.... It may be said emphatically that the inspection of dwellings, their custody and care, is regulated by law in the United States.....
Housing workers utilize several laws and cooperate with many agencies official and non-official or volunteer. Chief among the laws are: (1) cityplanning laws, (2) zoning regulations, (3) building codes, (4) health codes, and (5) housing laws. Among the agencies are:
City planning and zoning (a) commissions and (b) associations - (1) official, (2) non-official. These usually cover a city. Recently their field has been enlarged to cover metropolitan areas. In the near future we shall have state and interstate commissions and associations.
Departments of building inspection, usually municipal.
Departments of public health, state and municipal.
Private or non-official agencies interested in different phases of public health, as the prevention of tuberculosis.
Fire departments, municipal.
Private agencies interested in the prevention arid relief of poverty and in immigration problems.
Private agencies interested in community building, as chambers of commerce.
City planning and zoning affect housing directly; the first through providing public facilities and making it more easy for housing developments to occupy new areas, so diminishing the pressure on land; the second through regulating the use of private property and so safeguarding investments in housing. The latter is peculiarly important in a country like the United States where housing is a matter of private enterprise and where government housing is almost unknown. The principal effects of zoning regulation are in requiring open spaces appurtenant to the dwellings and in protecting residence districts against damaging uses. Gradually, with the shifting of population, the newer districts where larger open spaces are required and where non-conforming uses do not antedate the zoning law are drawing the population from the older, more crowded, and more miscellaneous districts. One of the most startling revelations of the 1930 census was the remarkable depopulation of the slum districts of the older American cities.
Zoning regulation, of course, requires constant inspection and reinspec-tion, both to prevent violation and to readjust the regulation in accordance with changing conditions. This form of regulation has swept across the country during the past ten years and to-day the majority of the urban population lives in zoned communities.
Building codes are perhaps the oldest of our housing regulations, owing to the fact that the first American towns were built so largely of wood. Beginning as a means of decreasing the fire hazard, they have been developed until the best of them cover all the factors that affect the structural • safety of the building. It is with structural safety that building codes are concerned, but some of them, especially in municipalities where there is no housing code, include provisions on such subjects as light and ventilation and sanitary accommodations for dwellings. Such inclusion is deprecated by housing workers, for experience shows that the drafters of a building code, having all buildings in mind and being primarily concerned with structural safety, are inclined to set the same standards for a dwelling that they do for an office building.
Building codes are now in force in all the larger cities and in many small towns. One is occasionally surprised, however, to find a city of considerable size that has only the most rudimentary building regulations and no effective inspection. Inspection is concerned chiefly with the building while in process of construction. Later the building is inspected by the Health Department, which will be described; by the Fire Department to note and remedy hazardous conditions; and by the Department of Building Inspection when complaint is made by a citizen or a private organization that it has become unsafe. On the basis of its inspection the Building Department may then order the owner to make the building safe or to demolish it. If he fails to obey, the Department may demolish the building and assess the cost to the owner.
Health departments cover a wider field. To them is given supervision over sanitary conditions as well as the control of inspections and contagious diseases. So, except in a few cases where there are separate housing departments, such as the Tenement House Department of the State of New Jersey and the City of New York, enforcement of the housing code, where there is a housing code, or of such housing regulations as do exist, is given to the Health Department. This enforcement it may exercise through a Bureau of Housing or of Sanitation. Affiliated with this Bureau in the Health Department may be a Bureau of Plumbing Inspection, though logically one might expect plumbing to be assigned to the Building Bureau.
The inspection work of the Health Department begins with examination of the plans for a new dwelling to assure that proper provision is made for light, air, and sanitation. It continues through the erection of the building to assure that the approved plans are carried out. Up to this point it has worked in close cooperation with the Department of Building Inspection. At this point, however, the latter Department usually ceases unless again called in by a complaint. But the Health Department continues. Theoretically the Health Department makes periodic inspections of all dwellings. Practically it confines itself to the poorer sections of the city. It probably gives particular attention to tenement houses (three or more families under one roof) as compared to one-family houses, experience having shown that insanitary conditions tend to predominate when there is congregate living.
There are health departments in all parts of the country, but the attention they give to housing varies from fairly adequate to none at all. In some states, as in Pennsylvania, the State Health Department has definite though limited authority with respect to housing and includes housing work on its program.
The inspectors of all these departments give some instruction to tenants as well as to owners. Those of the Department of Building Inspection come least into contact with tenants; those of the Fire Department more frequently, those of the Health Department most frequently. The last, therefore, have most opportunity to give instruction and in the best departments make use of it. The effectiveness of this instruction varies. When it consists merely of brusque orders the effect is little. When, as in Cincinnati, Ohio, it is part of a carefully thought-out program of creating a sense of responsibility on the part of the tenant and of promoting mutual understanding between tenant and landlord, it is much more productive. In Cincinnati the housing inspectors - in this case representing the Building Department instead of the Health Department, one of those exceptions that make so difficult any generalization - mark their approval of a dwelling kept in good repair by the landlord and in good order by the tenants, by hanging in its hallway a placard expressing this approval.
But housing work in America cannot be adequately described in terms of official agencies or official action. Where there is the best housing work, there is also a non-official or citizens housing association. This association is an expression of public interest and in turn creates a public opinion that supports public officials. The effective work of the official housing inspectors in Cincinnati is largely due to the existence of the Better Housing League, an agency supported by private contributions and without any official connection. The League carries on its work chiefly through visiting housekeepers whose purpose is to instruct tenants in the poorer parts of the city. When these visiting housekeepers note violations of the housing, sanitary, or building codes, the League notifies the appropriate city department, which forces correction. The League also participates when recalcitrant owners resist compliance with official orders and appeal to the courts. In one recent case it was instrumental in winning an important court decision that ended a long struggle with a slum landlord.
The Better Housing League illustrates again the lack of uniformity in America. An older organization, the Philadelphia Housing Association, with the objective of improving housing conditions throughout its community, uses quite different methods. It has no visiting housekeepers. It is perhaps more interested than the League in such things as city planning and zoning. Its emphasis is more on transportation, economics, engineering. Its executive calls himself a "housing engineer."
One of the youngest organizations, the Pittsburgh Housing Association, differs from both, at least in the emphasis it puts on different phases of its work. It too has no visiting housekeepers, but its inspectors, while seeking violations of the housing, sanitary, and building laws, do give information rather than instructions. The Association, moreover, definitely considers itself a social agency, and it constantly seeks to cooperate with other private social and health agencies. Its representatives give lectures to the staffs of such organizations as the Visiting Nurse Association, the Family Welfare Society, the Children's Aid Society, the Mothers' Assistance Fund. It distributes to the staff members of these cooperating agencies detailed housing information. In this way it hopes to secure from them a service more effective than it could itself perform because of their constant and intimate contacts with the families.
These local associations work closely with the local municipal authorities. Some extend beyond their city boundaries. The Better Housing League and the Pittsburgh Housing Association extend their activities to the metropolitan regions of which their cities are the center. The latter is organizing practically autonomous housing councils in the smaller neighboring cities so that pressure brought to bear on local municipal officials will be brought by their own constituents, not by an agency in a different municipality.
In Pennsylvania there is also a state association with which the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia associations cooperate. This state association drafted a permissive model housing law that was enacted by the state legislature, and it is now campaigning to induce the cities and towns of the state to adopt it and to secure more vigorous enforcement of state sanitary laws. In Massachusetts a State Housing Association has just been organized. In Michigan another has been in existence for some time, but so far has confined its efforts to the neighborhood of Detroit. From other parts of the country come reports of additional associations in process of organizations, for the past three or four years have seen a reawakening of housing interest that had been dormant since the war.
From what has been said it is evident that housing inspection is a local activity and that its legal powers are derived from the state governments, of which the cities are creatures. The national government does, however, play a part. The national government has complete power over the District of Columbia, i.e., the city of Washington. The national Congress is the city council of Washington. Outside the District of Columbia, however, the functions of the national government, so far as housing regulation is concerned, are those of an informative or educational and a facilitating agency. Its part in housing has, therefore, been advisory. President Hoover, when he was Secretary of Commerce, created an advisory committee on zoning and city planning and another on building codes. Both of these have issued draft laws with explanatory texts that have been made the basis of state and local legislation.....
Again, as in local affairs so in national there are private or non-official organizations that express public interest and that help to formulate policies and guide executive action. There is the National Housing Association with headquarters in New York, and Better Homes in America, with headquarters in Washington. The latter has carried on an educational campaign by means of Better-Homes contests, that has reached every section of the country and has been largely responsible for the reawakened interest in housing.