The Housing Problem in Chicago, July 1902

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Hull House, Chicago

In considering the housing problem in Chicago, it is at once evident that we are not in the deplorable condition of New York, nor yet perhaps in the happy condition of Philadelphia.  Until a year and a half ago, we thought that all our problems in connection with the housing question were in the future.  We have a way in Chicago of shoving disagreeable problems into the future, and saying that we will take care of them by and by, when our resources are more adequate, when we have developed a little more civic consciousness.  An association of people, however, called the City Homes Association, some eighteen months ago, made a very careful investigation of such tenement districts as we have and their report was startling, even to those of us who knew something of the conditions by daily seeing them.

The time at the disposal of the committee was only six months, and Chicago is very large as to area.  We have 187 square miles under city management, and the tenement houses, certainly according to the legal definition given by Mr. De Forest, are scattered more or less through that very large region. It seemed, therefore, better to take three districts, limiting carefully the area of the districts, and to make as careful a study as possible of each.  The largest one, in two of the river wards of Chicago, was mainly occupied by Italian immigrants and Russian Jews.  The second in size was the Polish district northeast of the business quarter of the city, and the third in size the Bohemian district extended south from the [center].  We discovered several things which were very surprising, among them that many of the houses were owned or partially owned by the people living in them.  The thrifty Bohemian put his savings into a house, perhaps building at first a house on the front of his lot, living in a few rooms, and so saving rent until he had enough money to build up a rear tenement, in the end covering up his lot as much as possible and renting it all out.  The Italians to a somewhat lesser extent did the same thing, and the Poles also, so that one could not talk to the effect of [page 2] tenement house regulation upon the landlord in contradistinction to the effect upon the tenant, for it is very largely the neighbors of the tenants themselves who are the landlords, and the tenant and landlord are represented by the same type of person.  Their interests are identical, not in the larger sense, but in the immediate sense, and they stand together either in demanding or opposing certain regulations.  The situation is quite unlike that obtaining in the cities where the landlord lives in some other part of the town, and where tenement legislation affects only his property interests and not his human interests.

We also were very much surprised at the density in certain quarters which this investigation disclosed.  If the average tenement house density of the three districts investigated were spread throughout the city, we could house within our borders 23,000,000 people.  We discovered one-seventh of an acre which was occupied to the ratio of 900 people to the acre, and if that density were applied to our borders we could house, not very comfortably to be sure, all the people of the Western Hemisphere.  This seemed to us sufficiently alarming in a city in which it was said that the matter of density was something concerning only the future.  The average tenancy in the houses throughout these three districts was only three families to a house.  This average means that in many cases there is no real tenement, but a single house. Again, many of these single houses were very small, sometimes containing but two or three rooms, and the average number of rooms to an apartment was 3 116-1000.  Although many houses were small and the tenements for each house again small, in certain quarters the density within the houses was very great and the conditions bad.  We also found in these three areas almost a hundred full-fledged double-deckers, and a great many more that only escaped being double-deckers through a mere technicality in the definition that had not been settled upon.  These double-deckers are growing and, unless we have a more vigorous enforcement of tenement house regulations in Chicago, threaten to become very common there.

In both the building department and in the health department of the city, a great deal is left to the discretion of the inspector.  Of course, in the city where the landlord not only owns his house but also lives in it and at least knows which way his tenants vote, this matter of discretionary power becomes an important one.  It is very hard for an official to stand out against a certain amount of [page 3] political pressure, and the consequence is, that while there are laws fairly good on books, this large discretion left to the enforcing officers has made many of them of little account.  This is especially true in regard to the yard spaces, which are set between the front and rear tenements, the size of the shafts, and other special regulations.  The City Homes Association is trying at present to secure a better code of tenement house legislation, to restrict the discretionary power and thus to limit the very casual and varying judgement of the enforcing official, and to give some sturdy standard in law observances.

In the matter of rents, Chicago is in rather a curious state.  The property in the river wards, in which many of these houses are situated, has been held for a long time by its owners upon the theory that finally factories and shipping interests were going to occupy the land.  The consequence is, that the little houses which were built very soon after the fire have been allowed to remain, without very much repair and without very much change, and in many cases have become so wretched that only a low rental can be asked for them.  The men who own them, content themselves with getting out the houses about enough to pay taxes and to keep up a minimum amount of repairs.  So that the rent of certain houses in the river districts is low.  Perhaps this is not low for Philadelphia, although I am sure it will sound low for New York.  The average rent paid by an Italian family for an apartment is $4.92 a month, or $1.78 per room a month; the average rent paid by a Bohemian family for an apartment is $5.93 a month, or $1.64 a room; by a Polish family $5.66 for an apartment, and $1.40 for a room; by a Jewish family $8.28; the average rent rising to $2.12 a room.  Whenever the question of modern tenements comes up in Chicago, and the cost is carefully gone into, it is found very difficult to furnish apartments in good, satisfactory well-built houses at so low a rental, and yet once this rental has been established, it is found on the other hand very difficult to ask much more than the current rate.  By a strict enforcement of law many of these houses should be demolished.  That would rid the city of a number of unsanitary houses and bring conditions to a more normal situation.

What Mr. De Forest says about the twenty-five foot lot, I should very much like to corroborate.  It is very difficult to erect a convenient house on a lot 25 feet wide and 120 feet deep.  This [page 4] unfortunate division of property was made in the first instance, doubtless, to enable as many men as possible to own their own separate houses.  For a long time we have made a sort of [fetish] of the house, and have come to believe that a man has a sense of being at home only when he is within four walls standing alone upon one piece of ground.  In reality the idea of a home reaches back so much further than the four walls, and is so much more deeply implanted in the human breast than the ownership of land that we do not need to fear that new type of house will destroy it.  But we are timid and would rather be uncomfortable in a little house than to start out in some reasonable way in building apartments.  If one has a house 12 ½ feet wide and 24 feet deep and 24 feet high, one has not a very comfortable arrangement. It is a not even rationally divided, but by a purely imitative method; in every house you enter you will find the little hall, the little stairs, and all the other things that presuppose plenty of space.  If that same strip of twelve feet had been added to the other strips in the block and the whole treated in some reasonable manner, we could comfortably house the same number of people in a sort of glorified tenement house or apartment house; each family might have at least one large living-room where the members could get together in comfort and have a much better chance for conserving family life than they have in the little square box.  Some of us still believe that a workingman has a sense of ownership only when he puts his savings into a piece of ground or the house in which he lives.  To tie a workman down to a given piece of ground is often of questionable good.  A man may put all his savings into a house on the North Side of Chicago, for instance, and before it is paid for, find himself out of work; his next work may be fifteen miles from that place, in South Chicago.  If his house is partially paid for, it is very difficult to get rid of it, and it is also difficult and expensive to travel fifteen miles twice a day.  If his property had been in some other form, let us say stocks or bonds, it would have allowed him much more mobility in regard to his labor, and he would have a better chance of adjusting himself to the changing conditions of his trade.

A Housing Conference, it seems to me, ought first of all to look at industrial conditions as they confront the workingman of today, not as conditions existed fifteen or twenty years ago, nor as they existed for our fathers.  A conference should not consider the workingman of its imagination, nor yet the workingman as he [page 5] ought to be, but the workingman of today as he finds himself, with his family, with his savings, with his difficulty of keeping a place very long, due to the sudden changes in the methods of his trade.  His employer is obliged to make constant changes and adaptations in his factory, but his landlord is afraid to try changes in his house.  We hold a certain fiction in our minds of what home is and what it ought to be, forgetting how far back it goes, that it can survive all sorts of changes and adaptations, that the one thing which will kill it is that which kills every living thing, i. e., lack of adaptation to its environment; if it fails to adapt itself to the situation as it really exists, it is for the first time endangered.  If the community, as a whole, gives its mind to it, as the Philadelphia community seems to be doing and knows conditions accurately and thoroughly, I am sure we are going to see very marked changes in the housing of the poorer people of the modern cities, and we shall no more cling to the single house than to the country store.  The time may come, when, if in any city, the death-rate rises above the normal, that the body of public-spirited citizens shall at once feel forced to do something about it, that they shall be filled with a sense of disgrace and feel that a disaster has occurred in their city.  At the present moment the death-rate is constantly above the normal, in certain quarters of our cities; we allow it to be high year after year, knowing that it is excessive.  This apathy can only be explained on one of two grounds, either that we do not know the housing conditions which exist, or that we are so selfish as to have no sense of responsibility in regard to them.


"Q. Is the discretion, which Miss Addams says is abused in Chicago to such an extent, exercised with regard to the legal court area which should be left unoccupied by the building?

"A. (Miss Addams), I would reply, yes, that buildings are permitted to go up with lesser court areas than provided by law.  The matter is so largely in the hands of the office giving the permit that almost every provision is changed.  I think we found in this investigation houses which illustrated the encroachment upon and the breaking of every single ordinance found upon the statute books, in regard to the shaft area as well as other provisions. [page 6]

"Q. I cannot see why the figures mentioned should be unduly low for the rent per room per month, or should be too low to permit a reasonable profit to the owner of property.  I have rented a six-room house in Washington, around the corner from one of the best residence districts, for $3.50 per room per month; furnished rooms in New York near Columbia University, for $2.00 a week, and downtown, near the business part of the city, for $1.50, furnished, with attendance.  I wonder if Mr. De Forest can tell us what, under modern conditions in New York City, for example, should be a fair rent which would enable a landlord to get a fair profit on the investment per room per month.

"A. (Mr De Forest), In New York, rents are, I think, on a business basis.  In other words, I do not think the landlords expect to receive, and do receive from their tenements a normal income, and in many instances more than a normal income.  The modern tenements which are being put up by the City and Suburban Homes Company of New York, which are now being increased in number, do produce a fair income, representing not less than 4 per cent on the money invested.  I refer to the buildings constructed at the present time under the modern requirements of the state law.

"Q. The Washington Sanitary Improvement Company paid 5 per cent from the very beginning and rents its flats for about $3.00 per room per month.  The buildings are one to three stories high.

"A. Land is considerably higher in Washington.  This land is not less than $150, and usually $200 a foot.  The price quoted lowest was $1.78 per room per month, whereas your price was $2.00 a week, for New York; $3.00 and $3.50 per month for Washington.

"Q. We have heard this question from the standpoint of Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, but the clientele of this association, as I understand it, covers the entire country, and I should like to ask Mr. De Forest whether it is not true that the investigation made by the Tenement House Commission of New York disclosed the fact that in virtually every manufacturing city of the country there is today distinctly a housing problem for the poor and that definite constructive work needs to be done to remedy the evils.

"A. The investigation made by the Tenement House Commission which covered all the large cities, and some of the smaller ones of the country, includes statistics from twenty selected cities. [page 7] It is true that the tenement house problem presents itself in a much less degree in some places than in others; it does so to a much less extent in Philadelphia.  In other large cities of the country the housing problem exists to a large extent, and so much so in some of the smaller cities that last winter the cities of the second class in New York State-–Syracuse, Utica, Albany and Rochester–-took up the problem of regulation in these cities.  Jersey City, which is directly opposite New York, and which is a comparatively small city, has some of the worst housing conditions in the whole country.

"Q. About how large a proportion of the population is affected by the housing problem in New York?

"A. The total population of New York is about 3,400,000.  Out of that population upwards of 2,200,000 live in tenement houses, as legally defined, which includes apartment houses.  The proportion in Brooklyn is quite as large as in New York, although there is a smaller number of families per house.

"Q. What is a double-decker?

"A. (Miss Addams), The double-decker was originally, of course, a house, which grew from the fact that there was a front tenement and a rear tenement, and that later the two were joined into one house.

"Q. I would like to ask Miss Addams as to Chicago and Mr. De Forest as to Brooklyn, whether any notice has been taken of the question as to the best pavement for poor sections of the city, that is, whether asphalt for the lanes and alleys is not, as a rule, cleaner in appearance and in other ways, than other kinds of paving, as cobblestone, for instance.

"A. (Miss Addams), I will ask Mr. De Forest to answer that.  Paving is a weak point in Chicago.

"A. (Mr. De Forest), Perhaps I ought to say that I am glad to find some point on which New York has something to say.  Most of our congested tenement districts in New York, largely on the East Side, have been paved with asphalt.  This is regarded as a matter of grave importance, and was one of the subjects considered by the Tenement House Commission; that in some districts there should be asphalt pavements, because the families almost live in the streets in summer and the children all play there, was one consideration, and keeping the streets clean was another of great importance.

"Q. Do you think that the facilitation of the workingman [page 8] in change of residence, either within metropolitan borders, or from one city to another, or from one state to another, is a good thing in contemplation of his privileges and duties as an American citizen?

"A. I think that in industry, as it is now organized, with the sudden changes and fluctuations of skill, if the workman is deprived of the power to sell his labor, it is very bad for him.  Then I think the adaptable person is a better American citizen than a person who is planted too hard.

"Q. Are you not, therefore, regarding only the rights and the good that may be done to the individual, eliminating altogether his obligations as a citizen?

"A. What I wanted to say was this, that I think we have a way of relegating all the old-fashioned virtues to working men and reserving to ourselves the most interesting and more adaptable virtues.  We say to our workmen, do not drink, be thrifty and industrious.  These are good but negative.  We reserve to ourselves the power of developing an interesting life, and all the rest of it.  On general principles, if a man can stay in one place and own his house, of course it is better for him both from a financial and social point of view; but there are exceptions, and we all know that the present industrial conditions imply constant change both in methods and place of manufacture, that if we really understood the workingman's needs and were trying to serve him, we would evolve some such plan as has been evolved in Belgium.  A man there puts his savings into the Government Savings Bank, which has all the features of a building and loan association.  As I understand it, he may make partial payments upon a house in Brussels, but if his work takes him away from that city to another within the kingdom-–let us say Ghent–-he may transfer his payments to a house in Ghent.  On the other hand he may remain in Brussels, complete his payments until he owns his house or withdraw his stock in his own house, after allowing for proper depreciation, and hold his savings in simple bank stock.  The entire arrangement is flexible and adaptable, and transfers the sense of ownership from the simple ownership of land and house, to the more complex one of stock.

"Q. Regarding gardens, playgrounds and gymnasiums, which, in some sections of Philadelphia-–namely, the College Settlement-–have been located on the tops of buildings for the benefit of children, has that been done in New York and Chicago, and with what success? [page 9]

"A. I should say, yes, so far as the movement has gone, that is with regard to open playgrounds, not speaking of roof gardens, and with regard to open parks.  The small park movement has undoubtedly done a great deal of good, and the children's playground, so far as it has gone.  It has not gone to the extent that its friends desire.  So far as the roof gardens are concerned, that is, the adoption of roofs for recreation, that has not been done so far as I know.  It has been thought of and talked of, but never carried out."