The conditions under which people live have a profound influence upon their health, safety and well-being. For their protection it has been found necessary in urban areas to frame comprehensive laws or local ordinances to govern conditions of construction, fire prevention and protection, light and ventilation, sanitation and maintenance of dwellings, both new and old. In the absence of such provisions or where provisions are inadequate, ignorant or selfish builders will erect houses or tenements which will be poorly constructed and depreciate rapidly, and which may even be structurally unsafe, a pronounced fire-risk, and provide inadequately for light and ventilation of rooms and halls, for privacy, convenience and comfort of the tenant.
1 Adapted from "The Enforcement of Housing Legislation," Political Science Quarterly, December, 1927.
Comprehensive housing ordinances have not been passed in American cities, as a rule, until the cities have become fairly large, and adequate legislation was not to be found in any city prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, although quite comprehensive codes were framed in the preceding decades for New York City and several other large municipalities.
The present period of housing legislation dates from the passage of the New York State Tenement House Act of 1901, which applies to cities of the first class - New York City and Buffalo. It was framed chiefly by Mr. Lawrence Veiller, now Secretary and Director of the National Housing Association, and served as a model for housing laws in the rest of the country until the publication by Mr. Veiller of his Model Tenement House Law, and subsequently of his Model Housing Law. The Tenement House Law had covered only such dwellings as were inhabited by three or more families, but the Model Housing Law, first published in 1914 and revised in 1920, covers other types of dwellings as well. Other states, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, have adopted the Model Housing Law with very slight changes. The permissive Tenement House Acts for cities and towns of Massachusetts show its influence, as do also the state housing laws of California and Indiana. The State Tenement House Act of New Jersey is based upon the Tenement House Act of New York. In practically every other state in the country housing conditions are governed chiefly by local ordinance, although there are some provisions in state health or fire-prevention acts which have a bearing on housing. Many local ordinances have followed closely the Model Housing Law - as, for example, those of Berkeley, Syracuse, Cleveland, Columbus, Louisville and Hartford.
Except in the State of New Jersey and in New York City the administration of housing laws or local ordinances is vested in local building and health departments. The sections on structure, fire protection, light and ventilation, in case of new or remodeled buildings are enforced by the building department, while the maintenance of healthful conditions and sometimes the plumbing and sanitation sections are left to the health department. In the State of New Jersey and in New York City special tenement-house departments have been created and charged with the enforcement of the above provisions as far as tenement houses are concerned, leaving the enforcement of similar provisions, insofar as they affect one or two-family houses, to local health and building departments.
The advantages of having a uniform state housing act are very great. For a state legislature is more likely to use the services of experts than smaller cities are; and the provisions of a state act may reach not only the large cities but the smaller ones which would, in the absence of a state law, have no adequate legislation on the subject or no legislation at all. Another advantage lies in the fact that a state law is less easily modified than a local ordinance, and cannot be changed without commanding public attention, thus making it possible for specialists and the "guardians of public welfare" to be heard. Whereas, experience shows that local ordinances may be changed at almost any meeting of the city council without a public hearing. The council may be influenced unduly by arguments of unscrupulous builders who are looking for quick profits and who overlook the interests of the tenants and the general public.
The housing legislation of any given city may include sections of the state housing act supplemented by state fire-prevention or public-safety acts, and possibly, also, as in the case of Wisconsin, the state building code. In addition to the state legislation there may be local building, health, or fire-prevention codes enforced by the building department, health department, and the fire chief or department of public safety.
Enforcement of housing legislation may be inadequate for any of the following reasons:
1. Because the law is not clear or sufficiently comprehensive, or because the provisions for penalties and procedure are inadequate.
2. Because the heads of administrative departments lack the necessary qualifications.
3. Because the appropriations for the enforcing departments are insufficient.
4. Because of the make-up of the Board of Appeals.
5. Because of division of authority.
6. Because of lack of cooperation on the part of the city solicitor and the courts.
To improve the enforcement of housing legislation it is necessary, then, to have an adequate law. The experience of New York City and of the states which have adopted the Veiller Model Housing Law with a minimum of change, such as Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, demonstrates the importance of the adoption of the many provisions of Article 6, the section entitled "Requirements and Remedies." This section requires the owner or architect to submit his plans to the appropriate department to make sure that they conform to the law. He cannot commence to build until he has received a permit of approval based upon conformity to the law. The second requirement is that the building shall not be occupied until a certificate of compliance has been secured from the appropriate department, and the latter is not issued until the dwelling conforms in all respects to the requirements of the act. Occupation of the building is unlawful until such certificate has been secured.
Drastic penalties are necessary if the act is to be properly enforced, for otherwise the unscrupulous builder will find that he can make money through violation of the law even though he will be brought to court and forced to pay small fines. The Model Law, therefore, provides for imprisonment as well as fines, and for a cumulative penalty for each and every day that the violation shall continue. Civil penalties are also provided for. To protect the enforcing department it is further provided that no officer of that department shall be liable for costs in any action or proceeding that may be commenced in pursuance of the act. The tenants may be evicted if they fail to comply with the maintenance provisions of the act. All fines imposed under the act shall be a lien upon the property.
The owner of property is required to file with the enforcing department a notice containing his name and address and a description of the property, and is permitted to file his agent's name if he wishes. The posting on the premises of a copy of a notice of violation of the act and the mailing of a copy on the same day to each person whose name is filed with the department constitutes a sufficient service of notice, thus making it possible to secure quick action with respect to the violation. The enforcing officer is granted power to make periodic inspection of dwellings, and is required under the Model Law to inspect every multiple dwelling at least once a year. Right of entry is authorized.
In the absence of any of the above provisions, enforcement becomes difficult. Permits to build and certificates of compliance are indispensable, but follow-up inspection is also necessary in order to prevent the making over of one and two family houses into tenement houses after the certificate of compliance has been granted. Stop orders have proved to be a useful supplementary provision under the New Jersey State Tenement House Act and in the building department of New York City. The posting of a stop order on the premises stating the law and the penalties will keep contractors and employees from working on the building or covering up a violation of the law until the enforcing department can arrange to have the violation removed. Frequent inspection during the period of construction is necessary, or otherwise many sections of the law will be violated. The provisions for the registering of the owner's name and for service of summons are necessary, for otherwise ownership may be frequently changed and the owner difficult to reach. Where owners live out of town or are sojourning in Europe (reported by New Orleans and Chicago) dangerous violations of the law would continue over an extended period unless the enforcing department were empowered to make the necessary changes itself and charge them against the property.
Even where the law is good, it may be poorly enforced if there is weakness in the administrative department. The enforcing official should be thoroughly versed in the subjects of building materials and of construction, housing and sanitation, but he should also be a man of courage and integrity, convinced of the seriousness of his civic responsibility and sufficiently forceful to command the respect of architects, builders and owners, and the respect and cooperation of his staff.
With an adequate law and a competent administrator, enforcement, at least of some of the provisions of the act, is virtually guaranteed. But obviously in the absence of a sufficient appropriation many provisions of the law will prove unenforcible. A striking example of this is seen in the State of New Jersey where the appropriation has never been sufficient to cover all the features of the law. The first Commissioner, Captain Allen, who was one of the most competent housing officials we have ever had in this country, finding his appropriation insufficient, used it chiefly to make sure that all new construction conformed to the law, arguing that he was thereby preventing the recurrence of serious housing conditions in all new buildings. But by concentrating on the new buildings, he did not have inspectors enough provided on his staff to make possible periodic inspection of old tenement houses and the removal of violations of the law. It was a wise decision under the circumstances, but left the tenants of the older tenement houses uncared for unless they had the courage to file complaints. Local health departments in New Jersey, as in other states, do not make regular inspection of all dwellings but inspect usually only on complaint - this is due chiefly to the fact that they also suffer from insufficient appropriation. So New Jersey's law with regard to the periodic inspection of older properties is still inadequately enforced by either the State Board of Tenement House Supervision or by local health departments.
It is probably safe to say that no American city has an adequate force of housing inspectors. New York City is practically the only one which has ever succeeded in having every tenement house visited at least once a year (and New York stopped doing so ten years ago), though in every city there are many tenement houses and private dwellings which should be visited more frequently. Otherwise rubbish will accumulate which will constitute a serious fire-risk, or defects will occur in plumbing or repair or use of the building, which will menace the health of occupants or neighbors.
In most cities it must be said the training of housing inspectors is poor. They are usually chosen from persons who have taken general civil-service examinations, but have not been given adequate tests of their knowledge of building, housing, or sanitation. In New York City, however, there are special examinations which cannot be taken without special study of the law and of the general principles of housing and sanitation. The textbook by Dr. George M. Price, entitled Tenement-House Inspector, is a well-devised handbook for persons who contemplate such an examination, but it is not widely known or imitated through the country. Other American cities have no satisfactory equivalent for this course of training of inspectors but are seriously in need of some device for special training.
Adequate records are essential for the smooth operation of enforcement departments. It should always be possible to find in one place all records appertaining to a given building. This matter has been covered in Mr. Robert E. Todd's pamphlet on Right Methods in a Housing Bureau, in the chapter on "Essentials of a Housing Investigation" in Veiller's book, Housing Reform, and in Dr. George M. Price's Tenement-House Inspector. Detailed questions on five by eight cards of different colors, so that a new building inspection card, violation card, fire-escape card, and so on, can be readily identified and picked out of the files, facilitate smooth operation. As blueprints are bulky and difficult to file, the New Jersey State Board of Tenement House Supervision photographs the ground-floor plan of a new building on a five by eight card and files that photograph with the other records. Violations of the law are also photographed so that if the case is taken to court, definite and convincing proof of the violation will be at hand. This facilitates quick action by the courts and decision in favor of the enforcing department.
Building departments usually have boards of appeal. Veiller contends that they are unnecessary and undesirable in housing departments and tend to nullify the provisions of housing laws by the exceptions which they almost inevitably make. They are unquestionably necessary in cities like Boston where building lots are of every conceivable shape and size, but less necessary in cities where lots are rectangular and virtually uniform in size. It is perhaps true that the boards are usually made up of builders and architects whose natural leanings will be to make concessions to builders, and that there is insufficient representation of the interests of the sanitarians and general public. On the whole it may be said that the builders are much more likely to make their interests known to the board or the administrative official than the general public is, for the general public usually has no medium through which it can proclaim its needs.....
Another serious difficulty in the enforcement of housing legislation is the division of authority between different departments of the state and city governments. Often the law is obscure, so that it is not quite clear with which authority enforcement of a given section is lodged. Sometimes there is concurrent jurisdiction. In either case, action is difficult. For where department appropriations are inadequate or political influence is strong, neither enforcing official will take the onus and the "buck is passed." This difficulty is perhaps most notably displayed in the provisions concerning the demolition of dangerous buildings. A building gutted by fire can usually be torn down if unsafe, but a building declared unfit for human habitation and vacated by order of the housing or health department is likely to stand for years an eyesore and a menace, used by vagrants or by boys' gangs, and a source of neighborhood contamination. In most cities no department dares to tear it down, and the owner remains indifferent to the "orders" of the department or the clamor of neighbors. Yet public interest demands vigorous and courageous action.
Arrangement for demolition is sometimes made with a contractor who removes the building for the materials which he can salvage out of it. Liens against the property for the cost of demolition are mentioned by several cities. A few others mention collection of costs through taxes. In general, however, it must be stated that enforcement of this section of the law is peculiarly weak or wholly lacking, and that special attention to this problem and the drawing-up of an adequate method of procedure is indicated as necessary. For as our cities grow older, the number of buildings which have outlived their usefulness and are not worth remodeling will . increase. The problem will become very serious in our eastern cities during the coming generation.
The one remaining weakness in enforcement of housing legislation lies largely outside of the enforcing department: Namely, in the lack of cooperation of the courts. City solicitors or attorneys may have no interest in housing or may fail to appreciate its importance, and for these reasons or because of political pressure or the pressure of owners, they may postpone court action for a dangerously long time. Judges may similarly lack interest in or sympathy with the purpose of the law. Yet if the enforcing department fails to win any case, its prestige is seriously affected and violations will be encouraged, and it will be timid about taking cases to court in the future. Unquestionably, the enforcing department is at fault in bringing up a case which has flaws.....
The final essential which should be clear from the preceding discussion is public support for the housing enforcement official and his assistants. It is all up-hill work for a building official or housing official if he is continuously under pressure from builders or owners, and has no support from the community in his attempt to carry out the letter and the spirit of the law. Best enforcement of housing legislation will be secured unquestionably where the enforcing department can feel behind it the pressure of public opinion; but to organize a representative public opinion each city needs a housing association which will have in its membership representatives of each of the local civic agencies which have an interest in problems of housing and home life. Such agencies would include the Chamber of Commerce, civic improvement associations, Parent-Teacher Associations, men's and women's clubs, the local Better Homes in America Committee, the Family Welfare Society, the Visiting Nurses Association, the Council of Social Agencies, the settlements, Building and Loan Associations and perhaps other organizations. A permanent housing association with a salaried executive and staff is the best solution, though not possible in the smaller cities. But a citizens' committee which can make the enforcing official feel their interest and which can call to his attention the progress of housing-law enforcement in other cities and which can always be properly represented at hearings on any matters involving housing will help him to overcome the downward pressure exerted on his efforts by selfish interests, and will make it possible to raise standards of housing and home life until decent, safe, and sanitary housing shall be within the reach of all American citizens.