.... There are persons who are unable to pay an economic rent for healthful housing accommodations. In every state of society at all times there is a group of persons who cannot pay for such accommodation any more than they can pay for ample supplies of good food and clothing.....
Their problem is not really a housing problem but one in which processes of social readjustment and charity have to be employed to make up the difference between earnings and cost of actual subsistence. It is equally wrong to describe the plight of this class, in regard to their inability to pay for decent homes, as a housing problem, as it is to call their lack of other necessities a food or clothing problem. In the presence of superabundance of food many have to go without a sufficiency for health. With more than enough healthful shelter awaiting tenants, many have to live in unhealthful quarters. In times of plenty in housing accommodation there is little lessening of slum evils and overcrowding as compared with times of scarcity. To the extent that better housing accommodation for those who suffer from poverty needs to be provided by public aid, it should be regarded as a charity, for the same reasons that giving food or clothing is a charity. One of the great mistakes in the past has been in regarding this charitable work in housing as distinct from other forms of charity. The confusion which occurs in discussing remedies for housing and the desirability or otherwise of applying public aid is largely due to this mistake. No one can object to giving charity in the form of shelter, as of other necessities. But it cannot be given for housing alone. If it is given as a relief of rent, as a subsidy toward cost of building, or as tax exemption, then whatever its direct object or result, it becomes in effect a contribution toward all necessities of life.
1 Adapted from "Housing Conditions in the New York Region," Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs, VI (1931), 281-84.
We have to bear this in mind in discussing public aid to housing. Such aid is necessary so far as public contributions to relieve poverty are necessary. The real questions, however, are whether public aid to housing should be given on some ground of public responsibility for shelter that does not apply to other necessities, and whether this aid should be dispensed among those whose earnings are sufficient to enable them to live without state aid.
Of course the question of what are sufficient earnings will always be difficult to determine, and agreement between different schools of political philosophy will always be impossible. When, however, we are discussing the giving of state aid in the form of housing to citizens who can be self-supporting, we are discussing a form of socialism and not of charity.
In many countries socialistic forms of state aid have been given and in most cases have been mixed up with charity. One of the chief complaints to be made against these enterprises is that they hardly ever reach those who need charity and they use funds that should be devoted to charity. They too often give aid to groups of people whose needs are no greater than other groups and at the expense of these other groups.
It is not to be ignored, however, that public aid in the improvement of housing conditions may have to be given in some cases as payment of a public debt to society. For example, if over many years a public authority has permitted congested and insanitary building conditions, which are a menace to public health in general, to grow up in a city, it may be a public duty to spend the money to get rid of these conditions. Strictly speaking, this also is not a contribution to housing any more than widening a congested street to allow traffic to move is a contribution to the motor industry. It is a contribution toward relief of defective structural growth which society may have to pay for its own protection. Slum clearance comes to a large extent within the latter category, rather than being a measure of housing reform. If it were possible to segregate the three problems of housing, poverty and city reconstruction, we should see more clearly how to attack the housing problem.
Admitting that state or municipal aid is necessary for relief of poverty or for physical reconstruction of defective parts of a city, is it also desirable to give such aid to the provision and improvement of houses for the vast body of workers who are able to earn means of subsistence? In a society based on the philosophy of individual liberty and democratic institutions the answer would be no, except in such emergencies as existed during and after the World War.
Whatever may have been the main object of giving public aid in those countries where it has been given, it will be found that in every case there has been a mixture of motives, and some confusion between what is charitable, what is socialistic, what is an emergency measure, and what is merely payment of a public debt for past mal-administration of building growth for which both the public and their officials share responsibility.