Archive for the ‘Housing’ Category

Changes in how the “housing problem” has been conceptualized

Monday, April 16th, 2012

One of the more interesting things I learned in writing my book, Building American Public Health, was the various and changing ways that housing problems have been conceptualized. How the housing problem is understood translated very closely into the policies that were adapted in a given era. So as the conceptualization of what was the nature of housing problems changed, so did public policies aimed to promote safe, healthy (and eventually affordable) housing.

Like most of modern public health and urban planning, the idea that the housing problem was a public issue began in England during the Industrial Revolution. At the beginning of this period, there was little legal right to regulate housing and thus many mid 19th century reformers had to struggle to simply assert the right that government regulation of housing was legal and proper. In a sense, the housing problem was the problem of jurisdiction. But only the worst abuses and most horrendous conditions could be addressed in this era. These early reformers established the right to regulate housing, but these regulations were weak. And at the end of this period, housing conditions remained appalling.

In the latter half of the 19th century, a new way of thinking about housing problems emerged. The idea was that the problem centered around the fact that landlords did not know how to produce decent housing that was affordable to low-income tenants and that was economically profitable. At the same time, it was thought that there was a serious problem in that tenants, who were often immigrants into cities from rural areas or abroad.  The reformers at this time believed that tenement dwellers did not know how to live in cities or understand the successful habits of living in high density housing. In a sense, the housing problem was a one of ignorence and a lack of education on the part of both owners and renters.  To meet the problem of ignorence, this era saw the development of the model tenement movement and the settlement house movement, both highly influenced by Octavia Hill, the granddaughter of Thomas Southwood Smith. The model tenement advocates promoted what they called philanthropy at 5%, the idea that safe and healthy housing, affordable to working-class tenants, could be built that provided a profit the property owners.  The model tenements were meant to teach potential property owners how to build such housing. Through the settlement houses, new urban immigrants could be taught the basics of housekeeping and hygiene. Tenants would be taught how to live in these new units. Together, model tenements and model tenants would eliminate the evils in the slums. Ultimately, these movements failed because the model tenement advocates lacked of financial resources to build enough housing for all the poor people poured into cities.  Tenants couldn’t afford safe and decent housing.  The underlying assumptions were incorrect.

By the beginning of 20th century, still another way of characterizing the housing problem emerged, the problem was one of regulation. Lawrence Veiller was perhaps the greatest advocate of this idea, and with his allies he successfully persuaded the New York state legislature to pass a tenement law which became the model for housing laws across the United States. The law included not only detailed ideas on what was to be regulated in how housing was to be lived in, but also standards for setting up public health departments to regulate housing. The goal was to promote the construction of new healthy housing and to regulate the worst abuses of existing housing. Unfortunately housing as a regulatory problem failed to solve the housing needs of the poor as well. Perhaps most problematic was that in general, to meet the political opposition to these laws, existing housing tended to be exempt from the regulations, and the poor tended to cluster in existing unregulated tenements. Improved regulation did little to improve their lot.

It wasn’t until the 1920s, that Edith Elmer Wood examined the wages of unskilled and semiskilled workers and found that what they had available to pay for rent was insufficient to meet the costs of providing healthy housing. In that stroke of genius, Wood made housing an economic problem. The basic issue was how to reduce the cost of housing or enhance the ability of tenants to pay for housing so that safe and affordable housing would be available to the poor. We have tried a number of ways to address housing as an economic problem. There was public housing, which used federal and state dollars to meet the high cost of construction. There are the mortgage subsidy programs which sought to help lower middle class and middle-class people meet the economic challenges of a mortgage. And there is the Section 8 program which seeks to boost the ability of low income households pay the prevailing market rents.

Much of my forthcoming book focuses on this history and what it means for the health of people living in these units.