The United States has been rich enough to house its people fairly well. It has not been intelligent enough to devise appropriate housing codes, and zoning only started in 1916. There is a theory in the minds of some that public money should be used to erect houses for the poorest people. Never in the history of cities in the United States has it been common for the poorest people to live in new houses. It is very hard to see why they should. Because we have permitted the erection of poorly-planned houses and poorly-constructed houses, our old houses have been unfit to live in; but according to the standards of to-day they never were fit to live in. We know now that it costs less per room to construct a well-planned multi-family house than it does to construct a badly-planned multi-family house, The badly-planned house that is unsafe in case of fire, that has inadequate light and air, never is a good house. If the multi-family house is planned so that every room has adequate windows opening on adequate open spaces, if the sanitary conveniences are adequate and the house is properly constructed so that it shall be safe, that house may be a good home for a hundred years.
We only made a beginning in 1916 in the city of New York, and in the United States generally, to zone our streets so as to avoid the intrusion into residential areas of buildings the use of which destroys the value for residential purposes of the houses already there. We have made a beginning. We have safeguarded residential areas so that they should continue to be satisfactory places for residences for a long time to come; in any event for a longer time than if they were without this protection. With the wealth we have, we should be able to have an annual crop of new buildings sufficient to take care of the increase in population and, in addition, to furnish space enough to permit the destruction of a large number every year of the houses which for one reason or another are not reasonably fit for habitation.
Through governmental means we can bring about the more rapid destruction of unfit houses, but it seems highly probable under the conditions of this country that, if we use public money to erect new ones, we shall discourage the use of a still larger sum of money by private builders and so will not hasten the day when any community will be housed as we would like to see it housed. Short-cuts are attractive, but often they are the longest way around.
So far as we have a very poor class in our cities, it seems probable that in the future they will be housed as they have been in the past. I do not mean that they will be housed in such poor buildings but they will occupy generally the oldest and poorest buildings. In the borough of Manhattan, city of New York, the standard of housing for very poor people is shown by the character of the dwellings of the families under the care of the Charity Organization Society, of whom there have been usually from 3,000 to 5,000 each year. The normal apartment occupied by these families in 1920 consisted of three rooms and the rent was $14 a month. The housing shortage had not at that time operated to increase rents by very much. After that date rents rose very rapidly until in 1926 for the same apartments the average rent was $23.96 a month. The tendency to-day is in the other direction, but is not much shown yet by a decline in rentals.
In a housing shortage we first find a deficiency of apartments vacant, and apartments in very bad houses occupied at rents about equal to the rent of the poorest apartments previously occupied. When the housing shortage became intense and all the apartments were occupied, rents rose.....It is obvious that rents will soon go down. With declining rents and numerous vacancies, the time is not distant when the poorest houses will be torn down. Each year on the average we build enough houses to take care of the increase of population and of all the persons who are removed from houses that are destroyed. The tendency is for a gradual move from the bottom toward the top. The more prosperous persons move into the new houses, the next grade takes the place of those who have moved, .... Our task is to see that enough houses are built for the more prosperous persons, that they are so well built and so well planned that no matter how old they may be they will always be satisfactory dwellings.