Homes to Rent -AMERICAN STYLE
John Caulfield Smith
CANADA’S Man-Behind-The-Eight-Ball this winter of 1945 is the citizen of medium to low income who dreams of a neat house or apartment, on a decent street, with a “For Rent” sign prominently displayed in the window.
Contractors, insurance companies and governments all hope to be able to do something toward making his dream come true in 1946—but in the meantime “For Rent” signs continue to be as scarce as steaks on a meatless Tuesday.
Low-rental housing is definitely a number-one headache in all major Canadian communities. What’s the score in other countries—specifically, what’s happening in the United States? Do they share the headache, and if so, what are they doing about it?
In search of the answers, I visited housing projects in several states. I saw family dwelling units sponsored by U. S. federal agencies. I saw a great modern community built entirely by private capital. I saw other communities financed jointly by private and public funds. This article tells some of the things I learned.
' Let’s look at Greenbelt, Maryland, first.
Twelve miles from terrifically overcrowded Washington, Greenbelt was started by the Federal Resettlement Administration in 1935 and opened two years later. Five thousand relief laborers worked on it, and the cost was $15 millions—a stiff figure until you consider that the job was part of a depression program aimed at employing as many men as long as possible.
Nevertheless rents are modest, and the town pays its own way. It is administered by the Federal Public Housing Authority,but the Governmentdoes not wish to hold permanent title. Greenbelt is for sale to any interested public body on one condition : that the basic character of the community be maintained in perpetual trust.
“Greenbelt,” declares author Lewis Mumford, “is a new type of city. It differs radically from both metropolitan and suburban patterns lingering from the past. If one wishes to get a foretaste of what life may be like when a community makes the fullest use of its technical and aesthetic assets, one must go to Greenbelt.”
1 went. The driver of the taxi was a chatty individual who wore faded slacks and a turtle-neck sweater. Not long after we turned off the Baltimore highway onto a side road he pointed. “Look, there’s the high school!” I caught a fleeting glimpse of something very
modern and very light behind trees lining the road. “Are we nearly there?” I ventured.
“Gosh, no! This is a big place, over 4,000 acres.” Later I discovered Greenbelt occupied an area one fifth that of Toronto. Just a small portion is built up, of course. The population numbers 7,500—about the same as that of Portage la Prairie, Edmundston, Smiths Falls or Rimouski.
Farther on the voice in the front seat said, “See that water over there? That’s the lake picnic grounds. You can’t go swimming, but you can boat or fish.” The driver didn’t mention the swimming pool, located in the centre of the town, or the community building, where facilities exist for basketball, volleyball, shuffleboard and badminton. And he forgot to tell me about the athletic, field and the separate playgrounds provided for youngsters.
Town Without Factories
THERE are no factories in Greenbelt, which gets its name from a broad girdle of park land that protects it forever against industrial or other undesirable encroachments. To take advantage of the contours of its site, the town is planned in the shape of a horseshoe. Inside the “greenbelt” are houses and apartment buildings which in turn encircle stores,
Canada has yet to lick the problem of low-rental housing. The Americans have tackled it with vigor and originality. Here’s a first-hand account of what they’ve accomplished
post office, bus terminal, theatre, and management offices grouped around a village green. Off slightly to one side is the community building, serving as public school during the day and for adult activities at night.
Underpasses make it unnecessary for a pedestrian to cross a single through boulevard. To minimize traffic hazards further, houses are located to shield children’s play areas. Greenbelt is laid out in “superblocks” five to six times larger than ordinary city blocks, and the reduction in the number of cross streets required means a saving in paving and utility installations estimated at $200 per family. Houses are laid out in uncrowded rows of four, six or eight.
Instead of facing a street, they look out upon grass and trees in the centre of the blocks. While each house has its own yard, much of the space is pooled for common use.
Greenbelt, incorporated under Maryland laws, has the council-manager type of government. Nonpartisan elections are held every two years for a five-man council. The councillors elect the mayor from their own number and appoint the manager, James T. Gobbel.
Mr. Gobbel’s own house is the end one of a row. Built on a concrete foundation, its walls are brick veneer, its roof slate. There are six rooms—living room, dining room, kitchen on the ground floor, and
three bedrooms and bathroom upstairs. Closets are generous in size and number. Though there is no basement, extra storage space is provided in the attic.
Big central plants supply heating. All dwelling units are equipped with refrigerators and stoves, but the only washing machines supplied are those in the laundries of apartment buildings. In “row” houses tenants must care for their own grass and shrubbery. The management looks after all other maintenance.
“Rents are graded,” Mr. Gobbel told me. “You pay in proportion to the total income of your family. Earnings of boys and girls under 18 years aren’t included. A three-bedroom house rents for $41 if your family income is less than $2,700 a year. The rent goes up with each $200 increase in income till it reaches $65 for a family income of $3,900. National control regulations freeze it at this figure regardless of further income increases.”
In the past, if its earnings rose above a prescribed level, a family had to leave Greenbelt, but this rule has not been enforced in wartime, and residents now earning more than normally permitted have formed a co-operative home builders’ association. When the time is ripe they hope to build single houses, similar in architecture to existing buildings, for their own occupancy.
All commercial activities in Greenbelt are on a co-operative basis. Drug, grocery, variety, magazine and tobacco stores, barber, valet and shoe repair shops, beauty parlor, theatre, filling station and garage are operated by a consumers’ co-operative doing $1,000,000 worth of business annually. The health program is co-operative. So are the credit union, the newspaper, even the nursery school. Most religious denominations are represented and regular services are held. Continued on pa^e 42
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Greenbelt, being federal property, does not pay taxes as such, but payments equivalent to the usual rates charged—$4.20 per $100 assessment— are included in tenants’ rent.
Greenbelt is an out-and-out federal project, built and operated by the Government, but it is not the usual pattern of state-assisted rental housing in the United States. There is an extensive subsidy system which, since 1937, has housed 193,000 American ; families at a loan investment of $800 i millions.
All these families have decent shelter, for rents that average $22.15 a month. In addition the tenants usually receive community services and benefits that add to the value of their accommodation. On every project the waiting list of would-be tenants runs into thousands.
Washington subsidizes these homes both by financing them up to 90% and by making direct cash grants to house low income families who would otherwise be unable to pay. Municipalities must grant tax exemption of at least one fifth the federal subsidy.
Subsidized low-rental projects I saw in Buffalo, New York and Chicago all were designed and built in the conventional way, employing private architects, engineers, contractors and tradesmen, although the buildings provide a multitude of different dwelling types. They are of fireproof construction, with brick walls and reinforced concrete floors and roof.
Community facilities are incorporated in the design of each project. In addition to supervised recreation areas an auditorium and nursery school are minimum requirements. Grounds are invariably well-landscaped, with grass replaced by paving or crushed stone wherever possible. There’s nothing institutional about the appearance of the older buildings. Matured planting weds them to their sites.
Slum clearance is a valuable byproduct of all projects. For each new dwelling erected a substandard one must be demolished. As the most brilliant example, in New York City 14 low-rental public housing projects, comprising 17,040 dwelling units, have replaced 50,000 substandard units.
Still another form of government aid was legislation to encourage formation of limited dividend housing corporations. (Such corporations, whose purpose is to supply desirable living quarters at moderate rents, are provided for by our own National Housing Act.) The pioneer housing bill, passed by the state of New York in 1926, exempted the builders from certain state and municipal taxes in return j for their agreement to limit rents to i moderate levels and investment eam; ings to six per cent.
In the “Lung Block”
Knickerbocker Village, in downtown j New York, built by a private realty firm under this legislation, replaces five acres of slums formerly known as “the lung block” because of the high percentage of tuberculosis cases it produced.
Here’s what the onetime TB incu1 bator looked like when I visited it.
Two huge 12-story brick buildings,
\ each planned in the shape of a square around a landscaped court, are separi ated by a playground located over the
heating plant. Apartments are spacious, well-lighted and ventilated. They total 1,587 and vary from two and a half to five and a half rooms in size. The population housed is equivalent to that of Ontario’s Newmarket or Bowman ville—4,000 persons. Incomes average $2,500 per year, rents $12.50 per room per month.
I asked a young mother, who sat watching her little girl emptying the contents of a sandbox onto the pavement, what sort of people lived here.
“Mostly young married couples,” she replied. “Many are college graduates.”
In all limited dividend housing corporations under its control, New York State requires that a tenant’s income not exceed five times the sum of his rent plus utilities. If he rents a threeand-a-half-room apartment for $45, and electricity and gas cost him another $5, his total monthly outlay is $50. Therefore as long as his monthly income remains less than $250 he can stay. If it goes above $250 he must leave. This rule ensures that the project meets the housing needs of the people for whom it was intended.
From project manager P. Paine Edson I learned that Knickerbocker Village has yet to pay a dividend. It pays only the municipal land tax.
One unusual example of limited dividend corporation housing is in Philadelphia, where Carl Mackley houses, a group of three-story walk-up apartments containing 285 dwelling units, were built by a trade-union, the American Federation of Hosiery Workers. It has paid no dividend yet, either.
This Is Parkchester
Now for a glance at America’s only major low - rental housing project, planned, executed and operated by an insurance company whose tremendous resources make it completely independent of government aid. This is Parkchester, in the Bronx, the Metropolitan Life’s unsubsidized $50-millions answer to the rental problem.
It occupies a 129-acre site, and is rated the biggest development of its kind in the world. Buildings occupy little more than a quarter of its acreage, the remainder being given over to streets, parks and playgrounds.
There are 51 apartment buildings, six to 12 stories in height, served by automatic elevators. Apartments, ranging from two to five rooms, total 12,273. In them live 35,000 people, as many as reside in the Canadian cities of Kitchener or Sherbrooke. Their incomes average $3,000 per year. They pay an average of $13 per room per month in rent.
Parkchester is half an hour by subway from mid town New York. A wide street, leading from the station, is one of two which intersect X-fashion in the centre of the project, dividing it into four quadrants. Through traffic is confined to these streets, roads within the quadrants being for service purposes only. While the main shopping area, together with theatre, library, post office, banks and management offices, is toward the station, each quadrant has its local stores. Recreation spaces are located within the quadrant. Garages, along with the heating plant, stand on the outer rim. There are schools nearby.
Parkchester’s buildings are impressive. Though not arranged in a formal architectural pattern, they gain effect by virtue of their bulk and relationship to one another. Insulated, they are of fireproof construction. The austerity of their brick walls is relieved by ornamental statuary and colorful store fronts.
Parkchester was designed by a
board composed of experts in various professional fields. Aware that standardization meant savings, they developed floor plans which permitted grouping of apartments in alternative ways around basic building “cores.” Because the number of combinations were infinite, only a handful of the project’s buildings appear exactly alike.
The model apartment shown visitors is enough to make anyone want to live at Parkchester. You are greeted by an entrance hall large enough to be used as dining space. It has its own clothes closet, and opens into a living room llj'2 by 17}^ feet in size. The kitchen adjoins the entrance hall. Planned as a cheerful and efficient workroom, it has a combination sinklaundry tub, metal cupboards, cabinets and broom closet. Refrigerator and range are of popular make. A short corridor leads from the living room to the bedroom, a generous 12 by 15 feet, and to a tiled bathroom.
Metropolitan’s housing experience, which dates back to 1922, is rooted in the necessity of finding profitable outlets for investment funds. Officials are unwilling to disclose the exact rate of return, but it is reported that Parkchester is earning 10% to 12% on the investment.
Since Parkchester had enquiries from 48,000 families before it was opened, initial tenancy was on a “first come, first served” basis, with leases granted i\ the applicant’s character and economic status were up to snuff. While no rigid rule was laid down, tenant selection was in general from those earning $1,800 to $4,500 a year, and not so addicted to dogs that they weren’t willing to give them up.
Other projects have their own rules and conditions. Knickerbocker Village normally requires a tenant to vacate when his income passes a certain figure, generally five times his monthly rent. The same stipulation is made by Carl Mackley Houses, originally built for union men but now open to all.
American experience seems to indicate that limited dividend housing corporations do not usually offer a sufficiently attractive outlet for investment funds. In addition the selfliquidating nature of the financing prevents the accommodation from j reaching the income groups which need i it most. Efforts are now being made I in Congress to introduce a form of J “yield insurance” by which the Federal I Government would ensure a minimum j return on funds invested directly in j housing projects by financial institu! lions. Such an arrangement is already : in existence in Canada. Our life I insurance companies have combined ! to form a housing corporation which Í is guaranteed a two and a half per cent ! return by the Dominion Government, j and if the legalities can be straightened i away this winter, building is scheduled j to commence next spring.
John Blandford, Jr., administrator ' of the U. S. National Housing Agency, co-ordinating body for all federal - housing departments, states that sub! sidized housing does not compete with j private housing. He points out that ! admission to public projects is limited to those families whose rent-paying ability is at least 20%, below the minimum rents at which adequate private housing is available in the locality.
The average annual income of families admitted into low-rental projects throughout the country rose from $782 in 1939 to $1,237 in 1944. Correspondingly the average annual rents, including all utilities, rose from $18.26 to $22.15. And the average j annual cost to the United States per ¡ family rehoused is less than $100 I about the price of a U. S. Army rifle!