Canada is faced with an urgent housing problem already aggravated by wartime needs—What can be done about it?
LAST September Mrs. J. got sick and tired of house hunting. She and her husband had had to move to Halifax a year ago. Right now she is accommodated —if you can call it that—in a cosy little residence consisting of one room twelve feet square, a small untiled bathroom, and a windowless kitchenette which is so tiny that the door cannot be closed when anyone is in it.
For this Mrs. J. was paying $60 a month - luxury rent for this country. Then in October, without consulting her landlord, she sent him a rent cheque for $45. This was what she had been paying up to last May. She still thinks it exorbitant and expects it to be reduced still further after investigation by the Wartime Prices and Trade Board.
Of course, she lives in Halifax, a city that’s bursting at the seams with new residents. Everybody expects to get soaked for rent in “war-towns.” But there are ways to plague the tenant in civilian cities, too. For instance
there’s the sort of thing Mr. and Mrs. H. ran into.
Mr. and Mrs. H. live in a three-room apartment for which they pay $35 a month. I^ast September Mr. H. was notified that his rent would be increased by $3 a month. Mr. H. asked why. Because of increased coal bills, he was told. How much increase? All of fifty dollars a year, Mr. H.
Mr. H. did a little simple arithmetic. There are six apartments in his building, and $3 a month from each of them came to $216 a year—a generous compensation for $50 worth of increased costs. So Mr. H. wrote a letter telling the story. He addressed it to the Secretary of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, and sent a copy to his landlord. The next day he was invited to renew his lease at the old rent.
Do these true stories make the Wartime Prices and Trade Board sound like a cross between Santa Claus and the Blue Fairy? Lots of people begin to believe it is just about that,
when it actually puts g(xxi dollars in their pocketbooks.
But it’s not. It is a bureau set up to investigate complaints of exploitation and profiteering, and make adjustments and regulations to protect the consumer from an unfair rise in the cost of living.
For many months after war was declared, the Board received complaints from all parts of Canada that rents were whooping up the grade. In many areas of the Dominion the ix)pulation had doubled and trebled in a few months. Flying fields, training cami«, munitions factories —all the bustling activity of mine, field, forest and port — these mean concentrated populations, a sudden demand for living quarters that were never needed before. Dormitories, tents, huts, houses and apartments must be thrown up in a hurry. Is it any wonder rents zoomed?
But they can zoom too far—and they did. Last September the Board appointed Mr. Justice W. M. Martin of the Saskatchewan Appeal Court as rentals administrator for Canada. His first act was to place a score of towns across Canada—towns which had suddenly blossomed forth as centres of war industry —under a “standstill” order pegging housing rentals. Under this order rentals in these designated districts were restored to their levels of January 2, 1940. That is why Mrs. J. got away with cutting her rent cheque by twenty-five ]x:r cent. Appeals by landlords can be made, and plenty will be, but until they are settled, the tenant gets the benefit of the doubt.
Early in October rent control was extended to the whole Dominion, and Canadians found themselves starting off on the same path that Britons have trod for twenty-five years. The first Great War brought rent restrictions to Britain, and government regulations on maximum rent rates have operated over there ever since. This does not mean that housing rents have been pegged generally in Canada. Rent control simply means that individual complaints will be investigated and adjusted by the Board, but rents as a whole will not—for the present at any rate—be pegged at any particular level.
This is the first time in Canada that tenants have been offered official protection from rent exploitation. Not since the Price Spreads Report has the Canadian consumer hit the headlines with such a resounding thump!
AND THIS matter of high rentals is going to have an important by-product. It will focus attention on an urgent and closely related problem—the serious housing shortage that exists throughout Canada and dates from the depression.
For the last ten years there has been what is generally called politely “a lull in the building trade.” Less politely, you might say that construction was panicked to a standstill. New building, even with the boost from the rear that the Housing Act gave it, has fallen away short of increased needs. Even houses that were new in 1930 are ten years old now. Tenants are faced with the twin evils that always go hand-in-hand—rising rents and shrinking choice.
It may seem wasteful, but it is an accepted housing axiom that at least five per cent of city dwellings arc empty at any one time. A study made in Montreal revealed that in the carefree ’20’s it was quite common to find an average of seven to ten per cent of homes unoccupied. Yet now, in several districts in this metropolis, and in spite of doubling and trebling up, the choice of empty houses at any one time is less than one in a hundred !
Besides checking building, the depression is responsible for a shortage of housing in a different way. It produced a huge body of unemployed, people who had to live in cheaper and yet cheaper homes, people who finally couldn’t pay rent at all. They went on relief in vast numbers; the relief authorities had to pay their rent. So they set it at the minimum for which dwellings could be obtained, and landlords of dilapidated buildings took in their government guests. Buildings that might have been tom down to make room for new housing, were put back into use. The income from these places was so low that no landlord, unless he was an out-and-out philanthropist, could afford to make repairs and renovations, even to splash on a lick of paint. So Canada’s marginal housing accommodation problem became more widespread.
Another evil resulting from a housing shortage is incessant moving. Even in peacetime, a million Canadian town-dwellers move every year. And the war has swelled that former figurethat almost incredible figure—of one in every six of the urban population.
Nearly all of these peregrinating people are tenants. Of the, roughly, six million Canadians living in towns, cities or villages, almost half of them live in other people’s houses. Some of these are families who have “doubled up” in someone else’s home: there were 80,000 of them in 1931, and today they come near to being one in eight of ah families. Not all of them are living in family units as we usually understand them. Some of them are people living on their own —single men, stenographers or students, sharing apartments. Some are broken families, a widow or widower living with their children, and so on.
The majority, however, are ordinary family units, private Continued on page 37
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households in which the husband and wife live together as joint family heads. And more than half of these families don’t own the places they live in.
Somehow these figures don’t seem to jibe very well with the picture of Mr. and Mrs. Average Canadian that we have been led to believe is typical. You know the picture—Jack and Janey Canuck, slightly silvered at the temples but happy and secure in their own home and protected by plenty of insurance and annuities. Like most pictures of “typical” Canadians, this one tells only half the story. Less than half the dwellings in Canadian towns are owned by the people who live in them. And it certainly is not true that every home owner lives in the kind of house to be found in Westmount or Rosedale or Shaughnessy Heights. Very modest homes are owned as well as rented.
But obviously it’s not the i>eople who own their own homes who jump for joy at rent control. It’s the tenants, and a more uncomfortable and neglected type of being it would be hard to find. Flomeowners form protective associations, so do
property owners and landlords. In the United States, in such cities as New York and Philadelphia, even tenants have organized themselves into tenant union leagues; but in Canada tenants still struggle along, every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.
It should be easy for tenants to organize, because there are many more of them than there are landlords. In Montreal City, 85 ]XT cent of the population live in somebody else’s house. Verdun, the big dormitory suburb of industrial Montreal, has the highest proportion of tenants of any city in Canada, with 88 per cent. On the other hand, in the Western provinces, it’s about fifty-fifty between tenants and owners, with Saskatoon showing Canada’s highest projxjrtion of home owners. At that it s only 54 per cent.
The bigger cities have more tenants, though Toronto shows a very respectable figure of 46 per cent of owned homes. Winning has a lower average of homes owned than any other Western city —and even it is 47 per cent. In Halifax about a third of the population own their own homes.
Why have Canadians been so unresponsive to the familiar slogan, “Own Your Own Home”?
Well, of course, everybody knows the answer. The average Canadian just can’t afford to buy his own home. And not just because of the war. Away back in 1931 somebody averaged up the incomes of Canadian families—not individuals, but families—and found that while the average city family owning its own home had an income of only $1,700, the income of the average tenant family was some $400
lower! You can’t invest very heavily in real estate when you’re trying to buy shoes and carfare and food for everylxxiy in your household on $1,300 a year. You can’t even rent anything terribly grand.
Plight of the Tenant
CUCH figures do a lot to explain the ^ plight of the tenant. If they’re not enough to convince the veriest optimist, here are some more. Look at the rents paid by Canada’s two million wage and salary earners - by far the largest section of the tenant population. More than half of them—1,100,000—pay less than $25 a month rent ! What can you get for under $25? One thing is certain, you can’t get a nx>m apiece. You can’t get the most modern heating and plumbing equipment, nor gardens for your children to play in.
What of the rest of this major class of Canadian urban families? Three quarters of a million live in houses renting at from $25 to $60 a month. Only 66,000 people pay more than $60. This lucky minority lives in fairly large houses, where they manage to get nearly two rooms apiece.
Put another way, it means that 58 jxncent pay less than $25; 39 per cent can afford up to $59; only 3 per cent can patronize the agent showing houses renting from $60 up.
Here’s something even more startling. Of the 58 per cent who pay the lowest rents, more than half of them budget for anywhere from one to fifteen dollars a month for rent! This group includes a few people like janitors, who pay part of their rent in services. But they are a small minority.
Doesn’t all this suggest that Canada has quite a sizable slum problem? And these are figures for families, and relate to independent dwellings only. They take no account of boardinghouse rooms, or homes shared with other families. One quarter of Canada's wageand salary-earning families have to find homes which will cost them no more than $15 a month. Shades of Mr. and Mrs. Average Canadian!
Of course this includes those on relief. They move incessantly. Because they have to take rickety, let-down dwellings with inadequate plumbing and heating. Sometimes they even have to live in houses that have been condemned by city health departments. They keep moving, sometimes because their landlord thinks he can get more for his place than the rental allowed by the relief authorities, more often because they are destrate, and figure that any place else must be better than the one they are in. Rent control may restore many of them to homes they have had to leave.
And yet, the average Canadian family pays a larger proportion of its earnings in rent than budgeteers tell us is economic. In 1931, tenant families in the chief cities of Canada spent from IV) to 27 per cent of their incomes on rent, and the proportion is higher today. Verdun. Three Rivers and Victoria are the only cities which substantiate the claim of many budget experts that one fifth of your income is enough to go on rent. Toronto, Hamilton, Saskatoon and Regina rents are higher; you may have to pay out an average of 26 and 27 jx;r cent of your income for your house in those cities. But Montreal, with the biggest tenant population in the Dominion, only soaks you 21 per cent of your income on the average. But don't move to Montreal to get cheap rents; wages are generally lower there than in Toronto, for instance, which is one reason rents are lower.
In the last six months rents in most sections of Canada have gone into a steady hand-gallop. Canadians were good and ready for rent control—and it has come. But rent control won’t build new houses. What else must be' done?
What has been done? In 1935 the Canadian Government produced a fiveyear plan for housing. It was shot-in-the-
arm legislation; no major operation (such as pulling down slums and setting up decent low-cost housing by the Government itself) was contemplated.
The Housing Act was in three parts. Under Part One, individuals who wanted to build themselves homes could borrow up to 80 jxir cent of the value of the house at 5 per cent interest. In five years 15,054 houses were built under this scheme; the sum of $52,550,000 was lent. This is a mere drop in the bucket, and wasn’t much help to those who budget $15 for monthly shelter.
Part Two of the Act is the only part designed to ameliorate the tenant’s problems. A fund of $30,000,000 was earmarked to be lent at 3La to 4 per cent (interest plus amortization) to municipal housing authorities or limited dividend housing corporations, to erect low-cost, low-rent housing. This opportunity must have enabled cities that were ashamed of their slums to replace them, wouldn’t you think? But not one cent was lent under this part of the Act. Nobody applied for it. This opportunity is now terminated.
Under Part Three, the Dominion Government lent money to people who were putting up houses not costing more than $2,500, and, on condition that their municipality sold them their land for not more than $50, the Government took over a large part of the new owner’s tax burden for the following three years. While a good many people availed themselves of this opportunity, it too has vanished— terminated on March 31, 1940.
Under the Home Improvement Plan— H.I.P. to the man in the overalls—a hundred thousand loans totalling $40,750,000 have been made through banks and other institutions, with the Government guaranteeing losses up to 15 per cent on these loans. Home owners found this a help, although their loans were not particularly cheap. Landlords of relief dwellings could not rise to it.
Right now, Canada’s renting population is thinning out in some areas, concentrating in others. Forty thousand potential tenants are in England and Iceland and on the high seas. And the population is increasing with its own inexorable momentum. When the war is over, we are going to be face to face with a major housing shortage. Money that might have built homes during the war will have been spent on munitions. Existing houses will be that much older, that much more dilapidated. What shall we do?
Other countries have faced just this problem. Britain, found itself in this same plight after the last war. Sweden and Denmark have also experienced it. There was only one thing to be done; tear down the worst slums, and build, build, build. A new architecture evolved—the garden city, the modern tenement or communal block, “ribbon” cottage developments. Labor-saving devices were found to be economical from the landlord’s point of view as well as a boon to the housewife. Most important of all, these new dwellings safeguard the nation’s health from the evils of overcrowding, insanitary plumbing, airlessness, dirt and vermin.
We Canadians are busy winning our war now. We’re buying bonds to beat barbarism. We are laying for ourselves, at incalculable cost, the basis of future security.
But are we making plans for the desperate housing shortage that is going to afflict this country when the war is over? Are we going to stop at rent control? If there’s ever a time for a big housing program, it will be when the war industries have to slow down, threatening us with a condition of unemployment throughout the country.
Isn’t it time we started worrying about the future homes of that oft-forgotten man, the Canadian tenant?