Possible Improvements: What One Group Proposes

Can the price of housing be reduced after the war? Material manufacturers and dealers, architects, contractors, labor, and others are thinking of this problem today. They are trying to figure out ways and means of solving it. We have already indicated some of the things that are being done. Various research organizations concerned with housing have made interesting suggestions. The recommendations made by the Twentieth Century Fund in a survey of American housing are summarized below. They indicate some possible approaches to the problem, not necessarily approved or accepted by the sponsors of this pamphlet, but presented simply for the purpose of stimulating discussion. Here are the main points in the report

Reorganizing the Industry. The chief need in the building industry is a reorganization that will greatly reduce construction costs and the price of materials. This, according to the report, can probably best be accomplished by the growth of larger building organizations, as well as by increasing the use of factory-made materials and parts and by finding quicker ways of assembling them on the site.

After this comes the need for cheaper and more direct ways of getting materials from manufacturers to builders. Here the report argues that government probably must take a hand by using federal and state laws to rid the housing industry of price fixing and other restraints set up to protect manufacturers, contractors, dealers, and labor unions. Likewise, building codes, the report says, must be revised so as to eliminate the waste of materials and labor and also allow builders to use newer materials and better building methods wherever these do not injure public health and safety.

Better Marketing of Houses. If large-scale producers are to come into the industry, methods of selling must be changed, according to the housing report. At present, houses are sold on a retail basis. There are almost no wholesalers. Hence the cost of selling is high, as it is in all retailing of large and expensive articles.

Large-scale builders in the future, it is claimed, will have to create new types of selling organizations. These will need to be different for different localities. Methods that work well in large cities may not suit the small town or farm community. As in the automobile industry, the selling organizations will have to do three things: (1) handle trade-ins of old houses, (2) arrange for financing the sale, and (3) provide for servicing and repairs.

More Money for Housing. The report declares that to get more bankers and other investors to put money into housing will be a major problem. In fact, it says, the building of more rental houses for low-income families—one of the great housing needs of the country—can only be accomplished by attracting more capital into the industry.

The report suggests several ways of achieving this goal: Insurance companies could be allowed by the states to invest up to 10 percent of all their assets in housing. The federal government, through its various agencies operating in the mortgage field, could encourage more banks and other lending institutions to invest their money in housing. This could be done, it is suggested, by extending federal insurance and lowering the cost of this insurance.

More Public Housing. It is generally agreed, the report points out, that to build all the new homes that will be needed after the war, government and private industry must work together. The report takes the position that private enterprise alone cannot do it.

Public housing, according to the report, has become an increasingly important factor in the house-building industry. Because private capital could not profitably build houses for the low-income groups and their essential needs were not being met, federal and local government stepped into the picture in the 1930’s. Hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds have been invested in homes, mostly in the larger cities, in the last 10 years. Thousands of families with very low incomes have thus been able to move from unsanitary and crowded slums to inexpensive flats or apartments which are light and airy, have private baths, electricity, and other conveniences, and are situated in neighborhoods of a kind enjoyed as a rule only by those with higher incomes. By 1940 more than 10 percent of all new dwelling units built in the United States were produced under public auspices. Under war conditions this percentage has been even higher.

After the war the public housing program, according to the report, may have to be expanded. It asserts that good housing for rent to low-income families will in many localities have to be built, if at all, with money lent or supplied by the government. The report takes the view that the value of public housing has already been demonstrated and that therefore private investors might be attracted to such investments. It suggests that the United States Housing Act could be amended so as to encourage private lenders—banks, insurance companies, and others—to buy the bonds of local housing authorities.

The housing report presents this as a way in which a large proportion of the slums in many cities and towns could be cleared, and good, modern housing built where they stood—housing provided with ample lawns, trees, and air space, playgrounds for children, and parks for everybody. In such developments much use could be made of prefabricated and other simply designed and sturdily built structures.

More Farmhouses. The report says that rural slums are as bad as city slums-and in some cases worse. Before the war, many farmers could not afford to build new homes or repair their old ones. The problem of providing better housing for rural families after the war will be much influenced by whether the farmers are prosperous or not. Even if farm prices stay high and farmers are prosperous, many of the poorer farmers may not be able to get loans from local banks for building or repairing their houses. For them, the report states, the federal agencies concerned with rural housing may have to provide credit. It suggests that the poorest farmers may need grants as well as loans if they are to be housed properly, and it argues that local housing authorities, partly backed by the federal government, could do the job.

The report suggests that some of the city houses built for war workers be taken down after the war and sold to farmers to help reduce the shortage of adequate farm housing. Finally, it points out that many farmhouses will need repairs and alterations and that such federal agencies as the Rural Electrification Administration and the Electric Home and Farm Authority might do useful work here.

Solving the Used-House Problem. So far, this summary of the plans suggested by the Twentieth Century Fund has taken into account only the problem of getting new houses built. Most Americans, of course, will continue to live in old houses, even if the prospect of building over one million homes a year should materialize.

To keep most of these old houses in good condition has always been a great problem. When times are bad and rents drop, landlords are often unwilling to invest money in repairs. And many people who own homes cannot afford to repair them. More credit at low-interest rates will therefore be needed, according to the report, to enable landlords and home owners to make the necessary repairs and alterations in order that their houses will not become a menace to health and safety.

At present, one of the chief housing problems is to get rid of the worst houses-those that are simply not fit to live in. Such dwellings are not only unsightly but they bring down rents in the entire neighborhood and frequently stand on land which might be better used. The used-house problem, the report suggests, might be handled by a large organization that would specialize in buying, remodeling, and renting or selling run-down properties. This organization could buy entire blocks, tear down the worst dwellings, and repair or alter the rest. In this way, neighborhood values would rise and slum conditions in the area would be eliminated.

The foregoing are the main points in the recommendations made in the Twentieth Century Fund’s report on American Housing. Whether one agrees or disagrees with them, they offer interesting points for discussion and debate.