Housing Problems in Los Angeles, July 1913

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

During periods of economic prosperity, especially in cities where migration is heavy, one of the many social problems that can arise is the question of the availability and affordability of adequate housing.  Today, in greater Los Angeles, the situation involves inventory supply, rising prices, gentrification, affordability, housing quality, and, for growing numbers of people, homelessness.

A little more than a century ago, in the first years of the 20th century, the region was growing dramatically, with the population skyrocketing, the industrial economy booming, and, consequently, housing problems becoming a bigger issue.  This was particularly true in the urban core of Progressive-era Los Angeles, where overcrowded conditions and substandard housing led to a series of reforms aimed at improving the situation.

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The weekly journal, The Survey, founded in the 1890s by the Charity Organization Society of the City of New York and whose associate editors included notable reformers like Jane Addams and Jacob Riis, was devoted to social reform issues of many kinds, including housing, referring broadly to “constructive philanthropy.”  In the Homestead’s collection is the 5 July 1913 issue, in which is an article titled “The House Courts of Los Angeles” and authored by William H. Matthews, who worked with a Pittsburgh settlement house dealing with poor, immigrant families in a working-class district of that city.  Matthews left the Steel City in 1910 for Idaho because of the health of one of his children and appears to have visited Los Angeles and been spurred to author the article based on his years of experience in social work.

Matthews began by noting that “every city has a housing problem which is in some respect peculiar and characteristic.”  In Los Angeles, this involved the house court, in which small dwellings were incorporated on tracts so that many persons lived on the parcel.  By his reckoning, there were some 630 of these courts in the city, comprising about 3,700 living units for roughly 10,000 persons, mainly, he went on, Mexicans, Asians, and eastern and southern Europeans.  That is, the type of immigrant commonly found in the city during those first years of the century.

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Notably, Matthews found that some of these courts were surviving adobe houses from the pre-American era, with some remodeled and in decent shape but others “more often with ceilings, walls and floors in [a] crumbling, dilapidated state.”   Others were wooden shacks, sheds, boxes or shanties and he observed that the typical desert homestead was far better than these “tumbling, propped-up, grotesquely patched habitations in the courts of Los Angeles.”  One was a former warren of prostitution occupied by families.

Still, there were fewer, he continued, than when Riis, known for his studies of New York tenements, visited Los Angeles in 1906 and found that the area “possessed congested and and unwholesome housing conditions quite as bad, though not so extensive, as any city in the land.”  Social reformers in the burgeoning City of Angels, however, advocated for change and a housing commission created by the city, though it initially lacked funding and authority to do meaningful work.

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In recent years, though, it had four inspectors, a secretary and a clerk, all on the city payroll, and became more effective.  Additionally, commission staff also functioned as social workers and educators in their work, with the women inspectors, especially, regarded as “friendly visitors” assisting mothers and children.

One of the main figures in the Los Angeles settlement house and social work community, who may well have been a type described by Matthews, was Mary Julia Workman, grandniece of William and Nicolasa Workman and whose father, William H. Workman, was a former mayor and city treasurer of Los Angeles.  He did say, however, that such work in the city was “poorly developed on the part of the main charity organizations of the city.”

Matthews continued that, while many substandard courts were removed, there were quite a few still to be found.  Moreover, there were some improved multi-family projects, as well as others built to the letter of the law, but still lacking decent conditions such as access to light and fresh air.

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One such example, at 742 North New High Street, in the former Sonoratown barrio north of the city center, was built “in strict accordance” to ordinances.  Yet, the 22 dwellings measured only 12×15 and consisted of rough board construction and had just two rooms, a tiny kitchen and the remaining living space.  Matthews wrote, “sweat boxes are they within, as the sun beats down upon them.”

The ordinance stipulated that there had to be one toilet for each ten men and another for every ten women, so the court had six, but Matthews pointed out “the framers of the ordinance evidently overlooked the children, yet many are here, of all ages.”  Moreover, while there were a stipulated number of water sources, but the ones supplied were such that it “requires much practice and wonderful skill if one would dump a pail of water into them without spilling a good part of it on the ground.”  The dirt yard was soaked with “sink slops” and foul odors were prevalent.

The entire cost of construction for the court, Matthews stated, was but $1,000 and the rent of $6 each brought in $132 a month, so that the costs would be recouped in under a year.  Families of four or more were often found to live in these tiny dwellings, but it was stated that, in the city generally, there were 9 persons living in a one-room unit and 10 in a two-room example.  In his experience of working with crowded urban housing conditions, Matthews claimed there was “never anything worse than I found in some of these courts.”

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Health was endangered, privacy was “practically nil,” and the “physical and moral degeneracy for the children is inevitable.”  Jails, reformatories, juvenile halls and like institutions drew heavily, he added, from those who lived in these structures and “infections and contagious disease find place to propagate, breed and spread.”

In addition to the hundreds of house courts, Matthews wrote that there were probably 3,000 tenements, with similar congestion, lack of light and air and other issues.  The housing commission, however, had no jurisdiction over these, there being only one city health inspector to work with them.  While this employee was praised for his diligence, there was, obviously, very little he could do to make a dent in the broader problem.  Rather, more of his time was spent on applications for new dwellings of similar type.  Yet, on the first of July, the housing commission was to be placed under the health department’s supervision, so hope for improvement with tenements was expressed.

As to the type of resident, Matthews noted that many were “cholos,” that is, working-class Mexicans, of whom it was said that “they’re used to it” and “they don’t want anything different” because “the courts are good enough for them.”  Stating he’d heard the same canards in the East and Midwest, he unequivocally stated that a “lack of desire for more wholesome, more decent housing conditions are false.”

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To demonstrate this point, Matthews provided the example of a hillside tract just outside the city limits (perhaps in places like East Los Angeles or El Sereno) made available to Mexicans and which had lots averaging over 5,000 square feet.  At $25 down and payable on an installment plan at $10 per month plus interest, these were affordable to many Latino families, it was stated.  With regard to the approximately 300 families there, the superintendent of the tract told Matthews that they were “practically no trouble at all, far less than in handling many other of our [presumably Anglo] tracts.”

Matthews wrote that he visited the settlement and found that “many of the homes are garden spots, a wealth of flowers and vegetables providing an inspiring contrast to the hideous, jammed, foul-smelling courts” in the center of the city.  Seeing that more of these tracts could be built in the area, he wondered, in terms striking for us today, why

Los Angeles complacently allows evil and congested housing conditions to become established and to spread.  It is not a new story, I know.  In Los Angeles as in other American cities one may find the same reasons, the same explanation of such conditions—a tremendous increase in its immigrant population in a few years; excessive rents that make it necessary for many of the wage-earners to live in crowded places if they would live at all; land held at fictitious values . . . greedy landlords  . . . and a willingness to exploit the weak, the ignorant and the helpless and to consider the immigrant as only so much flesh and muscle . . . with little or no thought for his social well being, his possibilities as a citizen or his value as a permanent worker.

The solution for much of the problems in Los Angeles housing outlined in the article was “scattering her work population, so as to wipe out and prevent such congestion as is found in the house courts.”  After all, he noted, there were plenty of boosters promoting the beautification of the city” and offering “fair conditions and wholesome surroundings” to all residents, including working-class families.

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Observing that the imminent completion of the Panama Canal (which was a little more than a year later) was touted as meaning much to the growth of Los Angeles, including its industry and labor pools, Matthews exhorted local officials to avoid the “increase of slum conditions, of crowded, unsanitary courts, of dark rooms and halls, of overcrowded tenements, of evil and disease-producing lodging houses” and to move away from laissez-faire housing policies out of “false civic pride.”

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