The determination of how best to accomplish housing reform depends a good deal upon one's conception of what the housing problem is; before there can be an adequate discussion of the remedy there must be agreement as to the disease. In other words, we must know what we are going to reform before we attempt to reform it.
There is great variety of opinion on this subject, especially among those to whom it is a new subject. Some people seem to believe that the housing problem is essentially the problem of cheap houses; as they have expressed it, ... .
Another group, with their eyes fixed upon the more crowded quarters of some of the larger cities where the problem of moving back and forth the vast throngs who journey from one part of the city to another twice a day is fraught with great difficulties, conceive that the housing problem is the problem of rapid transit, and that if cheap and effective rapid transit could be once provided the housing problem would be solved. This is not a new view.
Still another element believe that the housing problem is the problem of supplying a sufficient quantity of housing accommodations and that anything which tends to encourage the building of more houses will solve the housing problem, the assumption being that people live under bad conditions simply because there are not enough houses to go around.
There is truth in all these views. Each one is a factor involved in the housing problem, but no one of them can be truthfully said to constitute that problem.
The housing problem is the problem of enabling the great mass of the people who want to live in decent surroundings and bring up their children under proper conditions to have such opportunities. It is also to a very large extent the problem of preventing other people who either do not care for decent conditions or are unable to achieve them from maintaining conditions which are a menace to their neighbors, to the community and to civilization.
1 Adapted from A Model Housing Law (Russell Sage Foundation, 1920), pp. 3-7.
If we accept this view of what constitutes the housing problem we see that it has many sides; that it is not only an economic problem, not only a question of supply and demand and of furnishing a sufficient quantity of homes, but that the kind of home is of vital importance. The assumption that thousands of people live under conditions such as are found in our large cities throughout America because there are no other places in which they can live is not borne out by the facts. There is no use in dodging the question. We may as well frankly admit that there is a considerable portion of our population who will live in any kind of abode that they can get irrespective of how unhygienic it may be.
Housing reform is to be sought in many ways, but chiefly through the enforcement of wise laws; laws which will regulate the kind of houses that may be built, will compel the improvement of the older buildings as they fall into disuse, and will require all buildings in which human beings live to be kept in a sanitary and safe condition.
But legislation is not the only way. Much must be done through education - education of both tenant and landlord, and even of the community itself. The force of example some think will do much, but thus far that expectation has not been realized.
Considerable also can be accomplished by wise management; by the building of houses of a more attractive type; by encouraging the development of Garden Cities; by stimulating those who like country life to live in the country or in the suburbs; by improved transit, thus making it easier for men to live out of town and journey to their work; and especially by the intelligent planning of towns and cities. .
But what makes any of us take up housing reform is not primarily the desire to see any of these things brought about, but the insistent demand made by our consciences for the abolition of the slum.
We all of us believe that the conditions under which thousands of our fellow citizens live are wrong and a mockery on civilization, and to many of us the continuance of such conditions seems fraught with menace to our institutions. That the people themselves often have created the very conditions from which they suffer does not alter the situation. The conditions are there and must be dealt with. The one thing that we are all agreed upon is that we cannot afford to neglect them.
The housing problem is therefore essentially the problem of preventing people from maintaining conditions which are a menace to their neighbors or to the community.
Housing evils as we know them to-day are to be found in dangerous and disease-breeding privy vaults, in lack of water supply, in dark rooms, in filthy and foul alleys, in damp cellars, in basement living rooms, in conditions of filth, in inadequate methods of disposal of waste, in fly-borne disease, in cramped and crowded quarters, in promiscuity, in lack of privacy, in buildings of undue height, in inadequate fire protection, in the crowding of buildings too close to each other, in the too intensive use of land.
How are these manifold evils to be remedied? Legislation thus far has proved to be the most effective remedy. The only way that we know of by which such conditions can be ended is through the enactment of laws which will compel the removal of these evils and the substitution of right conditions. This is not theory but the result of the experience of many cities.
Legislation alone, of course, will not do it. Laws must be enforced. Merely getting a housing law on the statute books will not change conditions. Unfortunately, laws do not execute themselves and no law will do much unless an adequate system of enforcement is also provided.
True, it is a painful operation. It takes time and energy and above all tilings patience. It means constant effort. It means attention to innumerable details. It often means foregoing immediate results to secure larger future returns.
Housing is a commodity like food or clothes, and the methods to be employed in securing the right kind of housing for the people of any community differ in no essential respect from the methods to be followed in providing the right kind of food or clothing for that community. In a city where the children of the poor were dying of typhoid because of impure milk, we should, I think, feel that it was trifling with a serious situation if it were urged that nothing could be done through legislation, but that the only way to insure a better milk supply was to encourage the people to move to the country where they could have their own cows and thus insure the right kind of milk for their children.
The question which every housing reformer must face is: What method will give the largest results with the least expenditure of energy and effort? It is largely a question of emphasis. The method which will return 90 per cent of results and not 10 per cent is obviously the method to follow. No one thing will in itself solve the housing problem in any community. Housing evils are of so manifold a nature and have so many manifestations that it is, of course, apparent that many things must be done before right conditions can be achieved. There is no method of housing reform which the housing reformer should not adopt provided it will produce results. It must always be submitted to this practical test. In some cases all methods are to be employed, not merely one.
That legislation alone will solve the housing problem is of course absurd. But the point that we wish to lay emphasis upon is that in most cases the largest results have come from legislative action and that until certain fundamental evils have been remedied it is futile, or worse, to adopt the methods of housing reform which may be said to belong to the post-graduate period rather than to the kindergarten stage of a community's development. In other words, we must get rid of our slums before we establish garden cities; we must stop people living in cellars before we concern ourselves with changes in methods of taxation; we must make it impossible for builders to build dark rooms in new houses before we urge the government to subsidize building; we must abolish privy vaults before we build model tenements. When these things have been done there is no question that effort can be profitably expended in the other directions mentioned.