The Debate over the creation of a Department of Urban Affairs may finally focus the country’s attention upon those vast “gray” areas that now pocket our urban landscape. Beginning generally where the hard core of slums leave off, these areas stretch outward from the center of the city to the rings of “better” neighborhoods, sometimes to the suburbs. Present in practically every large city in the United States and in a great many smaller ones, they provide the homes and neighborhoods of about fifty million people, and will house millions more, given the current mobility rates of the American people.
Each city manages to mark its own gray areas with a certain degree of individuality: Boston’s are not simply imitations of Newark’s, and both differ, in many respects, from those in New York City. Yet whether the blocks contain a liberal mixture of marginal retail stores, small factories, and rooming houses, or, more monotonously, present only unrelieved façades of closely spaced porches, they all have the same characteristic look—dowdy and down at the heels. Not yet decrepit enough to be called slums and torn down, these gray areas are now in need of a major remedial program to halt their rapid deterioration. The difficulty is that the resources, tools, and techniques which can be brought to bear on any program of rehabilitation are surprisingly few. Even allowing for the fact that federally assisted rehabilitation action only became possible under the National Housing Act of 1954 (five years after the slum clearance program received its initial impetus), urban renewal has been almost wholly in the direction of demolition and rebuilding. Thus, of the 870 renewal project areas approved for federal assistance in some 475 communities up till 1961, only about 170 of them involved the improvement of existing residential structures and neighborhoods. By the end of 1959, less than 20 of the latter had been completed; in total, a woefully inadequate 6,000 dwelling units have now been rehabilitated.
This poverty not only of program, but of will and know-how, is in sharp contrast with the response to the problem of slum clearance and redevelopment, which in about ten short years has enlisted private developers, banks and mortgage lending groups, and the construction industry into one integrated and highly effective operation. Cities do the preliminary survey work; they then purchase the land, demolish the existing structures, and finally offer the cleared areas for sale. A developer (sometimes a university, labor union, or other non-profit group, but most often a private builder) buys the land at a considerably lower price than it originally cost the city, and the difference or “write down” is shared on a two thirds—one third basis by the federal government and the city.
This team work is helped along by a heavy injection of federal funds under Title I of the Housing Act of 1949. It presents the private investor with the attractive possibility of a profitable venture in some of the choicest downtown real estate available today. As for the city, it gets some of its worst eyesores and health hazards eliminated, and very shortly thereafter begins to collect more tax money than it took in from the original properties. Surrounding stores and businesses hail the advent of new customers, and presumably everyone, with the important exception of displaced families and merchants, is happy.
The fact is, however, that rehabilitation rather than clearance will soon assume major proportions in the country’s over-all renewal effort. The reasons are clear enough: clearance and rebuilding of non-slum areas would be fantastically expensive, on both a national and local level; the relocation of families would generate widescale and unnecessary suffering and hardship; the normal, day-to-day functioning of a city and its neighborhoods would become hopelessly confused; and, no less important, vital, living communities would simply be bulldozed out of existence.
Unfortunately, the idea of rehabilitation must work against a number of important socio-psychological handicaps. As a people, Americans appear to be firmly committed to new objects, gadgets, and appliances; our fervor is deep and seemingly endless, and by now has developed into a kind of tropism toward the newly created. This fetish cannot help but condition our basic attitudes concerning homes and neighborhoods. We are suspicious of efforts to “make do,” and it is precisely the make-do element that is at the heart of housing and neighborhood rehabilitation.
The actualities of our past work against rehabilitation as well. Builders continually sought open, vacant space. In the decades between 1890 and 1920, cities swiftly flowed outward; and many of what now constitute our gray areas were built toward the end of that period. Though at times homes and apartments were repaired and renovated, a conscious, large-scale effort to conserve existing urban housing simply did not form a significant element in the main stream of American community life. If, in 1912, one moved from Williamsburg, Brownsville, or the East Side, he left behind him a worn-out neighborhood; if he moved after the 1930’s, likely as not the reason was that large sections of the neighborhoods were already beginning to be torn down and replaced.
The most crucial road block that now thwarts the whole panoply of government agencies, builders, property owners, financial and mortgage-lending groups, local communities, and citizens organizations which must work together in a rehabilitation operation, is a theoretical one. What must happen to a building, a block, or an entire neighborhood so that it is recognizably “different”? In clearance, it is quite possible and almost always exciting to plan for and visualize what will go up after the slums are down and the rubble is cleared. What, however, is the measure of change in a rehabilitated area? How many structural repairs and new or improved facilities are needed to produce even the partial neighborhood change that rehabilitation implies? And—just as important—can this measure be translated into terms clear enough so that officials, planners, landlords, etc., are all talking about the same thing? To date, renewal workers have not been able to answer these questions; and social scientists who have told us much about the process of neighborhood decline, can tell us very little about the process of neighborhood revitalization.
Everyone recognizes that the general tools of rehabilitation are enforcement of housing, health, and zoning codes, structural repairs of neglected buildings, investment by the local government in community facilities; and so forth. But these techniques are hardly enough to provide the framework and details of any particular program. Rehabilitation, having come to mean all things to all people, has taken forms ranging from an attempt at total attitude change to no more than the most superficial paint and patch-up jobs. The specialists in an early Baltimore “pilot program” discovered that to get plumbing fixtures repaired and back yards cleaned, one had to make a frontal assault upon the tastes, habits, and aspirations of the residents. They threw themselves into the unequal fray with a messianic fervor. Today, neither the back yards, plumbing, nor the life style of the residents affected by the “pilot program” are essentially different from what they were before the renewal attempt.
No doubt an archetype for neighborhood rehabilitation will ultimately evolve from the initial fumbling now taking place. The federal rehabilitation program—under the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency—already distinguishes between areas which are close to slum status but cannot be cleared for a variety of reasons (and thus should receive a kind of “holding” action treatment that would extend their useful life not much beyond a ten-year period) and other gray areas which are assumed to be susceptible to more long-range revitalization. Yet, though the Agency is channeling money, advice, and a rudimentary form of procedural logic into several attempts at rehabilitation, the potential participants are reacting with extreme caution. We are witnessing in rehabilitation programs a game of “après vous, Gaston.”
In accordance with Section 220 of the National Housing Act of 1954, the Federal Housing Authority can insure mortgages written for the purpose of rehabilitating structurally sound but aging buildings. Both section 220 and 221 provide much more liberal terms for the financing and re-financing of housing repairs than had heretofore been available to small property owners.1
Yet neither of these mortgage insurance programs has made the slightest headway, and the number of dwelling units affected by FHA 220 and 221 has been distressingly small. It is, of course, an open secret that the FHA has little interest in administering these programs. The agency’s propensity to gravitate toward the “sure thing” in residential construction, and to avoid insuring investments made risky by non-white “complications” or by the declining character of the areas, is well known. David M. Walker, retiring as commissioner of the Urban Renewal Administration, has observed that “it may be too much to ask any organization to mix economically sound business with high risk socially oriented business.” Walker has called for a separate agency within the FHA to administer the mortgage insurance programs for rehabilitation.
Local governments do what they can, but administrative regulations demand paper work and red tape that create enormous problems. Every step is governed by a manual of procedures which already fills more than three volumes. When one adds to these difficulties the fear of most landlords that the end result of property improvements will only be higher real estate taxes, and the general reluctance of banks, savings and loan associations, and other mortgage lenders to underwrite renewal areas that (as Chester Rapkin, professor of City Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, has put it) “have suffered from a long-term, chronic shortage of municipal investment and from low public maintenance expenditures”—the picture becomes even clearer.
The man most lost in this slow shuffle is the rehabilitation “entrepreneur.” He is the man who, theoretically, should recognize the real estate possibilities of one or a number of blocks in a declining area, purchase the aging residential buildings, introduce major structural changes, and either profitably rent or sell the buildings on the open market. The attractive reasoning behind this expectation, as expounded by one of the most successful home modernizers in the United States, goes as follows:
It costs a minimum of $2,000 to $3,000 per room to construct a new house. It is possible to purchase a used house and modernize it for about $1,000 per room, including cost of purchase and modernization. Furthermore, the modernized old homes are usually in built-up, established neighborhoods with schools and utilities already in and paid for. They are likely to have more and larger rooms, more closets, and greater storage space.
Conditions which presumably offer such first-rate business opportunities have borne little fruit. A series of case studies, recently published by the American Council to Improve Our Neighborhoods, examined reactions from the rehabilitators themselves to discover the reason. In addition to the already familiar complaints—difficulties in obtaining financing, confusion of governmental policy, a lack of cooperation from local and national agencies with whom they must deal, etc.—the studies make clear that the generally low returns on capital invested in rehabilitation projects also acted as a prime deterrent. Only in the very few instances where upper-income renters were actively seeking a town-house effect in the central part of the city did private rehabilitators achieve some notable successes. Foggy Bottom in Washington, D. C, is one example out of very few.
The effort to rehabilitate the Clinton Hill section of Newark, now beginning to take shape, mirrors several years of difficult and often frustrating experiences encountered in one form or another by such programs throughout the country. Clinton Hill has been a neighborhood “in transition” for at least the past decade, and much of its former Jewish population has left for the surrounding suburbs. Its typical, closely spaced three-family houses are now occupied predominantly by Negroes; some have become rooming houses and, as a result, population densities have risen sharply.
Long before a rudimentary plan for the neighborhood was developed, the city began to make known its renewal intentions. Landlords and tenants were “alerted” to expect changes. But months stretched into years before the city even decided to apply for federal rehabilitation assistance; it had expected at first to “go it alone.” Other delays kept pushing off the start of rehabilitation: the extraordinary requirements of federal paper work caused one; the city’s unfamiliarity with what really amounted to pioneer experimentation was another; the population changes in the Clinton area was a third. And only today is Clinton Hill just about ready to begin a major code enforcement program, spot clearance of some dilapidated structures, and a number of public improvements. Yet many of the program’s major tests are yet to come.
For example, approximately six hundred landlords and homeowners in the Clinton Hill district, a fourteen-block residential area of the city now being rehabilitated, were interviewed concerning the condition of their property. Investigators used the difference between present conditions and the legal standards established by housing and health codes as a type of measuring device, and assumed that the repairs which would bring the former up to the requirements of the latter would also be sufficient to halt the blighting process. It was found that the average expenditure necessary by a “typical” resident-owner—a man who had two tenants, had lived in the area for at least ten years, and had an annual family income of $5,350—amounted to about $1,850. More than 40 per cent of the owners could not carry such an economic burden. In other words, banks and other mortgage lenders, under conventional mortgage financing procedures, would consider a substantial number of landlords as poor risks. This situation is not unique. A study in the Dixwell area of New Haven presented similar findings.
The possibility that landlords or homeowners could finance the needed repairs out of accumulated savings or by charging higher rents in either Clinton Hill or Dixwell is unlikely. The Dixwell study pointed out that the median income of renter families was $3,400; only 7 per cent earned over $5,000. The average housing expenditure for these families was about $80 a month; thus, an unusually high proportion of income was allocated to rent. Tenants in these areas, like those in most gray areas, could not absorb more than an extremely modest rent rise without endangering their entire budget.
There is one renewal area, however, which might provide the conditions for a successful solution to all these problems—Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Because of the unusually desirable locational advantages of that twenty-block area, a “new” market for extensively remodeled brown stone structures is a real possibility. In addition, unlike the conditions of most rehabilitation projects, a sufficient number of residents in and adjacent to the West Side can afford the considerably higher rents that will become inevitable as renewal proceeds.
If we use this example as a touchstone, it is clear that most gray areas cannot possibly match the Upper West Side of New York in the strength of its “natural” resources. Yet this, in short, is the essential problem of rehabilitation: to somehow create these resources for areas in which they are lacking.
1 These provisions, up till now applicable for only limited renewal areas, have been incorporated, in a slightly revised version, into the National Housing Act of 1961 and are applicable for all areas of the country.