency’s guarantee.

The following day Ickes held a press conference.

“I’ve seen no evidence that the holders of private capital are ready to use it,” he said, “and we can’t sit around all day waiting for private capital to get going.” (This is speedy Ickes speaking.) “I subscribe to the theory that a very large amount of public money should be put out so that industry may be pepped up in a hurry.”

Mr. Moffett was thereupon put into a fighting mood. He told reporters that such a low-cost housing program as proposed by Mr. Ickes “would wreck the housing situation and drive private capital into hiding”.

“The minute the government sells houses directly to the people generally,” he continued, “you compete with private enterprise and it couldn’t be done.”

The following day a three-way telephone conversation was held between the two lieutenants and their chief, Roosevelt, who at the time was basking in the Georgia sunshine. The tiff was apparently patched up and an official White House communiqué declared that everybody was in “substantial accord”.

The controversy as to who should supply the funds for construction apparently has led to this result: neither private capital nor public funds have been forthcoming. The whole squabble seems to have taken place in a vacuum.

The Federal Housing Administration has thus far advanced for loans for repairs the grand total of 30 million dollars. The sum is so insignificant that James A. Moffet, in drawing his balance sheet at the end of the year, passes over this sum very hastily, but then points with pride to the million and some odd pieces of literature thus far distributed. “Wait until the end of 1935,” he concluded, “even a billion won’t be too small.”

In the PWA, however, under the supervision of H.L. Ickes, the money flows – drop by drop, it is true, – but it sounds big to the uninitiated. The PWA housing phase is divided into two major categories, the limited dividend-private capital-government loan type, and the second to be completely financed by government funds.

The Federal Housing Division of the PWA was set up July 20, 1934. After 18 months Chief Ickes took inventory of the progress and hailed his work “as concrete evidence of the social changes being wrought by the Roosevelt administration”. He declared that “low-cost housing projects are now going forward in a large number of cities”. The cities may be large but the number or the size of the projects could hardly be considered so – nor are they low-cost.

As of January 4, seven limited dividend corporations had been organized, $12,433,000 allocated for their financing and $4,240,000 actually spent. Of these government-aided private enterprises, 2 were complete. One, an apartment house in Philadelphia, provides 284 living units renting for an average of $10.51 per room per month. (Slum rentals average about $5 or $6 per room.) The Cleveland project plans $10 per room and 6 room apartments, or $60 per month rent. The two New York City projects will average $11 per room. None of the projects is in what might be termed a strictly slum area; as a matter of fact, they are far removed from the slum section. The two New York City projects are to be located in the upper Bronx, near Westchester (Hillside Housing Corporation) and in the great open spaces of Queens (Boulevard Gardens Corporation). This can hardly be called slum removal.

The Housing Division’s own construction was proceeding or planned through 49 federal projects involving 38,125 living units and $149,756,000 in allocations, actual or tentative. Thus far, 13 have been approved and are in various stages of actual progress. Commanding $79,807,000 in allocations, and providing 18,705 living units, they will rise in New York (5,000 living units); Chicago (6,900); Atlanta (1,283); Cleveland (660); Indianapolis (1,022); Cincinnati (1,960); Detroit (1,236); Montgomery, Ala. (162); and Louisville (460). Actual expenditures on them as of January 4 totaled $2,064,984. Of the remaining 36 projects, some they hope to build, others they are merely thinking about building and the remaining few they have not even begun to think about – but eventually they will all be complete.

The subsistence homestead, which one commentator properly termed “an industrial peasant” scheme, although it has contained within itself the very vicious idea of using the worker only when industry needs him and then making the unemployed worker dig for his food, can hardly become a problem today. We are too far advanced in the 2oth century, and unfortunately capitalism still exists, By December 22, 1934, the FSHC had allocated $18,920,000 to 62 projects. These will provide 6,612 dwellings. Seventeen of the 62 projects were under actual construction as of that date (1,064 dwellings).

Except for a few scatterings here and there under some of the more obscure letters of the alphabet, this is the sum total of federal home construction over 18 months. About 48,000 dwelling units have been planned, 20,000 of which are in actual construction and 500 of which have been completed. In 1925, total residential construction was three and a half billion dollars, providing approximately 772,000 dwelling units.

One would hardly call this slum clearance. One official of a federal slum clearance agency, approached and questioned by the editors of New Outlook, replied:

“No slums will be cleared. Not a slum. We cannot afford to clear slums. Even the government cannot do that. We will clean up some near-slums. It’ll be a hell of a mess, but we cannot avoid it. We made our brags and now we must stick to them.”

The gentlemen, indeed, spoke forcibly, frankly, and tragically for the underpaid city worker.

The need has not changed a whit. There is still a shortage of 5 million dwelling units, 13 million homes still have to be rebuilt or replaced.

Why cannot the present approach of the federal government bring any results? First, because it is geared at an entirely too slow tempo. Where millions are needed, they speak of hundreds and even dozens. Secondly, it is the approach of a pawnbroker to his client, except that here the client has nothing more to offer. He has been stripped bare.

The government approach is one that must result in rentals that the slum dweller can never think of paying. The limited dividend rentals of ten and eleven dollars per room per month are twice what the slum dweller is accustomed to paying. In the early stages of the completely federal-financed projects the talk was of five and six dollars per room. Today this has risen to seven and eight dollars, and before completion will probably be still higher. Thus far, the new construction has taken place not in the slum regions, but mostly on very low value land. Should attempts be made to tackle the slums in the heart of the city, the land values will represent an obstacle over which no five and six dollar rental will be able to hurdle, provided the present method of financing is continued.

The Ickes method of financing is one of self-liquidating projects. This means when translated into simple language, that the worker will have to pay not merely for the upkeep, but for the actual construction and land purchase as well. (Including interest on the original sum advanced). Harold L. Ickes, in defending his position last November, defined his policy as follows:

“Housing under the administration’s program is designed to be self-liquidating. The money used in financing this lowcost housing will be returned to the treasury through the collection of rents. The United States Congress has not authorized an era of Vienna housing, capital costs of which would be paid by the taxpayer, leaving rents to be based on operation and maintenance alone.”

It is precisely the latter type of financing that will bring about real slum clearance and it is this latter type that the working class must demand. The federal government has subsidized everything from railroads to airplanes. Today should begin the era of government subsidy for home building: initial cost of construction to be taken care of by the Federal government; rents to, be based on operation and maintenance. This is the only sensible and logical conclusion and only thus will we truly begin to approach slum removal on a large scale.

One should not preclude the possibility of such a program taking form and shape under capitalism. It is true that it will be no easy task to force such a plan upon the capitalist class. The workers will have arrayed against them a solid front of real estate owner, banker and government. But no obstacle is too great for a determined working class.

Can such a program be undertaken by American industry? The answer is that not only can this be done, but that, a properly executed program would take care of many of the nation’s unemployed. Construction has constituted a drag on every upturn that has begun to show its head during the past few years. Consider that construction used to average about 7 billion dollars yearly and has lately been running well below 1½ billion; that in 1925 a total of three and a third billion dollars was spent for residential construction alone; that in 1928 about 772,000 homes were built; that normally the building trades industry employs 2,500,000 workers.

A quick program will return to their jobs building trades workers now unemployed as well as many millions more who would find their jobs again in the allied and the stimulated industries.

 

Footnotes

1. Dr. E.E. Evans gives the following modest enough definition of the indefinite term “decent housing”: a home with a private toilet, running water, electricity, one room per person, fresh air, sunlight, dry walls. Bath, central heating, modern kitchen are not included in his minima.

2. PWA is Public Works Administration, FHA is Federal Housing Administration, HOLC is Home Owners Loan Corporation.

 
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