ARGUMENT

A SLUM TENANT says: it’s middle-class hypocrisy to knock slum landlords; until we're ready to provide more public housing, we need our slums

BARBARA HENRY December 1 1965

ARGUMENT

A SLUM TENANT says: it’s middle-class hypocrisy to knock slum landlords; until we're ready to provide more public housing, we need our slums

BARBARA HENRY December 1 1965

ARGUMENT

A SLUM TENANT says: it’s middle-class hypocrisy to knock slum landlords; until we're ready to provide more public housing, we need our slums

ABOUT ONCE a year, with the unfailing regularity of a metronome and the same monotonous effect, the newspapers in some Canadian city discover what the rest of the world has known all along: there are shocking slums in all of our major cities and most of our larger towns.

This year it’s Toronto’s turn. Alderman June Marks, who represents me in Toronto’s down-at-the-heels Cabbagetown area, spent most of the summer collecting complaints from unhappy tenants in her ward, and much of the fall presenting the results to a judicial inquiry The findings aren’t known yet, but the predictable outcome is the not-so-shocking discovery that Toronto has slums.

I should know; I live in one. My husband and I pay $75 a month for a second-floor flat on the fringes of Toronto’s notorious St. James Town district, while I go to university and he works and takes night courses. Our neighbors are slum tenants and, at least for now, so are we.

I don’t like living in a slum, but I don’t dislike my landlord. I don’t even resent the fact that he himself lives in a beautiful upper-middle-class suburb. Without him we would have to set up light housekeeping on a park bench, because right now slums—and slum landlords—are as necessary to Canadian cities as roads and sew'ers. They provide the only readily available housing for a major segment of the population—people like my husband and me, and the poor, the elderly, the deserted wives, and the welfare cases.

If some of our neighbors are prostitutes and perverts, winos, hopheads and thieves, we just have to put up with it; we have to live somewhere, and we can’t afford to be fussy.

The newspapers and the “good people" aren’t very fond of slum landlords. They picture them as grasping and avaricious, intent on squeezing the last dollar in rent from their properties with the minimum of repairs — and to hell with the tenants. Some are like that, but many others are not.

I’m not sure some slum-dwellers don’t build their own slums. I’ve seen well-maintained homes wrecked by lazy or careless tenants. Landlords have to absorb the loss when a tenant smashes doors and windows, or leaves without paying the rent—and takes the light fixtures with him. Even if some slum landlords rent unheated and decrepit shacks, none of them rent garbage. Much of the squalor of

the slums could be corrected with a shovel and broom or a coat of paint.

But not all my slum tenant neighbors are shiftless either; more often they’re just people trying to get along w'ith not enough money. They bitterly resent suggestions that they like living in a slum. The people in my neighborhood are vociferous in condemning the “block-busting” tactics of real-estate speculators, but they get just as angry about the “welfare bums” who turn down job offers to stay on relief and trade welfare vouchers for a bottle of wine. They point out that the city spends money to maintain the slums, but not enough to correct them. A handsome percentage of the municipal tax dollar goes in welfare payments. And you know where the welfare cases live, and where their shelter payments are spent. The slums may be privately owned but they’re publicly supported, and the citizens pay the rent.

It’s almost fair that they should. Half the housing in Canada is assisted directly or indirectly by the federal government, mainly through the National Housing Act mortgages and loan insurance. But the legislation that made it possible for millions of middle-class families to buy their own homes completely by-passed the people who need housing most—a situation one American economist called “socialism for the rich and private enterprise for the poor.” My neighbors don’t need an economist to tell them that; they know they don’t earn enough to qualify for an NHA mortgage.

Ninety-seven percent of NHA loans

—the best terms for mortgage money and therefore the lowest economic level for new-home ownership—go to people who earn more than $4,000 a year. Only 52 percent of Canadians made that much in 1961 and few of them live near here. The other half of the population can’t buy a house under existing conditions because they simply can’t afford it—and rental accommodation isn’t much cheaper.

The obvious solution is a dramatic and drastic increase in governmentsubsidized, low-rental housing. Sure, every major Canadian city has its low-rent housing project — Mulgrave Park in Halifax, the Jeanne-Mance project in Montreal, Regent Park North and South and Moss Park in Toronto, Selkirk Park in Winnipeg, Maclean Park and Orchard Park in Vancouver — but none offers even a barely adequate answer to housing needs.

Estimates of the immediate need for public housing range from 450.000 units to more than one million (depending on the definition of “need”). By 1965, only 12,000 units had been built, and nearly a quarter of those were “full-recovery” projects, where rents are expected to cover the full cost of construction and operating expenses.

The Ontario Housing Corporation hopes to provide 12,000 subsidized units by 1967 but low-income families can’t sleep in the blueprints. Even if all the promised units are built or bought, we will still be so far behind that current plans are a bit like sticking Band-Aids on a broken arm.

In the long run the public gets what it wants, and right now it prefers slums to public housing — a fact clearly indicated by an international comparison of public housing expenditures. The British spent approximately $3.15 per capita in annual subsidies for public housing in 1961 and the Americans spent about 80 cents. Canadians spent less than 10 cents. By comparison we each paid about $2.20 in butter subsidies.

Even the dime we did devote to public housing wasn’t very well spent. Our slum clearance projects always seem to house the wrong people in the wrong places. Toronto’s Moss Park is a typical example.

Completed only last year, it was Toronto’s last major slum - clearance effort. But it only contains 903 suites, and only 45 of those are threeand four-bedroom apartments. Instead the project includes 468 one - bedroom suites — attractive low-rental accommodation for other impoverished students (especially colored students who are less welcome in the more “respectable” neighborhoods) but they do little to relieve the pressure in the slums. More families applied for accommodation in the 45 big apartments than in the 468 small ones.

Perhaps most revealing of all, less than one quarter of the people who lived on the site before it was razed moved into the project when it was completed. A survey was conducted to find out why: some of the families

said the waiting list was too long; others didn’t like the regulations; a few found the stigma attached to living in “the project” odious. But by far the largest group, almost 40 percent, said the rents were too high. The project built to house the poor was too expensive for them.

Many of the people who lived in the area before the project was started eventually ended up in new slums— some directly across the street. The slum clearance program ended by spawning new problem areas because it was just too small.

The technique of “sprinkling” subsidized housing through the suburbs,

now being tried in Ontario and elsewhere, may offer a better way of housing the poor. But the programs are running into stiff opposition from unhappy suburbanites who don’t like the idea of “slum-dwellers” in their midst, even if they don’t know who they are.

Under the new NHA amendments the provinces have more power to deal with slum housing conditions but municipalities must still initiate the request for subsidized housing. Municipalities correctly fear that low-income families mean higher school and welfare costs. They want all the low-rent housing in somebody else’s backyard.

Subsidized low-rent housing is obviously no panacea that will magically cure all the problems of urban blight and urban renewal overnight. But subsidized housing does offer more hope for a cure than monumental inertia. Slums are necessary now. They will probably grow in the future because the good middle-class citizens are snug and secure in their suburban homes with their subsidized NHA mortgages. And they don’t really care how the rest of the city lives as long as it doesn’t disturb them.

When they change their minds, slum conditions will improve. In the meantime, my husband and I and the neighbors may not love our slum landlord, but at least we’ve got a roof over our heads. BARBARA HENRY

BARBARA HENRY