A blueprint to stop our cities' decay

Living space is a lot the same in these three projects but rents vary widely So does financing

SIDNEY KATZ August 4 1956

A blueprint to stop our cities' decay

Living space is a lot the same in these three projects but rents vary widely So does financing

SIDNEY KATZ August 4 1956

A blueprint to stop our cities' decay

Living space is a lot the same in these three projects but rents vary widely So does financing


One in every eight Canadian homes is slowly falling apart, soon to become part of a slum with its by-products of disease and distress.

Can WE beat this blight?


All major Canadian cities, and not a few smaller ones, are vitally and nervously concerned about the danger of being choked to death by a kind of dry rot from within. It is this slow decay that is partly responsible for the housing crisis that has become Canada's number-one social problem. Every growing city faces it; all are groping toward a solution.

The prime cause of decay is that every house grows older year by year. Each year it becomes more difficult to keep in repair. There are almost four million dwellings in Canada and more than a quarter of these are fifty years old or more. Nearly half of a million Canadian homes are in need of major repairs.

But there are other reasons for decay, ¿00, in an expanding population. Homes aren't being built fast enough and thousands of low-income families are sharing quarters with others, helping to deteriorate large sections of each city. Booming business districts, swelling like balloons, have played hob with surrounding residential areas. Garages, restaurants, dry-cleaning establishments are now scattered helter-skelter among private homes, whose residents flee the dirt and exhaust fumes. Their houses are sometimes purchased by speculators who pack as many tenants in each home as possible. Thus the blighted areas spread, block by block.

Can anything be done to halt this rot?

Baltimore. Maryland, a city about as big as Toronto, thinks it has found part of the answer. It has feverishly embarked on a program it calls “urban renewal,” and that new term may prove to be one of the most significant coined in this decade.

The aim is to restore the city to health by the drastic surgery of rotten parts and by the rehabilitation and replanning of the ailing parts. Every Canadian city from Victoria, B.C., to St. John s, Nfld., stands to profit by Baltimore's experiences

in a new field of social engineering. “Urban renewal is the 1956 version of pioneering,” says Oliver C. Winston, the fifty-two-year-old Texan who has been appointed Baltimore's urban renewal co-ordinator.

The cornerstone of the Baltimore program is the provision of low-cost housing. For how can you raze slums if you have no homes tor the people who are displaced? The HABC (Housing Authority of Baltimore City), with funds provided by the federal and municipal governments, will shortly complete its ten-thousandth home lor the one million residents of Baltimore. It is sobering to note that Canada with sixteen million people has built only about half as many subsidized publichousing units. The largest public-housing development in this country is Regent Park North, with thirteen hundred units, located in southeast I oronto. There is already a backlog of five thousand applicants hammering on Regent Park's doors.

The rent paid by HABC tenants depends on the size of their pay cheque and family (the more children, the lower the rent). Some pay as little as twenty dollars a month; others as much as sixtythree. The average rental is thirty-five dollars, including lighting and heating costs. To qualify tor a home the tenant must be the head ol a family and be living in a substandard dwelling. He needs no fixed minimum income but, when his earnings reach $3,100, he must leave to make way tor a tenant with a smaller income. For his money the tenant is given a modern apartment or duplex with from one to four bedrooms, depending on the number of children he has. The new eleven-story apartments, with exterior balconies running the full length of each floor, look like luxury-type apartment houses. These cost about $10,500 per unit to build and the buildings are attractive. As Oliver Winston says, “Public housing doesn’t have to be ugly.”

If the tenant had to provide himself with similar accommodation in the private market in Baltimore his monthly rent could run between eighty-five and a hundred and thirty-five dollars. But of course the rent paid by HABC tenants covers only seventy percent of the cost of operating and building the various projects. The federal government (through the Public Housing Administration) makes up two thirds of the annual deficit. Last year the federal subsidy to Baltimore for low-cost housing was a million and a half dollars. The city makes up the rest of the deficit by exempting the projects from taxation. The city gets some money back: ten percent of all shelter rents collected in lieu of taxes. Last year this amounted to $204,000, about $100,000 more than the city used to get in taxes on the properties and land where the projects now stand.

In contrast, tenants at Toronto’s Regent Park North public-housing project pay an average monthly rental of sixtytwo dollars for comparable accommodation—almost twice as much. The rent is calculated to total about twenty percent of the family income, and ranges anywhere from twenty-nine to ninety-three dollars a month, including services.

Regent Park has been criticized for not catering to the lowest-income groups. Priorities were given to families who happened to be living in the area where the land was expropriated to put up the present buildings. No ceiling has been placed on tenants’ earnings, although it

has been proposed to exclude anyone in the future making more than $4,100 a year. Frank Dearlove, the manager of Regent Park North, estimates that on an average the rentals are half those that tenants would have to pay on the private market.

Regent Park North is the result of a partnership between three levels of government. The federal agency, Central Mortgage and Housing Corp., and the city of Toronto split the three-million-dollar cost of acquiring the land. The city then financed the building of almost thirteen millions worth of homes with a grant of $ 1,300,000 from the Province of Ontario. Regent Park North requires no subsidies. It is expected that 1956 will yield an operating surplus of $300,000 which will be turned over to Toronto to pay off the costs of building. In addition, the project will pay $220,000 in city taxes. The same area formerly yielded only $36,000 a year in tax revenue. Most other public housing in Canada is financed by the federal and provincial governments with the federal government contributing seventyfive percent of the cost.

Increased tax revenue is only one of the ways a city profits by providing decent housing. In the old days, Baltimore spent forty-five percent of its revenue on slums, although they provided only six percent of the city’s revenue. This was due to the staggering costs of providing fire, police, health and welfare services. In concrete terms, the city was losing $2,500 an acre, or $14,300,000 a year,

on slums. And the situation was growing worse. In just seven years, the assessment value of the blighted areas dropped by ten million dollars.

No figures, however, can tell the full tragedy of slum living. Juvenile delinquency and infant mortality were fifty percent higher than the rest of the city. The slums had ten times as much gonorrhea, seven times as much syphilis, eleven times as many cases of lead poisoning, three times as many deaths from TB. Most of the fire victims in Baltimore lived in the decaying, depressed blighted areas.

I recently visited Lafayette Courts, an 816-unit project in Baltimore, where I learned how costs of fire, crime, illness and welfare had been drastically reduced. Juvenile delinquency, for example, is now practically unknown. "We are really surprised if we get a call to go down there,” Mrs. Violet Hill Whyte, a policewoman, told me. There hasn’t been a single fire in Lafayette Courts since it opened a year and a half ago.

The TB death rate in the project is only half as great as in slum areas. In addition, land values adjoining the projects have soared and business has improved.

Perhaps even more significant is the fact that each year, for hundreds of families, public housing becomes the gateway to private housing. The average stay per family in a public-housing dwelling is four to five years. Each year some seventeen percent reach the top earning bracket and move out. Few move back to the

slums. Many buy modest homes. The project has taught them a new living pattern. This is one of the reasons that Leonard McLaughlin, president of the Baltimore Real Estate Board, told me. “Public housing in Baltimore hasn’t hurt our business.”

The same gains have been noted in studies made by the University of Toronto School of Social Work at Regent Park North. Since moving into their new homes, “the morale of many previously unemployed tenants had so improved that they went out and found jobs and are now working.” . . . “The costs of relief for deserted wives decreased markedly.” . . . “Tenants appear to be becoming more self-sufficient, less in need of help from social agencies.” . . . “Colds were less frequent, infectious diseases fewer.” . . . “Regent Park children are cleaner, healthier and doing better at school.”

But in spite of these proven benefits few low-cost housing projects have been undertaken in Canada.

Providing such housing for the lowerincome groups is the basic ingredient of cleaning up a city by “urban renewal.” But it’s also necessary to carry on other programs as well. Baltimore learned this lesson by trial and error. In 1940 the U. S. housing census shocked the town by publishing figures showing that Baltimore had just about the worst slums in the U. S.

The core of infection was the area ringing the downtown business district—“a sea of despondency,” one newspaper called it. One third of the population was packed into ten percent of the city’s space. The houses were jammed. One nine-room house built for a single family had been divided into seventeen rooms for twentyfive occupants. Most of the homes were in disrepair. Dozens of slum children had died through eating lead paint that flaked off the woodwork. Baltimore stood first in the U. S. for the number of homes without bathtubs and with outdoor toilets. A million rats thrived in the rubbish and garbage that cluttered back yards and alleyways. Lax zoning regulations and lack of planning led to an unhealthy mingling of residential and commercial properties.

Citizens who tried to improve conditions met with frustration. The laws dealing with maintenance of property were inadequate. The health department had never condemned a house. If it did. where would the tenants go? There were no decent houses available at a price they could afford.

It remained for Frances Morton, a social worker in her twenties, to break through Baltimore’s iron curtain of complacency. In 1940 she organized the CPHA—the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. This group has given leadership in the campaign to clean up Baltimore. It started by urging the HABC, which was already in existence, to raze the slums and put up low-cost dwellings.

But Miss Morton and her organization soon realized it wasn't necessary — or possible—to clear away all the homes in the blighted areas. There were entire blocks that could be made habitable by cleaning and patching. There was one snag: city housing ordinances ware ineffective. In 1942 the CPHA won a major victory when the city made slum conditions a violation of the law. Bolstered by this success, CPHA got behind city departments to clean up “Block One.” the worst slum block in Baltimore. This block included sixty-nine properties; the majority of them had only stoves for heating, outdoor toilets and no running water.

It took a year and a half to do the job. In that time, an important lesson was learned. It was "not enough to have good regulations; you needed the machinery to enforce them. The magistrate’s court was too busy with criminal matters to pay much attention to housing violations. And so a unique kind of court was set up where only housing violations were heard —the Housing Court.

Flushed with this success, the city went on to tackle a twenty-seven-block section in East Baltimore—to become known as the Pilot Area. A special housing bureau was set up in the department of health. A five-man team consisting of health, building, electrical, police and fire in-

spectors would visit each home in a body. In the first few years they unearthed 16,671 violations. Ninety percent of them were corrected before they reached the Housing Court. Many property owners said they wanted to make repairs but pleaded poverty. To help them, a group of businessmen and realtors set up the Fight Blight Fund Inc., which made loans interest-free or at a low rate.

An educational program was launched among residents of the Pilot Area. It involved schools, parks and the recreation department—indeed, every other city department as well. The Church of the Brethren purchased a run-down hovel, and youthful church members, by their own labor, turned it into a cheerful show place as a demonstration of what could be done.

Baltimore’s success in Block One and the Pilot Area attracted wide attention. Popularly known as the Baltimore Plan, it was hailed in many quarters as the final answer to the slum problem. Informed Baltimoreans were quick to disagree. “All we have demonstrated,” said Hans Froelicher Jr., a past president of CPHA. in 1952, “is that vigorous housekeeping can prevent slum growth. It doesn’t add a single dwelling to the housing supply. The ultimate solution is more subsidized public housing and a broader concept of urban renewal.”

What can we learn from the Baltimore Plan? First, that aroused and informed

citizens must be the catalyst for civic improvement. Second, that repairing, painting and scrubbing can play an important part in urban renewal. Third, that it’s not enough to work on buildings—you have to work with people as well. Fourth, that you need an efficient system of property inspection and law enforcement. Prof. Albert Rose, a University of Toronto expert on housing, feels that many Canadian troubles stem from a lax system of enforcement of housing regulations. “We just haven’t enough inspectors,” he says. Furthermore, civic authorities hesitate to condemn properties since there are no low-cost dwellings available for the people who would be evicted.

While the Baltimore Plan had proven valuable in the battle against blight, the planners were still far from satisfied. Frances Morton, who organized Baltimore’s Citizens Planning and Housing Association, explains, “Authority was lacking to do some of the things that needed doing.” In the Pilot Area, for example, the planners couldn’t requisition land for parks or playgrounds or build a badly needed school. They couldn’t separate residential and commercial properties. They couldn’t control traffic by closing some streets and broadening others, thus preserving residential sections. They discovered that you can’t restore a city willy-nilly by cleaning up random pieces one at a time: the minimum desirable unit was a “natural neighborhood” where

people lived and had schools, churches, playgrounds, shopping and recreational centres. And finally, they realized that the job of urban renewal was too big for governments alone to handle. Private interests had to be involved.

But this wasn’t simple. It’s true that in every large city there are blighted areas occupying valuable land. But often, private interests won’t touch them; they’re too expensive and it requires lengthy ne* gotiating with scores of property owners.

To overcome these difficulties the Redevelopment Commission was established. Like the HABG, it is an independent public corporation, with money coming from the federal government and the city of Baltimore (two federal dollars for every city dollar). Armed with expropriation powers, the Redevelopment Commission designates an entire neighborhood that is in need of redevelopment, and springs into action. The commission assembles land and resells it to private interests at less than cost.

Area Twelve, a blighted district covering fourteen blocks in downtown Baltimore, is a prime example. Robert Larrabee, the forty-two-year-old director of the Redevelopment Commission, negotiated with more than one thousand property owners to acquire their properties. New homes were found for residents who had to move out. "We never leave anybody without a home,” says Larrabee.

After conferring with the City Planning Commission and a dozen other agencies. Larrabee and his staff decided how the fourteen blocks could be best used. For one thing, the State of Maryland wanted four blocks to erect a sixteen-million-dollar office building. This was approved. It will become the centre of the redeveloped district. “We then concluded,” says Larrabee, "that the area needed a hotel, a playground, some office buildings and some apartment houses.” These will be constructed by private interests, who will then pay proper taxes to the city. It is expected that some thirty million dollars will be invested in Area Twelve. The only subsidy involved is in the land costs: the Redevelopment Commission expects to pay about six millions for the land and will probably sell it to the builders for about four millions.

Baltimoreans are the last people to claim that they have perfected the techniques of urban renewal. But some of the things they have already learned can profitably be applied to Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Saint John, Winnipeg, Vancouver — indeed, in every Canadian community where old buildings are in disrepair, where there aren’t enough houses for low-income families, where the traffic is poorly controlled and where public apathy and ignorance arc breeding slums and blight. ★