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The New International, March 1935


Paul V. McBride

The Housing Question in America

From New International, Vol. II No. 2, March 1935, pp. 51–52.
Trawnscribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


2. How the Problem Is “Solved”

AMERICA has discovered “the housing problem”. For decades its slums, for filth and overcrowding, have been exceeded only by those of the Orient. But now, it seems, the gentlemen in power in Washington are really concerned about those of their fellow citizens who are condemned to live in dirt, depravity and sudden death by fire in our “sub-standard housing areas”, to use the euphemism so much in vogue with housing experts. And the gentlemen in power, curiously enough, outdo each other in picturing the horror and tragedy of slum life. Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, as head of the PWA in whose hands some of the housing funds hitherto have been tightly clutched, sheds administration tears at the thought of slum degradation. Langdon W. Post, chairman of the New York City Housing Authority, to whom housing was in a class with Sanskrit before he recently took office as New York’s tenement house commissioner, stands aghast at New York’s multiple-dwelling firetraps. Mrs. Roosevelt organizes a slumming party of Washington society leaders to focus public attention on the cause of government housing. But “housing” is one thing and houses at low rentals for workers is another. What are the housing facts? Let us see!

Take New York City as a fairly typical example. New York – with its Park and Fifth Avenues, its Sutton Place. In this proud metropolis, in this center of architectural wonder, there are nearly twenty square miles of slum area in which 513,000 families, involving about 1,800,000 persons, live under conditions of squalor which are unequaled even by the notorious London slums. In New York City 49% of all tenement and apartment houses were built in the last century; in Manhattan 75% were built before 1890.

In this housing cesspool hundreds of thousands of workers live without the most elementary sanitary conveniences. Antiquated toilets in the hallways in common use for men, women and children. Breeding places of disease. Incubators of sexual crime. Nearly 2,500 tenement houses with toilet accommodations in the yard. Windowless rooms. Dark, fetid hallways. Unbelievable congestion – in Harlem, the city’s most exploited slum, the beds never grow cold, they are used in three eight-hour shifts. Nearly 2,000,000 inhabitants – representing what the social workers call “our lowest income groups”, that is to say, the most exploited sections of the working class – are compelled to live under these inhuman conditions.

These are the bald facts about New York’s slums, these are unadorned statistics, and are fairly representative of conditions in most large cities. These selfsame slums have existed for years. They have filled the hospitals, prisons and lunatic asylums of the state ever since they came into existence. In the past, philanthropists anointed their consciences by building neighborhood houses and health centers in the slums. Social workers and housing “experts” wrote reports, made surveys and speeches – and still the problem of the slums remained unsolved.

During the boom years the slums paid handsomely, paid as high as 30% profit per annum to the Astors, the Wendels, the Stuyvesants and the banks and mortgage companies who today own more than 65% of all slum property. Filth, degeneracy and tuberculosis stalked through the dilapidated tenements then as now – but as long as the properties paid well, the press was sterile of anti-slum propaganda.

During the past decade, however, some 413,000 inhabitants have migrated from the lower East Side slums. Comparatively high wages earned during the years 1924-1929 enabled thousands of workers to escape the slums, enabled them to move to less congested and less squalid sections. After the debacle of 1929, working-class families, under the heavy blows of the crisis, broke up, doubled up, took makeshift quarters in rooming houses or migrated.

As a result there are 131,757 vacant slum dwellings in greater New York today. Fictitious real estate values based upon the abnormal boom-year rentals succumbed to grim economic reality and deflated precipitously. Hundreds of thousands of workers were forced on to relief. City rent vouchers were so low that they could not even meet the deflated rentals demanded in the slum areas. Second and third mortgages disappeared over night. The slums were no longer so profitable.

In a crisis of this magnitude only the large landed families, the banks and the mortgage companies were able to retain their equities, but as crisis followed crisis the properties soon dropped below the value of the first mortgages. Slum real estate in New York City today is actually worth less than its assessed valuation. For the past two years sales of slum property have been so rare as to be almost phenomenal.

When the banks and the landed families saw their equities hopelessly wiped out, one last course remained for them – government subsidy. Hence the surprising and sudden demands in government circles for slum clearance. As a matter of fact, so eager was the Roosevelt administration to come to the aid of the holders of slum property that when the $4,880,000,000 emergency budget bill was drafted it failed to make mention of government low-rental building and merely called for slum clearance. But the manufacturers of building materials soon set this slight error to rights.

In a rational planned workers’ economy, homes will be built for the very apparent reason that they are needed. But the present housing campaign does not rest on so simple a premise. No, indeed! For nearly six years the profit economy in America has been paralyzed. All efforts to restore the patient have been fruitless. NRA, CWA, FERA, PWA – all to no avail. The more violent the hypodermic, the more spasmodic and grotesque are the response of the victim. With the national elections less than two years off and with more than 20,000,000 Americans on relief, the situation for the Roosevelt administration is truly alarming. Moreover, the capital goods industries are clamoring for help. The New Deal took care of everyone – the banks, the railroads, public utilities, the mine operators and the manufacturers. Only the building trades have languished under the blight. This is soon remedied. The answer, of course, is government housing, part of a vast, last-stand public works program.

But, the President hastens to explain, there will be no fancy wages. Wages, said Mr. Roosevelt, will be a shade above the dole and considerably below prevailing union rates. The workers must not, under any circumstances come to think that public funds are public funds. Carpenters, bricklayers, electricians and all the skilled building crafts will, with the assistance of William Green, receive a “subsistence wage” not to exceed $50 a month.

For the past two years the country has been blanketed by glowing articles, written by housing social workers and enthusiastic but unemployed architects, on the advantages of government low-cost housing. For two years the country has been deluged with statistical surveys and reports all designed to prove that housing is necessary, desirable and logical. Net result: not a house. But the distressed cries of the landlords, the outraged protests of the manufacturers of building materials and the ominous rumblings of the millions of unemployed, impelled the government toward action. Not because workers were living in filthy rookeries. Not because the infantile death rate in the slums was steadily rising. But because more billions must be shovelled in frantic desperation into the wide pit of the crisis.

The National Housing Conference held in Washington in January of this year estimated that at least $20,000,000,000 will be required to wipe out the nation’s slums. Of this amount, $1,500,000,000 would be required for New York City alone. What does the Roosevelt administration offer in the face of this tremendous need? (What, indeed, can it offer?) Of the proposed $4,880,000,000 special appropriation, certainly not more than $1,250,000,000 will be spent throughout the country for housing, of which New York’s share will be, according to the most optimistic forecasts, not more than $150,000,000. Will this abolish the slums? Will this pitiful amount, raised in desperation as a stop-gap against the floodtide of importunate manufacturers and the ebbtide of desperate workers, really provide adequate housing facilities to those in the greatest need? Hardly.

Let us assume that the federal government will advance New York City this $150,000,000 for housing. At the most not more than 120,000 rooms could be constructed at this cost. In short, all that the President’s labors will bring forth are apartments for approximately 30,000 of New York’s 513,000 slum dwelling families.

Slum property in New York City, although it has little or no market at present, will cost as high as $12 per square foot when the landowning families are to be bailed out and slum clearance undertaken. It is quite possible that in some districts property could be assembled for about $3 per square foot. Under these circumstances more than 30% of the total housing appropriation will be spent on land acquisition. With the real estate interests receiving 30% and 50% going toward material, labor will receive a bare.20% thinly spread as subsistence wages.

It is quite possible that while the government’s slum clearance program will in effect be a subsidy to the landed gentry, the local governments will be compelled to guarantee that the funds will be used for self-liquidating projects. Moreover, it is quite possible that the period of amortization will be fifty years and that the rate., of interest will be somewhat near the present federal rate, about 2½%. Allowing for a construction cost of $1,000 per room, 2% amortization, partial tax exemption and an annual service charge of $35 per room, it will be impossible to rent apartments for less than $9 per room per month. At this figure more than 90% of the present slum dwellers will be unaffected by the Roosevelt housing program.

True, the government’s model housing developments will be modern, clean and healthful, but workers on relief or receiving NRA’s minimum wages (which in many cases have become maximum wages) cannot afford to pay one additional dollar for rent ... In Glasgow it was discovered that workers who moved from the slums into model government houses where slightly higher rents prevailed, developed a greater susceptibility to tuberculosis. This puzzled social workers for some time until an astute physician (a Marxist in all likelihood) discovered that the increased rental compelled economies on an already restricted diet.

There can be no doubt that Roosevelt will initiate some measure of government housing, but the actual needs of the most desperate sections of the working class will be ignored. Working class families in the large cities which require four and five rooms at a maximum rental of $18-$20 a month have nothing to expect from this political housing program, which will be a heaven-sent release from the hell of low values for the landed families and the banks. For vast sections of the working class, employed and unemployed, the Roosevelt program means continued life in the old slums and work at forced labor rates.

Who, then, will live in New York’s 30,000 new apartments? Ward-heelers, certain sections of the lower middle class and the smaller categories of the Fusion and Roosevelt bureaucracies. And when this comes to pass, for all popular purposes, the housing problem will have been “solved”.

Despite the vast amount of energy expended in writing about housing in America in the last two years there has been no genuine housing movement. An effective housing movement must, of necessity, be a consumers’ movement and the only “consumer” of low-rental housing is the working class. Today housing is manna which fall, by some strange suspension of the laws of capitalist economy, from the Rooseveltian heavens in Washington. Housing “experts” have always believed that housing would come from above and the news of the $4,880,000,000 appropriation for housing and public works have sent them into positively indecent transports of joy.

The housing problem cannot be solved by capitalism. Neither Mr. Roosevelt, nor Mr. Ickes, nor Mr. Moffett are in the least degree interested in destroying real property values – and, in the last analysis, complete low-rental housing for the working class must lower speculative real estate values.

Housing is not a technical problem; it is an economic problem. Although in the past labor organizations have been remarkably inactive on the question of housing, there are indications that this will not be the case in the future. Workers’ representatives should demand representation on every housing authority in the country, on job committees, on management boards. A labor housing conference should be organized in every large city to give the housing movement the class character which alone will militate against injustice and favoritism. American workers have the right to demand decent housing, not as charity from their bosses or from Washington, but as their inalienable right as the creators of all wealth.

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