Benjamin C. Marsh ( Biographical note )

Proceedings of the Second National Conference on City Planning and the Problems of Congestion, Rochester, New York, May 2-4, 1910. Boston: National Conference on City Planning):35- 39

Marsh, Executive Secretary of the Committee on Congestion of Population in New York City, analyzes the reasons for housing congestion in American cities. It was an issue that Marsh would pursue with vigor during his long career as a social reformer who applied many of his talents to the field of urban planning. His privately published work of 1909, An Introduction to City Planning, Democracy's Challenge to the American City was the first American book-length work on the subject.
Congestion of population is primarily the result of protected privilege and exploitation, and must be dealt with largely as an economic problem and the result mainly of economic conditions. The first fundamental economic condition is the high cost of land. Taking an actual condition in many of our large cities with the land worth one dollar per square foot, or twenty-five hundred dollars for a lot comprising twenty-five hundred square feet, a rental for land based on a ten per cent gross return would amount to two hundred and fifty dollars per lot. The fair average of the workingman's wage is six hundred dollars for the year. He should not pay over one-fifth for rent, or one hundred and twenty dollars. If one-third of this rent is rent for land, this means forty dollars per year for land and eighty dollars per year for rent for buildings. Consequently there must be housed on each lot six families in round numbers or thirty persons, that is at a density of three hundred to the acre, including streets and counting only ten such lots available to the acre. If seventy per cent of the lot be covered by buildings, only seven hundred and fifty square feet of land would be left, or an average of one hundred and twenty-five feet for each family for garden and other purposes.

The vicious circle in congestion is as follows: Anticipated congestion of the population leads the prospective builder of a high tenement to pay at the rate of one to five dollars per square foot to the owner of the land. Having paid that price, the tenement owner claims it as his legal right to crowd people in the tenements. The assessor capitalizes the rentals of the congested lot and increases the assessed value of the lot upon which the landlord must pay taxes, and the landlord in turn claims this as an excuse for charging higher rents.

A low rate of wages is a second economic cause of congestion. An expenditure of one-fourth of the annual income would secure in the case of most unskilled wage earners only two good rooms, which results inevitably in the overcrowding of the family. The manufacturer has a just grievance if he is compelled to pay such wages as to secure his workmen adequate and proper housing on land which through its great value has made fortunes for the owner thereof. Wages should be reasonably high, but not high enough to pay the speculator in land his eternal profits. To claim this is to claim the right of the landowner to levy a perpetual tax upon industry and so ultimately upon the consumer.

The third economic cause of congestion of population is congestion of factories and offices. No city has ever yet evolved a transit system which would carry people to and from their work in buildings which multiply the acreage of a given block ten, twenty, and even twenty-five fold. Particularly if workers are obliged to work nine or ten hours a day they will, especially if factory employees, live comparatively near their work. This will result in an abnormal number of people to the acre. The enormous values of the sites of buildings is reflected in the equally abnormal values of the land within a radius of a half mile, or even a mile, used for tenements for the workers.

The fourth fundamental cause of congestion is the present speculative system by which large fortunes are made from land without any effort on the part of the holders, together with the present unjust system of municipal taxation by which land and accumulated wealth escape a fair measure of taxation and people with small incomes are compelled to pay often out of an actual deficit a heavy proportion of their earnings in taxation for municipal purposes. The cost of municipal government runs from fifteen to thirty-seven dollars per family in many American cities on a normal and reasonable valuation of land and improvements. This means inevitable hardship, since it nearly represents the rent of at least a small room in certain sections of a city. Every dollar taken in taxation for local or state or federal purposes from families who are attempting to live on a deficit of one or two hundred dollars, means that those families are going to restrict their expenditures; and while shelter is the first object of their care and their expenditure, the amount and quality of their shelter is in no small measure determined by their expenditure for taxes.

The location of immigrants who are unable to afford American standards in the most expensive places to live, that is, in our great cities, is a most important cause of congestion of population. Many, if not most, immigrant families are unable to earn over five or six hundred dollars per year, and they need about eight hundred dollars if there be three children under working age. The tendency, or the economic impulse to congestion, combined with the racial or sectional desire on the part of those coming from the same sections abroad, to live together results in the crowding of three or more occupants into one room and fourteen to sixteen hundred people on to one acre,--conditions which are found in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, as well as New York.

While these economic causes are fundamental, we must admit there are administrative causes which have been very important in producing overcrowding. Low standards of housing permitting of small yard areas and small floor space may be mentioned as the first of these administrative causes. In every city there is a limited district in which land values are at present so high that congestion is unavoidable. On the other hand, there is no reason why buildings, to contain in tenements even nine hundred people to the acre, or in offices and factories one thousand people to the acre, should be permitted in those sections of the city where land values are at present so low that reasonable space and ample rooms can be secured without any confiscation of property rights. The evils of to-day in congested districts will be duplicated in newer sections of every city unless action is taken.

The second administrative cause is the lack of supervision over living conditions. The idea that every man's house is his castle is too deep-rooted in our institutions, and we have carried this abhorrence of interference with personal liberty to an unwise extreme. With a low standard of living, no matter what the wages earned by the family, a too keen sense of thrift will impel them to huddle into rooms, and the consequent overcrowding can be prevented only by a more general supervision of living conditions than we have in America, but such as is provided for in foreign cities. The foreigner ignorant of the American language and of our laws may not know that three or four people are forbidden by law to sleep in a single room, and this fact is not stated so that he can be impressed. Neither have we in any American city to-day adequate regulations holding the landlord responsible for overcrowding and requiring the tenant to register any boarders or lodgers whom he takes in. There must be a marked extension of supervision to prevent this important cause of congestion.

In conclusion it may be noted that since the causes of congestion of population are economic and administrative, they are largely the outcome of a system of laissez faire; and although the discussion of means of preventing congestion is to be taken up by another paper, we may note, too, that to the extent to which the causes of congestion are economic the remedies must be economic, in so far as the causes are administrative they must be prevented by agents in administrative measures; and since congestion is primarily the result of protected privilege and exploitation, the police power of the state must be extended and enlarged to deal with those whose exploitation is in any way responsible for the evil of congestion, with all the human suffering, physical deterioration, and moral danger which congestion promotes and connotes. . 

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: 
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