Slum Clearance at a Profit

A New Englander and a veteran who has served for two Years on the editorial staff of the Baltimore Sun, EDGAR L. JONES has been freshly impressed by the vigorous efforts which Baltimore has made to clean up the worst of its slums. Together with BURKE DAVIS, who covers the housing problem for the Evening Sun, he makes the point that the Baltimore Plan should be followed by other cities as the first step in a public housing program.

by EDGAR L. JONES and BURKE DAVIS

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SOME people are upset by slums. They feel sick themselves when they find four or five children sharing a bed in a windowless room and realize that the tubercular cough of one youngster means the eventual infection of his bedmates. They smell the dank squalor of decaying buildings, see the one clogged toilet, without bathing facilities, that must do for twenty or thirty persons, turn their eyes from the ugly blotches on vermin-covered bodies, and declare (some of them, at least) that something must be done right away to clear out slum areas.

But righteous indignation is a poor weapon against slums. An emotional crusade is apt to lose momentum long before it has run the gamut, of official surveys, public hearings, proposals and counterproposals, amendments from the floor and in committee meetings, factional lights for district support, and all the other embattled positions in the course of legislative action. Slums are deep in politics as well as in decay. There’s gold in those dilapidated dwellings, and the men who yearly extract $500 to $1000 or more in rent from property assessed as low as $300 will protect their vested interests with all the political pressure they can exercise. And they have the apathy and prejudices of the general public on their side.

A more practical approach to a sustained drive on slum conditions is an appeal to the public’s selfish interests, rather than to its humanitarian instincts or civic pride. It is easy enough to prove that the high cost of slum living conditions imposes too great a burden on urban taxpayers. Slum housing, which comprises about 20 per cent of this country’s residential areas and contains at least a third of its population, yields only 6 per cent of the real-estate tax revenue that is the mainstay of municipal governments. In return for that 6 per cent, slums require, on a national average, more than half of the available medical and institutional care, half the time of the police, more than a third of the time of fire departments, and most of the welfare benefits.

With close to half of the average city’s budget, spent to support them, the slums represent subsidized housing at its worst. This fact, if repeated often enough, is apt to impress the most intransigent cily councilman or taxpayer, since it poses a problem in dollars and cents and avoids the question of whether or not the occupants of slum dwellings deserve anything better. Sticking to the monetary approach: the average city rat causes $2 worth of damage a year, not counting damaged infants; the average public, case of tuberculosis requires $5000 in tax money, and the average fire $600. What more practical reasons can be presented in favor of a program to eliminate the unhealthy firetraps that pass for human habitations in slum areas?

Razing and replacing a few hundred slum dwellings at a time, however, is a slow and expensive method of alleviating slum living conditions. What most cities need is an intermediate program to reduce on a wide scale the most glaring health, fire and safety hazards in slum areas — a program that will fill in between now and whatever future date marks the rebuilding of the last slum block. That is why many men and women in national housing circles have lately been studying the Baltimore Plan for cleaning up slums.

Baltimore, alone among large American cities, has a plan already in operation to save itself from engulfment by slum blight. Every city has on its lawbooks certain health, fire, and building requirements that, slum dwellings obviously do not meet. Violation of these requirements is a criminal offense. What Baltimore has done is launch a blockby-block enforcement drive to compel slum landlords to comply with minimum housing standards, and slum tenants to obey health and sanitary laws.

Here is how the Baltimore Plan has worked under ideal circumstances. What is now known as Block Number One in the city’s clean-up drive used to be a run-down collection of 63 small houses surrounding a courtyard cut up by rickety wooden fences, sagging outhouses, and piles of debris. The houses, 70 per cent of which were in need of major repairs, were occupied by 79 families. Sixty-six of these families had no inside toilets, 56 lacked bathing facilities, 35 used backyards for garbage disposal, and 14 had rats as constant boarders. Leaky roofs and the absence of gutters and downpipes kept most of the houses and yards in a perpetually soggy condition, giving rise to dank odors and bronchial coughs.

Today that block of houses surrounds a paved and sunny courtyard in which children play on swings and seesaws. All the wooden fences and outside toilets have been removed. Every dwelling unit, now one room larger on the average, has an inside toilet, and there are no windowless rooms. Rat infestation has been enlircly wiped out. Through the replacement of bad stairs and flooring, the replastering of walls and ceilings, and the addition of gutter spouting, inside plumbing, and backyard drainage, every house in the block complies with minimum health and safety standards. And the cost to the city was only the cost of an inspection staff and court action.

The expenses incurred by the transformation, except for the recreational equipment bought by a civic organization, were borne by the property owners, who get it back gradually through increased rent. Although forced to pay higher rent, the teants maintain that the improvements are worth it. As for the landlords, their original opposition has been tempered by the realization that their investments have added protection in the forms of physical improvements and a reduction in tenant turnover.

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BLOCK Number One is Baltimore’s showpiece, and has impressed officials from scores of cities in need of a cheap approach to their slum problems. But Block Number One is hardly representative of Baltimore’s ten-year struggle to get its plan working smoothly — a struggle awaiting any city that interferes in the operations of as profitable a private enterprise as the renting of slum housing. Block Number One represents the end product of a campaign that began on a day in 1939 when health officials were coaxed into making an official inspection of nine houses that had no electricity, no gas, and only a fire hydrant as a community source of water.

The health officials reported that the block of nine houses was unfit for human habitation, and the block was leveled. After that the same officials, with considerable trepidation, inspected other diseased blocks, and some more bad housing came down. For moral support the health department had the backing of a militant group of do-gooders organized as a citizens’ housing association, and of a newspaper that published pictures and descriptions of slum living eonditions for eighteen straight months. The paper avoided emotional appeals to civic conscience and publicized instead the effect on the public purse when slum owners suck the last penny of profit from their properties and then dump them on the city in default of taxes.

Before long, of course, a slum property owner challenged the authority of the health department in the housing field on the grounds that his lowly tenants did not deserve better housing. The owner eventually lost out in Criminal Court, but not without convincing the health officials that their nuisance-abatement powers had technical weaknesses. Then it was that the months of hard-boiled newspaper publicity paid off, because the city councilman, in an unprecedented burst of economic understanding, passed a municipal housing code in 1941 that defined minimum housing requirements in specific terms and gave health officials separate power to enforce a program of sanitary housing in Baltimore.

Two years later the new housing code had successfully met the legal challenges of slum owners, and the health department had been given a staff of inspectors to enforce the code’s provisions. By that time, however, Baltimore was in the midst of a housing crisis familiar to all industrial centers, incoming warworkers were fighting for any avail able space from cellar to attic in rolling houses and abandoned tenements.

To condemn and pull down housing on a wholesale scale during an acute housing shortage is a political impossibility, no matter how bad that housing may be. So be Baltimore health department used its new powers to correct reported housing violations too crass to be ignored. Out of that wartime venture into housing-law enforcement, which brought the city through four tortured years without a major disaster or epidemic, came the realization that many slum properly owners, rather than lose their gold mines through condemnation, could be made to rectify the most glaring deficiencies in slum housing, and that an enforcement drive aimed at cleaning up one block at a time would have a more lasting effect than singleshooting at reported bad spots in scattered parts of the city.

Immediately after the war, representatives of all the Baltimore city agencies concerned with housing got together and agreed to pool their personnel and authority for a mass attack on the worst blocks in the city. Block Number One was their first target, and into its 63 houses went health, fire, and building inspectors to compile joint lists of illegal conditions. Notices of housing violations were sent to landlords and tenants with orders to correct existing defects within a specific time or face court action.

The first notices to correct housing violations were almost wholly disregarded. Since the campaign was a new one, landlords and tenants alike adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Court action followed slowly with postponement after postponement as violators found fresh excuses for their inability to install toilets or clear away garbage. In year and a half the frustrated law-enforcement officers were able to get only a block and a half cleaned up. The one completed block was the now famous Block Number One — an impressive result, to be sure, but hardly a miracle wrought overnight.

The enforcement officers knew, at least in part, why their campaign only crawled along. Housing cases were heard by more than a dozen different police magistrates, most of whom did not know a downspout from a sewer line, and who already had a courtroom filled with petty criminals, runaway couples, and feuding neighbors. The magistrates let housing violators stall indefinitely for time or lined them too little to serve as a warning to other violators. What Baltimore needed, and eventually got in mid-1947, was a Mousing Court where all housing cases could be heard separately by a single magistrate who both knew and appreciated the value of city housing laws. With the establishment of that court, and the delegation of sixteen policemen to a special housing-sanitation squad, the slum clean-up drive began to warrant national attention.

A day in Baltimore’s Housing Court, the first of its kind in the nation, is an education, and the presiding judge, Magistrate Harry S. Kruger, intends that it should be just that. A tenant comes before him charged with littering her home or yard with trash. She pleads not guilty, saying that her neighbors are the dirty ones. The police “sanitarians" say, on the contrary, that her property is a neighborhood trouble spot. Judge Kruger fines her lightly perhaps $1 and costs — and explains in a brief speech, intended as much for spectators as for the defendant, why the city, down to the smallest house or lot, must be kept free of filth.

A landlord appears, and the sordid details of a three-story slum house with live dwelling units are revealed by health inspectors. The one toilet for five families has been out of order for several weeks. There are holes in the floors, and plaster is falling. One family, with two small children, lives in a dirt-floored cellar. There are three active cases of tuberculosis in the house, two children have rheumatic fever, and others have been bitten by rats. The landlord pleads that building materials have been scarce. The Judge, however, points to the record and says that hundreds of slum houses have recently been equipped with inside toilets, and many other types of major repairs are being made daily.

“It’s been nine months,” the Magistrate remarks, “since you got your notice to make repairs. You were not forced into this business, and you’re not new at it. You say that you have more than hundred houses and that you can’t repair them all at once. But so far you have done almost nothing to improve any of them. This five-family house we’re now talking about is one you bought for about $1000. You’re getting $120 a month out of it in rents. That’s a good return, and you should be interested in protecting such an investment. When you own that type of property you assume an obligation to its occupants and to people of the city, I find you guilty: $50 and costs.”

Occasionally a defense lawyer complains to Judge Kruger, after court has adjourned, that he exceeds his legal authority in his sermons on slum housing practices, but by then the Judge has made his point. Sometimes, too, a property owner not in sympathy with the Judge’s concern for the human side of slum life leaves the court muttering.

Let’s go see the Governor.” Such incidents are becoming increasingly rare, however. The Moustng Court s record of fairness in the disposition of 2300 cases in the first year and a half of its existence has left recalcitrant landlords with no grounds for appeals to public or political sympathy. And for every case taken to court, health and building inspectors are now able to get more than ten violations cleared up without help from the Judge.

By the first of this year, eighteen months after the establishment of its Housing Court and police sanitation squad, Baltimore had rid itself of 5000 outdoor toilets and some 6000 of the high wooden fences that encourage backyard trash piles, eliminate play space, and shut off light and air. About 20,000 internal housing violations had been corrected, which means less dampness and rat infestation, fewer fire and safety hazards, and generally improved living conditions for a significant number of slum dwellers. More gratifying yet, landlords and tenants in blocks ahead of those in which the inspectors were working had begun to comply with housing laws without waiting for official orders.

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BALTIMORE, then, has a slum housing program that warrant s attention. Inquiries about its operation have come from almost every state and from points as far removed as Hawaii, Brazil, and Australia. Many of these inquiries, however, represent wishful thinking that can be traced directly to the wide-spread, misleading publicity given the Baltimore Plan by the National Association of Home Builders. Through magazine articles and a $20,000 film strip, the Home Builders have represented the plan as yielding “immense dividends in health and properly values,” “gradually ridding this great metropolitan center of its slum areas,”"providing much-needed minimum housing, and “markedly reducing the rate of juvenile delinquency.”

The interest of the Home Builders in the Baltimore Plan is easy enough to explain. As part of the powerful real-estate lobby, the Home Builders are exploiting before-and-after pictures of Block Number One as evidence that slum conditions can be eliminated through private enterprise without public housing and slum-clearance programs. But anyone who believes that the Baltimore Plan is an adequate substitute for tearing down the worst slum areas and building anew is hopelessly deluded. The plan does not provide much-needed minimum housing, nor does it actually rid a city of its slum areas. It does eliminate some of the more obvious sources of disease and provide children, under ideal circumstances, with offstreet play space. Yet even if such results could be accurately measured, they would not add up to “immense dividends.”

The slums in Baltimore remain slums, with not a single new dwelling unit in all the jam-packed blocks. Some houses have been patched up, to be sure, and there is less sewage standing in backyard puddles, but the blight remains. The sense ot achievement that comes with getting a particularly dilapidated house repaired is offset by the knowledge that the occupants of the house are still sleeping three and four to a bed, with all the hazards that accompany overcrowding. Also chastening is the realization that so far, fewer than 30 out of an estimated 2000 slum blocks have been crossed off as “completed” in the block-by-block campaign. As one health official remarked, “We won’t live to see the end of this program.”And if this were not enough to tone down the extravagant claims made for the program, Baltimore has belatedly discovered that a clcaned-up block does not necessarily remain clean for long in the absence of a supplementary program, as yet undeveloped, to sell sanitation to all slum dwellers.

What the Home Builders and other real-estate groups have overlooked in giving their rosy presentation of the Baltimore Plan is the better than average possibility that the plan will prove to be a Trojan horse as far as their own interests in housing are concerned. What a housing-law enforcement campaign does in the long run is expose the facts of slum life, and these facts, if they get into the hands of an active civic group like Baltimore’s Citizens Planning and Housing Association, do little to bolster claims that the slums should be left in private hands. In Baltimore, at least, the campaign has given the public almost daily examples of 1 he ways in which private investors exploit human misery in slum areas at the public’s expense. Such examples are hardly likely to turn the public against public housing.

The Baltimore Plan has awakened in Baltimoreans the realization that taxpayers as a whole underwrite the gilt-edged investments of slum property owners. They have learned that 40 per cent of their staggering city budget goes for the support of downtown slum areas that comprise less than 10 per cent of the city’s total area. They have become aware that property assessments in those slum areas have dropped $10,000,000 since 1938, with the result that Baltimoreans spend an estimated $14,000,000 more per year on their slums than they get back through real-estate taxes. Baltimoreans now know, in short, that they are dumping precious tax money down ratholes, and the knowledge has stirred them into action.

In the spring of 1947 the voters of Baltimore turned down a $2,500,000 loan proposal to give the city funds to buy up large parcels of slum property for redevelopment purposes. But in November, 1948, after a year of the public education that went with an intensified housing-law enforcement campaign, the same voters passed a $5,000,000 redevelopment loan by a large majority. More significant yet, the voters supported the slum-clearance plan while turning down a smaller loan for a new municipal stadium. That is one good reason for the assumption that attempts to make the Baltimore Plan an end in it self will fail. The more the public learns of slum conditions, the less content it is to settle for a makeshift clean-up program.

This is not to imply that the plan is not a good one. The Baltimore Plan is the least that a city can do for its slum areas. There is no reason, save complacency, for a city’s allowing a few private investors to milk dry an ever widening portion of its residential area. Some of the money extracted from low-income families should be forced back into slum housing to maintain property values and safeguard public health and safety. And as long as investors advertise their willingness to pay cash for dwellings condemned by city officials, there can be no doubt that there are profits in slum housing that should be tapped to help pay the bills for the disease, poverty, crime, and fires that make the slums a public burden.

Utilized most effectively, the Baltimore Plan offers any city a simple method of preventing the further spread of slum blight by compelling landlords to fix up marginal housing before it becomes hopelessly dilapidated. As for the housing too fatgone for permanent restoration, the plan presents an inexpensive way to make the worst dwellings more nearly fit for human habitation by seeing to it that both landlords and tenants live up to basic health and safety requirements.

Baltimore fosters no illusions that it has the whole answer to slum problems. But it is prepared to show other cities what can be done temporarily to ease a situation that will certainly trouble Americans for generations to come.