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Take Every Empty House!
Editorial (William MacDonald)
Excerpted from the August 28, 1920 Issue
The Tenement House Commissioner of New York City, Frank Mann, was quoted two weeks ago as saying that the shortage of apartments in the city aggregated 40,000. Mayor Hylan said that the figure was too low and should be nearer 100,000; while Edward Doyle, secretary of the Mayor’s Housing Conference Committee, put the shortage at 160,000.
Everybody knows why this startling state of things has arisen and why it continues. There was practically no building for residential purposes during the war, and there is very little building now.
Everybody knows not only that there is no building, but why there is no building. High prices of land, labor, and material in the cities have made it impossible to build at a profit unless the owner can be assured of a high rental; and rentals, thanks in part to scarcity, in part to the high cost of building, and in part to profiteering by landlords, have about reached the limit of human endurance.
This is the situation. What does it mean for the people? For one thing, it means that some hundreds of thousands of families are threatened with the loss of the apartments or houses which they now occupy, and with not even a remote prospect of finding any others.
All this spells calamity. A population without homes means not only inconvenience; it means sickness and exposure and suffering for men, women, and children; and it may mean death. Without greater forbearance and self-restraint than a houseless population has ever yet exhibited, it also means riot, disorder, and crime. What is the government doing about it? Nothing as yet that can have any appreciable effect for many months to come.
There is one thing that should be done at once in every large city in which the housing problem is acute. That is to take possession of every unoccupied house, or building, or apartment that is fit or can be made fit for human habitation, and make it available for the people who need homes. There are hundreds of houses in every large city that are unoccupied. Some of them have been unoccupied for years, as their boarded doors and windows testify. Some are the superfluous houses of the superfluous rich; some are the town houses of well-to-do owners who pass all of the year in the country or abroad. There are stores and shops and lofts which are vacant, in which families could be housed. In a crisis such as now confronts us, no man has a moral right to close the doors of a building which he does not use; and if he will not rent at a fair rate, the municipal government should not hesitate to take possession, fix a fair rental, and let the people in. There are, in addition, houses which are unoccupied because they no longer meet the requirements of the tenement house laws. Beyond question, many of these could be made habitable at small expense, and that expense the city should assume for the time being. It will need a robust Mayor and city government thus to take the law into their own hands; but the people would support them. The crisis is too acute and too near to wait for slow and formal processes. The emergency is as great, and calls for as prompt and energetic action, as any that could arise out of a war. Let every empty house be opened for the people who will have no homes.