Ohio History Journal




Housing the City: The Better Housing

League and Cincinnati, 1916-1939



A varity of historians have dealt with the housing movement

in America prior to the Great Depression, examining how the

reformers viewed the housing needs around them. Robert H.

Bremner in From the Depths explained how the environmental

emphasis of Progressive housing reform reflected the changing

view of poverty from the mid-nineteenth century notion which

had blamed individual moral breakdown. Roy Lubove emphasized

the leadership and influence of Lawrence Veiller, stressing his

narrow definition of the issue as one of poor sanitary conditions

needing sanitary and structural regulatory improvement. And in

his study of housing reform in Chicago, Thomas L. Philpott em-

phasized how the reformers' concern with order and stability

colored their perception of the problem.1

Despite these various approaches to housing reform, little

effort has been made to analyze the housing reformers by examin-

ing their changing conception of the city.2 Such an inquiry might



Robert B. Fairbanks is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University

of Cincinnati. The author wishes to acknowledge and thank Professor Zane

L. Miller, University of Cincinnati, for helping the author clarify the

argument of this essay.



1. Robert H. Bremmer, From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in

the United States (New York, 1956); Roy Lubove, The Progressives and

the Slums: Tenement House Reform in New York City: 1890-1917 (Pitts-

burgh, 1963); Thomas L. Philpott, The Slum and the Ghetto: Neighborhood

Deterioration and Middle-Class Reform in Chicago, 1890-1930 (New York,

1978). Also see Lawrence M. Friedman, Government and Slum Housing:

A Century of Frustration (Chicago, 1968); Mark I. Gelfand, A Nation of

Cities: The Federal Government and Urban America, 1933-1965 (New

York, 1975); Anthony Jackson, A Place Called Home: A History of Low

Cost Housing in Manhattan (Cambridge, 1976).

2. Examples of how the public's changing conception of the city in-

fluence the way they perceive specific urban problems can be found in


158                                               OHIO HISTORY


better explain why the report of the New York State Tenement

House Commission in 1900 defined the housing problem as one of

unhealthy and congested tenements which threatened "the future

social and sanitary welfare of the city," while by the thirties the

problem would be seen as one of an irreparable slum environment

and area blight. The former problem could be corrected, according

to reformers, by municipal regulations, while the latter problem

could be remedied only by federally subsidized slum clearance and

public housing projects. Local housing organizations which had

earlier denied the need for such action now lobbied for federal

monies, since "the only intelligent solution to the housing problem

is demolition and rebuilding."3

The Cincinnati Better Housing League (BHL) provides a use-

ful vehicle to probe the housing reformers' shift from regulation of

sanitary conditions to slum clearance. The League, established in

1916, not only led the better housing movement in Cincinnati, but

also earned national recognition as one of the country's most effec-

tive local housing associations. During this time, the BHL leader-

ships' perception of what needed their attention altered and that

shift stemmed from a change in their definition of the nature of

urban growth and expansion.



The creation of the Cincinnati Better Housing League on 10

July 1916 marked not the culmination of interest in housing reform

in the city, but the continuation and intensification of an older

concern with tenement houses which groups such as the Anti-

Tuberculosis League, the Chamber of Commerce, the United

Jewish Charities, and the Associated Charities had generated. In-

deed, as early as 1903 the nature of the city's tenement problem,

as seen by these groups, had received full explication.4 In a paper



Geoffrey Giglerano and Zane L. Miller, "The Rediscovery of the City:

Downtown Residential Housing in Cincinnati, 1948-1978" (unpublished

paper prepared for the Community Development Panel of the Cincinnatus

Association, Cincinnati, 1978) and Zane L. Miller, Neighborhood and

Community in a Suburban Setting: Forest Park, Ohio, 1935-1976 (Knox-

ville, Tennessee, forthcoming).

3. Robert W. DeForest and Lawrence Veiller, eds., The Tenement

House Problem Including the Report of the New York State Tenement

House Commission of 1900, vol. I (New York, 1903), xiv; Trend Today in

Housing: Annual Report of the BHL (Cincinnati, 1933); Bleecker Mar-

quette, Twentieth Annual Report of the BHL (Cincinnati, 1936), 4.

4. The Cincinnati Building Code defined tenement as "a house or

Housing the City 159

Housing the City                                             159


given that year at the national Conference of Charities and Correc-

tion, C. M. Hubbard, secretary of the Associated Charities of

Cincinnati, observed that a local tenement house survey had dis--

closed appalling sanitary conditions among Cincinnati's tenements

in the crowded downtown Basin area. According to Hubbard, the

conditions in that area threatened the social well-being of the

community and could be remedied only by adopting an effective

municipal regulatory code and establishing systematic inspections

by city officials. Nine years later, moreover, the Cincinnati Anti-

Tuberculosis League initiated a "Darkest Cincinnati" campaign

which also emphasized the deplorable sanitary conditions and con-

gestion within the city's tenements. And in December of that same

year, 3,000 citizens attended a meeting chaired by Mayor Henry T.

Hunt to decide how best to clean up the tenements.5

Focusing on the creation and enforcement of local tenement

housing codes, Cincinnati's early twentieth century housing re-

formers stressed that these tools would help solve the tenement

problem and argued over the most effective means of carrying out

the code and inspection program. After the city's first tenement

code of 1909 failed to bring about the results anticipated by the

reformers, they blamed the Building Department for inappropri-

ately administering the law and campaigned for a separate Tene-

ment House Department to oversee the code's enforcement. As a

result of the controversy over who should administer the tenement

code in Cincinnati, between 1909 and 1916 the enforcement mech-

anism was constantly being challenged, restructured, and challeng-

ed again by those confident that securing enough honest and

efficient housing inspectors would solve the problem.6

Concern in Cincinnati with housing standards coincided with

and took the same form as the growing nationwide interest in the


building or portion thereof which is rented, leased, let or hired out to be

occupied, or is occupied as the home or residence of three or more families

living independently of each other and doing their cooking upon the

premises, but having a common right in the halls, stairways, yards, water-

closets or some of them." Codification of Ordinances of the City of Cin-

cinnati, 1911, 140.

5. C. M. Hubbard, "The Tenement House Problem in Cincinnati," Pro-

ceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (Atlanta,

1903), 352; Herbert Frank Koch, "Report on the Housing Problem and

Housing Reform," (typewritten, Cincinnati, 1915), Cincinnati Historical

Society (CHS).

6. "Report of the Special Committee of the Housing and Welfare

Committee of the Chamber of Commerce," 28 February 1914, Cincinnati

Chamber of Commerce Papers, CHS.


160                                             OHIO HISTORY


tenement problem. Lawrence Veiller, who helped found the Tene-

ment House Committee of the Charity Organization Society for

New York City in 1898, probably best articulated the general per-

ception of the problem. Although lack of sanitary facilities, con-

gestion, insufficient light, and "foul cellars and courts" created an

environment of sickness, vice, and crime which cost the entire

community in terms of additional hospitals and police, the real

problem, according to Veiller, was "the problem of enabling the

great mass of the people who want to live in decent surroundings

and bring up their children under proper conditions to have such


Although campaigns to clean up the unsanitary squalor of the

tenements had been common since the mid-nineteenth century,

reformers at the turn of the century were unique in that they

questioned whether any tenement could provide "decent surround-

ings" for the urban poor. Veiller reflected this view in the 1900

Tenement Commission Report in which he argued that "no one

who is at all familiar with the tenement house life in New York...

can fail to realize that the chief evil to be remedied is the tenement

house itself."8

Still, the Veiller-led housing reform movement in the United

States emphasized the need for tenement improvement because

the reality of thousands actually living in tenements demanded

some type of action to relieve the worst problems created by poor

sanitation and over-congestion. Employing the Progressive em-

phasis of efficiency and expertise, housing reformers stressed a

more systematic approach to tenement house betterment than

earlier tenement reform movements.

The "Report of the New York State Tenement Commission

of 1900" served as an important blueprint for housing reform

while the New York State Tenement Law, written by Veiller and

passed as a law for the state's two largest cities (New York City

and Buffalo) on 12 April 1901, served as a model tenement law for

cities throughout the nation, including Cincinnati. The latter con-

tained regulatory provisions concerning fire controls, light and


7. Lawrence Veiller, "Housing Problems in America," Proceedings

of the National Conference of Housing (Cincinnati, 1913), 207-08.

8. DeForest and Veiller, eds., Tenement House Problem, vol. 1, 5.

For a discussion of mid-nineteenth century housing in Cincinnati, see

Alan I.  Marcus, "In Sickness and in Health: The Marriage of the

Municipal Corporation to the Public Interest and the Problem of Public

Health, 1820-1870. The Case of Cincinnati" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation,

University of Cincinnati, 1979), 189-91.

Housing the City 161

Housing the City                                          161


ventalation, and sanitary requirements, while the Commission re-

port emphasized the methodology of investigation, education, legis-

lation, and strict enforcement of regulatory laws. Contrary to

earlier reform movements, which identified moral breakdown as

the chief cause behind housing conditions, the early twentieth

century housing reformers believed that a sickly tenement environ-

ment produced poor citizens. Concentrating on the need to improve

that environment, the New York report concluded that


It is only by providing homes for the working people, that is, by pro-

viding them not only shelter, but shelter of such a kind to protect

life and health and to make family life possible, free from surroundings

which tend to lead to immorality, that the evils of crowded city life can

be mitigated and overcome.9


By 1909, the interest in housing had become so great that

Veiller organized the National Housing Association (NHA), the

main function of which was to advise cities on questions of housing

reform. Although its chief concern was the condition of tenement

districts, nevertheless the association's title suggests that its in-

terest included all types of housing regulation. Funded by grants

from the Russell Sage Foundation, the NHA attempted to coordi-

nate the housing movement more effectively by holding yearly

meetings, beginning in 1911. When the meeting was held in Cin-

cinnati in 1913, its executive secretary, Lawrence Veiller, en-

couraged local residents to create a local housing association. His

push for such an organization was based on the premise that hous-

ing was a full-time problem, and as such required a full-time orga-

nization devoted exclusively to that problem. As Veiller put it:


We must recognize that we are not sallying forth as amateurs on a

pleasant holiday into sociological realms, but are embarked upon a

movement . . . with the most serious consequences to the community.10


The actual creation of the Cincinnati Better Housing League

resulted from a movement within the Housing Committee of Cin-

cinnati's Woman's City Club in 1915. Under the chairmanship of

Mrs. Annie P. Strong, the Committee emphasized the familiar

Progressive goals of education and regulation. Convinced that they


9. DeForest and Veiller, eds., Tenement House Problem, vol. 1, 3.

10. Lawrence Veiller, "A Program of Housing Reform," Proceedings

of the National Conference on Housing (New York, 1911), 4.


162                                             OHIO HISTORY


should spur the creation of a citywide housing association, the

women, led by Louise Pollak and Setty S. Kuhn, launched a

series of discussions with various individuals about founding such

a group. After gaining the support of Max Senior, founder of the

United Jewish Charities of Cincinnati, and Courteney Dinwiddie,

secretary of the Anti-Tuberculosis League, the women initiated a

subscription campaign to raise $5,000, the amount of money

Veiller suggested as necessary to operate a housing association.11

A meeting at the Woman's City Club on 10 July 1916 created

the Cincinnati Better Housing League. The ten persons attending

the session, presided over by Alfred Bettman, a local and national

planning figure, appointed Setty S. Kuhn as temporary chair-

man of the Board of Directors and selected a committee to draw

up a constitution. They also hired E. P. Bradstreet as the League's

executive field secretary for $125 per month. Bradstreet, a former

reporter for the Cincinnati Post, was directed to publicize the

city's housing needs, since "once the public knows the facts and

desires a remedy, improvement will follow inevitably."12 Acting

upon this mandate, the executive secretary visited a variety of

civic, social, and labor organizations, as well as newspapers, to

explain the city's housing ills.

The League's Constitution, adopted on 14 November 1916,

outlined how the organization would "promote better housing,

especially in the tenements of Cincinnati." It proposed to accomp-

lish this


... by giving the greatest publicity to housing conditions; by urging

the enlargement of the Tenement House Inspection Department as

needed; by promoting the improvement of the housing regulations and

the law; by promoting better relations with tenement house owners

and by other means as may secure better housing conditions in Cin-



The BHL, then, while concerned chiefly with remedying the

tenement problem, differed from late nineteenth century tenement


11. Minutes, Housing Committee of the Woman's City Club, 25 May

1916, Woman's City Club Papers, CHS: 6 June 1916; 9 December 1915.

12. Minutes, Board of Directors of the BHL, 10 July 1916, BHL

Papers, Urban Studies Collection, Archival Collection of the University

of Cincinnati, 4; Houses or Homes: First Report of the Cincinnati Better

Housing League (Cincinnati, 1919), 21.

13. Minutes, Board of Directors of the BHL, 14 November 1916, BHL

Papers, 1-2.

Housing the City 163

Housing the City                                           163


reform movements in that it both encouraged cleaning up the

tenement district and in promoting better housing throughout the

entire city. Some BHL executive meetings, such as the one held

jointly with the City Club on 22 November 1916, continued the

earlier reformers' concern with tenement regulation. At that meet-

ing, the League asked its executive secretary, E. P. Bradstreet, to

investigate carefully the state building code and identify all those

laws relating to tenement houses. At other sessions of the Execu-

tive Committee, however, the BHL's leadership discussed the need

for broadening and modernizing the housing section of the local

building code to include all types of housing in the city.14

This new focus on citywide housing reflected the reformers'

belief that the tenements served only as way stations for urban

newcomers, who would eventually move up the socio-residential

urban ladder and one day live in single-family homes, the proper

dwelling for the city. Such a movement was natural, according to

the reformers, so it was important to ensure that the housing stock

throughout the city be properly maintained for both the protection

of the current residents as well as the future ones. Complimenting

this belief in the outward expansion of the urban population was

the belief in the continued outward expansion of the central busi-

ness district and its surrounding industrial areas, a process which

would eventually doom tenements in the Basin area to extinction.15

Nevertheless, the League continued to commit a large percent-

age of its program to regulation and education in the tenement

district. Adhering to Veiller's analysis that sanitary deficiencies

were the root cause of bad housing, the League attempted to

abolish unfit privy vaults and catch basins, along with dark halls

and poorly-lighted interior rooms, arguing that they created health

and social problems which threatened the stability of the work-

ingman's family.   In an environment which fostered disease,

poverty, vice, and crime, remedial action was needed. So sure was

the League's leadership that an improved tenement environment

would foster a better Cincinnati, they asserted that


Today, when the world is confronted with unrest and with the advance

of doctrines inimical to the state, the community in which a majority


14. Minutes, Executive Committee of the BHL and the Housing

Committee of the City Club, 22 November 1916, BHL Papers; Minutes,

Executive Committee of the BHL, 9 January 1917, BHL Papers, 2.

15. See George E. Kessler et. al., A Park System for the City of Cin-

cinnati (Cincinnati, 1907), 32 for a sense of how contemporaries perceived

the expanding downtown district; Houses or Homes, 25.


164                                            OHIO HISTORY


of the population own their own homes, or live in houses that are de-

cent and attractive, has little cause to fear.16

Citywide regulation would serve the dual purpose of remedying

some of the worst tenement conditions and of ensuring that future

housing would never fall into such deplorable conditions.

The League's education programs also illustrated its concern

with both the present and the future. Reflecting the housing

movement's interest in human as well as physical housing problems,

these programs sought to instruct the tenement dweller in hygienic

and social skills needed for city living. According to the League,

the city not only had a housing problem but also a tenant problem

because some tenants were "ignorant, irresponsible and destructive

individuals." The BHL attempted to combat this in several ways.

First, the executive secretary visited all the schools in the tene-

ment district to lecture on the importance of sunlight, fresh air,

cleanliness, and good housekeeping. Working under the assumption

that some former tenement dwellers had already moved to other

parts of the city, the League also distributed to the public schools

a pamphlet entitled "Home, Health and Happiness," which "told in

simple language" and illustrated "by graphic pictures the things

that tenants ought to know about the care of their homes." Essay

contests held for the eighth graders throughout the city on "The

Proper Care of the Home" represented another BHL effort to

educate and inform. In reporting on its educational efforts with

the school children, the League's first public report noted with

pride that "this systematic plan of working for housing betterment

through the children in public schools is not used in any other


The creation of a force of visiting housekeepers in 1918 was

another educational response to the tenant problem. The house-

keeping plan, developed after the city real estate board complained

about property destruction by "ignorant Negroes" in the city's

West End, attempted to teach tenants "how to live properly, to

appreciate repairs and improvements that are made for them, to be

fair with the landlord and to pay their rent promptly." By 1923,

the League employed six housekeepers to work with both blacks

and whites.18


16. Houses or Homes, 20.

17. Ibid., 16, 18, 24.

18. The Real Estate Board endorsed the housekeeping plan. Ibid.,

26; Minutes, Board of Directors of the BHL, 14 February 1918, BHL

Papers; Ibid., 15 January 1918; Ibid., 13 November 1923.

Housing the City 165

Housing the City                                    165

The League also conducted housekeeping institutes "in the

heart of the congested colored district" in the Basin's West End

which offered instruction in sewing, in cooking, and "in the rights

and duties of tenants." According to one BHL report, the house-

keepers and the institute were not only helping tenement residents

to cope better with their present needs, but were preparing them

"to take proper care of the better types of houses which we hope

they may be able to live in in the future."19

Another emphasis of the BHL demonstrated its broadening

interest with housing rather than just tenements. Although model

tenements had been popular in the late-nineteenth century, hous-

ing reformers such as Veiller dismissed them in the early-twentieth

century as "merely palliative and distractive" because of their

limited influence. But with the war-induced housing shortage, the

League sought to provide needed shelter for the poor. The Board

of Trustees, in fact, discussed such stopgap measures as the fund-

ing of a Better Housing Company to buy ill-kept tenements and



19. Housing in Cincinnati. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Annual

Report of the BHL of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (Cincinnati, 1929),

7. The first annual report also discussed "the movement from our tene-

ments to homes in the suburbs." Houses or Homes, 25.


166                                             OHIO HISTORY


repair them to rent. When funds proved unavailable, they attempt-

ed to persuade firms such as Proctor and Gamble to build working-

men's houses. Although this plan failed too, it suggested that the

League was more concerned with the building of new houses than

of new model tenements to combat the housing shortage.20

By the time the BHL was established, then, reformers had

expanded their area of interest from the tenement district to the

whole city. This meant that they now crusaded for regulatory

laws to prevent the newer houses from deteriorating to the poor

conditions of the Basin tenements. The League's educational pro-

grams also tried to equip the tenement dweller with the necessary

hygienic and social skills to be a good city neighbor. Such a program

seemed important since the tenement no longer was viewed as the

permanent residence of the poor, but rather as an entering point

for people on the track of socioeconomic and residential mobility.

The League's 1920 Annual Report best revealed this vision of the

tenement as a temporary and unsatisfactory residence when it

suggested that


Tenement houses do not provide real homes. No matter how well con-

structed, they are not the best place to live in. They make home owner-

ship impossible. What Cincinnati and every other city in the country

needs is not more tenement houses, but more small homes, where each

family may live unto itself with a place for the children to play-a

home which the family itself may own.21


The vision of a dynamic and expanding city, with an outward

moving population and spreading central business district, also

reinforced the League's belief that regulation and education would

solve Cincinnati's housing needs. When the BHL mentioned in its

first report in 1919 that it wanted to be able to boast that "Cin-

cinnati is a city of homes" that has "no slums," it was not suggest-

ing that the city or private organizations instigate a massive slum-

clearance project. Rather it reflected the idea that the city would

continue to expand and the slums would wear out or be replaced

by the expanding downtown business and commercial section. Such


20. Lawrence Veiller, Housing Reform: A Handbook for Practical

Use in American Cities (New York, 1910), 70. The chapter's title from

which the quote came was "Tenements and Their Limitations." Minutes,

Board of Directors of the BHL, 17 September 1918; Houses or Homes, 25;

Minutes, Executive Committee of the BHL, 4 June 1919, 1, BHL Papers.

21. Housing Progress in Cincinnati: Second Report of the Cin-

cinnati Better Housing League (Cincinnati, 1921), 28.

Housing the City 167

Housing the City                                            167


a perception of the city gave the League a cautious optimism that

the housing problem could be eradicated by concentrated and effec-

tive action.22


The organizers of the BHL, who shaped the League on the

principles of coordination and scientific investigation, hoped to

develop a centralized organization solely devoted to housing better-

ment so they could successfully analyze and attack the housing

problems threatening Cincinnati. Towards this end, the BHL

conducted numerous housing surveys on Cincinnati housing condi-

tions, such as the tenement survey of 1918, and became an import-

ant data bank for both private and public agencies to consult.23

Despite this action and others such as the hiring of a new executive

secretary and the joining of a central fund-raising organization,

both attempts to make the League an even more efficient housing

association, much of the BHL's leadership's optimism about solving

the city's housing problems waned, for the twenties proved a

difficult and trying time for the reformers.

By luring Bleecker Marquette away from New York City to

become executive secretary of the BHL on 1 September 1918, the

city gained a proven housing expert. Marquette, who had worked

with Lawrence Veiller for three years as assistant secretary of the

New York State Tenement Committee, brought both knowledge

and expertise to the local reform movement. The League hired

Marquette for a yearly sum of $3,000, a figure double the salary

of E. P. Bradstreet, the organization's first executive secretary.

That seemed justified since the new head would provide the

analytical skills deemed necessary for a successful organization.24

Another important decision by the League's board members

was to join on 12 October 1917 the Central Budget Committee of

the Council of Social Agencies. Reflecting the era's emphasis on

centralization and coordination, this federation of charitable, civic,


22. Houses or Homes, 3.

23. The 1918 survey (published in 1921) investigated four "typical"

sections of the city's Basin area to ascertain how prevalent were the

sanitation evils of the yard toilet, dark or interior rooms, and room con-

gestion. A Tenement House Survey in Cincinnati (Cincinnati, February,

1921), 2. Other surveys included an investigation of the area surrounding

Ivorydale in 1918; a tenement house survey of the 16th, 17th, and 18th

wards in 1926; and a yearly rental survey. Marquette, Twentieth Annual

Report, 2.

24. Minutes, Special Meeting of the Board of Directors, 7 June 1918,

BHL Papers.


168                                            OHIO HISTORY


philanthropic and public agencies of Greater Cincinnati helped

manage much of the social and health work in the community. By

joining the Council's Central Budget Committee, composed of

twenty-nine agencies which pooled their resources for joint con-

sideration of individual budgets after conducting a single fund-

raising drive, the BHL freed itself from financial dependence on

its own membership, which had collected revenue for the organiza-

tion from friends and relatives.25 Membership in the Council also

signaled to the city that the mechanics of a housing association

had been dealt with, and that the League now stood ready to be-

come a significant force within Cincinnati.

Almost from its inception, the League's vision of an orderly,

expanding, and outward-growing city where it was possible to move

on to better homes appeared threatened by the war-induced hous-

ing shortage. Citing the scarcity of building materials and the

flood of black migrants coming to work in the city's factories as

causes, the League altered its emphasis from regulation to alleviat-

ing the city's over-crowded condition. Fearful that a housing

shortage would interfere with the step-up process of the dynamic,

outward-growing city, the BHL concluded that only by "housing

the city" could the problem be remedied. Its 1921 Annual Report

proclaimed that "Cincinnati is so far behind in its supply of houses

that every practical plan that will provide more good houses is

urgently needed." In the same report, Marquette pointed out that

the League's emphasis had changed from getting rid of slum

conditions to that of providing shelter for the working class.26

This theme dominated much of the League's board meetings

between 1921 and 1925, and during these years BHL members also

realized that housing shortages not only threatened tenement

dwellers, but the middle class as well. Bleecker Marquette, speak-

ing at the National Conference on Social Work in 1923, analyzed

the situation and concluded that


Not for decades has the housing problem been so acute as during the

past 2 or 3 years. For almost the first time in recent history it has

ceased to be a problem for the submerged tenth alone and has squarely

hit the people of moderate means. They are better able to understand




25. Minutes, Board of Directors of the BHL, 12 October 1917, BHL

Papers; Cincinnati Social Service Directory, 1918-1919 (Cincinnati: Coun-

cil of Social Agencies, n.d.), 20-22.

26. Housing Progress in Cincinnati, 4, 11.

Housing the City 169

Housing the City                                            169


today a thing that our underpriviliged classes have long understood-

what it means to lack an adequate supply of houses at reasonable cost.27


Despite Marquette's concern for the middle class, Cincinnati

blacks still suffered most from the shortage. In 1922, the League's

annual report observed that the "situation among colored families

is almost desperate." Not only had work opportunities attracted

an enormous influx of blacks to a city already experiencing a hous-

ing shortage, but residential segregation in Cincinnati prevented

more affluent blacks from moving out from the central city

ghetto. Further contributing to the congestion, according to the

BHL's report, was "the replacement of blocks of houses in the

lower river district by large business houses and clubs."28 Nowhere

was the congestion greater than in the West End of the Basin,

particularly the 15th through 18th wards, where the Negro popu-

lation had doubled from 8,647 to 17,207 between 1910 and 1920.29

The overcrowding had lured speculators who traded and bought

tenements, raised rents, and reaped economic benefits while blacks

suffered. High rents, which had tripled in some instances between

1918 and 1922, resulted in cases of families doubling and tripling

up in some West End flats. A housekeeper for the League reported

that twenty persons lived in a three-room flat on 1131 Hopkins

Street. Another twelve-room tenement on 324 George Street con-

tained ninety-four occupants. After observing such conditions, Dr.

Haven Emerson reported to the Public Health Federation that


You could not produce a prize hog to show at a fair under the con-

ditions that you allow Negroes to live in, in this city. Pigs and chickens

would die in them for lack of light, cleanliness and air.30


The League responded to both the housing shortage in general

and the Negro congestion in particular by looking for alternatives

to what it identified as a fragmented private housing industry. The

decision to form a limited dividend housing company, based on the


27. Bleecker Marquette, "The Human Side of Housing: Are We Losing

the Battle for Better Homes?" Proceedings of the National Conference on

Social Work (Washington D. C., 1923), 344.

28. "Housing Progress," Report of the BHL (typewritten), Cincin-

nati, 1922, CHS, 1.

29.  Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910: Population, 3: 427;

Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920: Population, 3: 799-800.

30. Minutes, Executive Committee of the BHL, 13 November 1923, 1;

The Housing Situation Today: Report of the BHL (Cincinnati, 1925), 2.


170                                            OHIO HISTORY


principle of restricted profits, was one such attempt to avoid the

problems which had impeded the small, private contractors' build-

ing efforts. The BHL housing company's ability to buy its ma-

terial in quantity and eliminate cost duplication in areas such as

architectural fees might provide the savings needed to build low-

cost homes, if the company had expert leadership. Therefore, in

1919 a League committee, headed by Jullian A. Pollak, hired John

Nolen, the famous city planner (and future developer of the Cincin-

nati area's model new town, Mariemont), to advise the club's newly-

formed housing company.31

Although the company originally planned the building of low-

cost homes, its members concluded after reviewing a survey taken

in 1920 "that it would be impossible to construct houses at that

time within the reach of the ordinary workingman." Instead, the

company would construct houses for "those with a higher income

with a view to relieve the pressure from the top." The League

failed even in this objective, however, because it could not raise

enough money for the company and thus abandoned its plan in

February, 1922.32

Having fallen short with its construction scheme, the League

turned to other alternatives in dealing with the housing shortage.

When requested by the Community Chest to help combat the

terrible congestion within the city's black sections, the League

created a special committee on Negro Housing which first met on

4 February 1924 to develop a strategy for dealing with the crisis.

Noting the impossibility of building new homes for poor blacks

because of high construction costs, the committee urged an in-

crease in regulation and educational activities, hoping that these

"temporary measures" would allow some limited progress "in

cleaning up and keeping in reasonable repair the tenement houses

in the West End Section of the city, and in other parts of the city

where housing conditions are bad."33

The Negro Housing Committee also urged greater financial

support for the Model Homes Company, a limited dividend housing

company which had been building houses and apartments since

1915 on the policy of philanthropy and 5 percent profit. As a



31. Letter, Bleecker Marquette to Alfred Bettman, 27 September

1919, Cincinnati Better Housing League Papers (CBHL), CHS; Housing

Progress in Cincinnati, 7-9.

32. Housing Progress in Cincinnati, 9.

33. Minutes, Special Committee on the Negro Housing Problem, 4

February 1924, BHL Papers.

Housing the City 171

Housing the City                                    171

consequence of its belief in private housing projects, the committee

recommended that a million dollars be raised for the Model Homes

Company, since "the present situation can't be relieved materially

without the constructing of more houses."34 Inflation had raised

building costs from $1,400 a flat in 1915 to $3,750 a flat ten years

later, limiting the company's ability to build for the neediest; but,

according to the League, additional housing for anyone was im-

portant since only then would "the old procession [be] once more

started from the poorer houses to better houses and so make avail-

able to families of small means the old but adequate houses that

are still habitable."35 Like the construction scheme, this plan also

failed as the League's campaign drive failed to raise the necessary

money, and thus the houses were not built.



34. Ibid.; According to the League in 1921, "Cincinnati is so far be-

hind in its supply of houses that every practicable plan that will provide

more homes is urgently needed." Housing Progress in Cincinnati, 11.

35. John Ihlder, "Extent of the Housing Shortage in the U.S.-


172                                           OHIO HISTORY


Despite its interest in the health and welfare of Negroes, the

League's philanthropic concern and racial tolerance had boundaries.

When in 1924 blacks started moving into the Mohawk-Brighton

district due "to speculative dealers buying tenement houses in

white neighborhoods and selling or renting to colored tenants," the

BHL Board of Directors called it a "momentous problem." Fearful

of the "outbursts of violent feeling and bitterness" that block-

busting might prompt, the Board instructed its housekeepers to

dissuade blacks from moving into white neighborhoods. The Board

then discussed what it felt to be the problem's real solution, which

was "finding room for expansion of the colored people in this city

without this scattering in the neighborhoods."36 Although bene-

volent, the League nevertheless made no effort to integrate blacks

into white neighborhoods. Outward residential mobility for indi-

vidual blacks still depended on the availability of new outlyng black


Because the League believed that the housing shortage posed

only a temporary threat to the orderly expanding and outward-

growing city, it continued to concentrate much of its emphasis on

regulation and education as important housing tools throughout

the twenties. In fact, the League's budget showed a substantial

increase in expenditures for visiting housekeepers, who performed

the dual activities of teaching urban living habits to the influx of

urban newcomers and acting as trouble shooters to alert the League

to the very worse cases of overcrowding in the tenement district.

Typifying the League's continued and expanding interest in

regulation was its support of zoning proposals, including one which

would divide the city into districts and "limit the heights of build-

ings and prescribe the size of open spaces for light and ventila-

tion."' Such an ordinance would "insure the proper development

of the city by protecting residential districts from invasion by

business buildings or big industries." The BHL also approved of

zoning because it would promote the house as the proper city dwell-

ing by preventing "the development of slums and tenements in the

suburbs." A special zoning committee of the BHL cited other

salutary affects of zoning and proclaimed that



Its Economic and Social Effects, Resources Available in Dealing With

It," Proceedings of the National Conference on Social Work (Milwaukee,

1921), 332; Minutes, Board of Directors of the BHL, 10 October 1922, BHL


36. Minutes, Board of Directors of the BHL, 7 October 1924, BHL


Housing the City 173

Housing the City                                           173


We believe it will do more to prevent congestion and bad housing and

to promote the development of good housing standards in the future

more than any other single measure proposed for the city in years.37


Not only did the League's concept in the twenties of regula-

tion broaden from legislating housing standards to zoning, but its

unit of concern also changed from the city to the greater metro-

politan area, reflecting an increased nationwide interest in the

metropolis. The League's newly incorporated name in 1929-The

Better Housing League of Cincinnati and Hamilton County-

symbolized its new interest. The League, noting how the lack of

regulatory laws for the areas just outside the city's boundaries

resulted in poor construction and uncontrolled development, as in

"some Negro subdivisions beyond Lockland and Glendale," sup-

ported county zoning and pushed the creation of the Hamilton

County's Regional Planning Commission on 22 March 1929. In this

connection, the League reported that


It is our task to see that all homes built hereafter are built right and

this applies not to the city alone, but to the metropolitan area. Adoption

of the revised zoning ordinance, completion of the new building code,

and effecting the regional plan are all essentials.38


By 1926 the city's housing shortage had eased enough to per-

mit the League some of its earlier optimism. In that year, Bleecker

Marquette observed the "marked improvement in tenement housing

conditions" and noted that "at no time in the city's history has

greater progress been made" in improving local housing conditions.

For the next three years, the minutes of the League's Board of

Directors meetings brimmed with reports of success by the

League's housekeepers and the city's housing department. Statisti-

cal accounts of the number of structural repairs, room renovations,

and demolitions of uninhabitable dwellings usually occupied the

first several pages of the Board's minutes.39


37. Houses or Homes, 24; Minutes, Committee on Zoning Ordinances,

11 December 1923, BHL Papers.

38. Minutes, Board of Incorporators of the BHL of Cincinnati and

Hamilton County, Inc., 16 May 1929, BHL Papers; Minutes, Board of

Directors of the BHL, 19 April 1928, BHL Papers, 1. The League was

particularly concerned about the Steele Subdivision. These "slums" in the

suburbs were a "threat to orderly growth." Housing in Cincinnati: Annual

Report of the CBHL (Cincinnati, 1928), 20.

39. Bleecker Marquette, "Progress in Cincinnati," Housing Better-

ment: A Journal of Housing Advance (February, 1927), 98-100. Not only

did the minutes of the Board meetings contain statistical accounts of


174                                              OHIO HISTORY


Despite the apparent success of the BHL, one persistent diffi-

culty remained-meeting the demand for low cost housing. Even

the resumption of construction, which alleviated the middle class

housing shortage, did little to aid the city's poorer families, who

were still crowded together in older, inadequate dwellings. The

"trickle down" process of housing did not fulfill its promise, and

the BHL leadership had learned in the 1920s that neither private

enterprise nor limited-dividend companies could meet the housing

demand.40 The BHL Annual Report for 1929 summarized the

problem by explaining that


Without question the great challenge in the field of housing is how to

build satisfactory new homes at prices our families of moderate means

can afford. . . . There is no problem more deserving of constructive



The title of the 1930 Annual Report, Housing: Forward or

Backward, was symptomatic of the BHL's dilemma. The report

included impressive accounts of improvements carried out that year

by the League in the realm of tenement betterment and tenant

education. But the report also admitted that the city's housing

problems remained, and would not be resolved for many years. This

view of reality led the League to blame the city's past neglect of

its housing needs for its current difficulties. It argued that


If Cincinnati had had, seventy-five years ago, a modern housing law,

an up-to-date building code, a zoning system and a city plan to guide

and regulate construction, there would be practically no housing prob-

lem in our city today.42


The adherence to the model of a dynamic city, with both

business and people moving out, limited the League's definition

and solution of the housing crisis. During the twenties, the chief

problem was that "the tendency for families to move out of the

basin tenements into the suburbs ... as the old Tenements [wore]


success, but so did the annual reports. See, for example, Minutes, Board of

Directors of the BHL, 19 April 1928, BHL Papers; and Housing in Cin-

cinnati. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1929), 5.

40. Housing in Cincinnati (1928), 16. At the peak of the shortage,

the BHL estimated that the city was 4,000 to 5,000 houses short. Minutes,

Board of Directors, 9 January 1923, BHL Papers.

41. Housing in Cincinnati. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1929), 7.

42. Housing, Forward or Backward: Better Housing League Annual

Report for 1930 (Cincinnati, 1930), 4.

Housing the City 175

Housing the City                                               175


out or [were] displaced by business and industrial structures" had

been checked by the "scarcity of houses." To solve the problem

meant increasing the housing supply, whether through industry-

sponsored housing or more expensive town projects like Mariemont,

which eased "the pressure from the top."43

Not only had houses not filtered down in adequate numbers

to the neediest, but it appeared that the central business district

(CBD) would no longer eradicate the tenement district since the

city's growth had practically ceased.44 After conceptualizing this

new model of non-growth in Cincinnati during the late 1920s,

League members began wondering publically if the housing prob-

lem could be resolved merely by housing regulation and education.

Slum clearance by the government became a new option for some

of the League leadership. Bleecker Marquette discussed such an

alternative in the 1928 BHL Annual Report, in which he pointed

out that " . . . such a method as slum clearance would offer a much

quicker solution and would be a great boon to the city health and

general welfare." Nevertheless, he concluded, "it is idle to discuss

it, because we know that our old tenements will be won out and

gone before public opinion of America reaches the point where it

would support such a proposal.45


By the early thirties, the League acted on its new vision of

a more static Cincinnati with a non-expanding central business

district.46 This conception of the city, differed from the earlier

one that had pictured constant outward expansion for all parts of

the city, including the central business district, and caused the


43. Apparently the Mariemont project, Mary Emery's attempt to

build a garden community in the twenties, provoked much criticism from

certain groups within the city. The BHL felt obliged to defend it throughout

the decade, noting there had been "much misunderstanding about it."

Housing Situation Today, 5.

44. As early as 1925, The City Plan of Cincinnati emphasized the

city's slow growth and suggested that was the norm. Cincinnati City

Planning Commission, The Official City Plan of Cincinnati, Ohio (Cin-

cinnati, 1925), 7-8.

45. Housing in Cincinnati (1928), 16.

46. After 1930, the Great Depression worsened housing problems

and reinforced the League's sense of its ineffectiveness. It also caused a

serious financial problem for the BHL, which resulted in both decreased

salaries and a smaller staff. Unable to solve the housing problem, the

League in the early 1930s shifted its immediate emphasis to relief and

helped the city's welfare department by finding shelter for dispossessed

families. Trend Today in Housing, 16.


176                                      OHIO HISTORY

League to look outside the city for help. It did this by taking two

important steps. First, on the state level, members of the BHL-

particularly Alfred Bettman and Bleecker Marquette-helped

Ernest J. Bohn, a Cleveland housing reformer, draw up and lobby

for a state enabling act to permit the creation of local metropolitan

housing authorities. Those organizations would permit more effi-

cient use in Ohio of federal monies authorized by the National Re-

covery Act of 16 June 1933, which created the Federal Emergency

Administration of Public Works to lend funds and make grants to

public corporations for public housing and slum clearance.47 The

Cincinnatians' actions helped Ohio pass on 30 August 1933 the


47. Mel Scott, American City Planning Since 1890: A History Com-

memorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the American Institute of Plan-

ners (Berkeley, 1970), 325.

Housing the City 177

Housing the City                                            177


nation's first state enabling legislation for forming metropolitan

housing authorities.48  Second, at the local level, the League

worked actively to secure federal funds as well as to help direct

favorable public opinion in Cincinnati toward public housing. For

this purpose the League on 27 September 1933 created the Citizens'

Committee on Slum Clearance and Low Cost Housing. At its first

meeting, temporary chairman August Marx announced the ration-

ale behind the new organization. The League wished to


..  launch a separate committee from the BHL which might take as

its object the promoting of the best possible program for the con-

struction of low cost housing and slum clearance in Cincinnati under

the possibilities offered by the Public Works Administration of the NRA

in the manner of loans for these purposes.49


Not only would the committee keep in touch with the housing con-

ditions and formulate plans for attracting federal monies, it would

also educate public opinion to the need for federal housing by pro-

viding local newspapers with favorable information and by speak-

ing out in favor of public housing at the city's various clubs and

community organizations.

One of the Citizens' Committee's most important undertakings

started on 8 November 1933 when it requested the State Board of

Housing to sanction the formation of a public housing authority

for the city. As a result of the request, the Cincinnati Metropolitan

Housing Authority, staffed with five candidates, four of which

were recommended by the Citizens' Committee, began operations

on 7 December 1933. The membership of the five-man authority

charged with developing plans and applying for federal assistance

for housing development and slum clearance included three promin-

ant BHL members: Setty S. Kuhn, Stanley Rowe, and Charles


The Housing Authority, with the cooperation of the BHL and

the Citizens' Committee, introduced federal slum clearance and

public housing to Cincinnati. Its first effort, Laurel Homes, a


48. Developments in Housing: BHL Annual Report for 1934 (Cin-

cinnati, 1934), 1-2.

49. Minutes, Citizens' Committee on Slum Clearance and Low Cost

Housing, 27 September 1933, BHL Papers.

50. Ibid., 8 November 1933; 31 October 1933; Trend Today in Hous-

ing 6. The League also furnished executive, secretarial, and a variety

of other services for the Housing Authority, including office space.

"Progress by Local and State Agencies," Housing Officials' Yearbook,

1938, 100.


178                                             OHIO HISTORY


West End public housing project on the edge of the central business

district, initiated in 1933 and completed in 1938, was made possible

in part by a redevelopment plan for that area drawn up in 1933 by

the BHL and the City Planning Commission.51 The BHL also

conducted survey work for the Housing Authority and, according

to Marquette, explained the Authority's programs to the city.

One needs only to examine the League's annual reports between

1933 and 1939 to appreciate the inordinate amount of attention

the BHL Board of Directors gave the federal projects. For ex-

ample, 20 of the 37 pages of minutes for the 1934 Board of

Directors monthly meetings contained discussions of the projects,

while in the 1937 meetings 25 of 37 pages of minutes dealt with

federal housing activities.

The League reaffirmed the commitment to slum clearance in

its 1935 comprehensive housing policy proposed for metropolitan

Cincinnati. The policy, which received the approval of the City

Planning Commission, divided the metropolitan community into

parts, creating programs best suited for each area. For the newly-

developed areas, zoning and housing codes would preserve good

housing conditions; but for the slum areas, the focus shifted from

just eliminating a condition to eliminating a geographic entity-

a slum area. All the housing in that district was by definition

part of the slum, and hence to be destroyed and replaced.52

The emphasis of the housing policy on slum demolition and

rebuilding, which Marquette called in 1936 "the only intelligent

solution," illustrates that the view of the city's Basin area as only

the first step in a dynamic process, a temporary residence, had

given way to a more static view of the city and its potential for

some residents.53 Although the city's Basin population declined

by 40,000 people between 1910 and 1930, the housing problem in

the thirties was perceived as more serious since the tenement

population had less chance of moving out.54 Therefore, housing

had to be established for the "unskilled wage-earner unable to


51. Bleecker Marquette, "History of Housing in Ohio," speech pre-

sented to the Conference of the Ohio Housing Authority, Youngstown,

Ohio, 9 June 1939, 8, BHL Papers. The Planning Commission made an as-

sortment of studies on the West End, including investigations of inadequate

housing facilities, overcrowded conditions, population trends and distribution,

traffic counts and delinquency. Municipal Activities of the City of Cincin-

nati, 1934 (Cincinnati, 1934), 29. Page 30 has a map of their plans.

52. Bleecker Marquette, "A Housing Policy-And Planning," Plan-

ners' Journal (Winter, 1936), 9.

53. Marquette, Twentieth Annual Report, 4.

54. Ibid., 2.

Housing the City 179

Housing the City                                            179


meet the cost of a satisfactory standard of housing provided by

commercial enterprise or limited dividend housing corporations."55

As a result, according to the League's 1939 Annual Report, the

most valuable service which BHL-like organizations could provide

would be to make "Cincinnati ready to take advantage of federal

government funds for getting underprivileged families out of the


That same report, discussing the merits of its earlier concern

for housing regulation, admitted that this approach had failed to

solve the city's housing problems. Still, it reaffirmed that "the

years that Cincinnati had devoted to the effort to control the

housing situation by legislation have, by no measure, been wasted,

nor are they today any less necessary."57 The BHL felt it had

created an important foundation for later housing improvement.

Even more important, since the early thirties when the League

had identified public housing "as the only way out," it helped

establish and promote organizations such as the Citizens' Com-

mittee on Slum Clearance and Low Cost Housing, and the Cincin-

nati Metropolitan Housing Authority, institutions critical to the

development of Cincinnati's federally-sponsored slum clearance

and public housing.

Such a strong advocacy of federal housing made the League

a somewhat controversial organization during the thirties and,

in fact, alienated some of its former financial contributors. For

example, the local Real Estate Board and the Home Builders Associ-

ation strongly disapproved of the League's endorsement of public

housing and attempted to force the Community Chest to withdraw

its financial support from the BHL.58 The League, sensitive to its

critics, often discussed its espousal of those projects in apologetic

terms, explaining on one occasion that


55. Marquette, "A Housing Policy," 10. Earlier in 1933, the Federal

Public Works Administration had offered limited dividend projects 85

percent of the cost of the building program for only 4 percent interest.

Five Cincinnati companies applied for money, but all were unable to raise

the required 15 percent. One applicant, Ferro Concrete Construction Com-

pany, noted that even with the loan its rent on the dwellings would still

be out of the range of most West Enders. The program's failure in Cin-

cinnati and elsewhere suggested that limited dividend companies could not

meet the need. Trend Today in Housing, 2.

56. Bleecker Marquette, The Better Housing Reports for the Year

1939 (Cincinnati, 1939), 2.

57. Ibid.

58. Letter, Tom McElvain to Harold Riemeiser, 24 April 1957, BHL

Papers; Bleecker Marquette, Health, Housing and Other Things: Memoirs

By Bleecker Marquette (Cincinnati, 1972), 83.


180                                           OHIO HISTORY


For over twenty years we worked to improve by every means at our

command and particularly trying to find ways and means by which

private builders could meet the need. We did not succeed.... Without

a subsidy, the problem of an adequate supply of decent low rent

housing is insoluable.59


The League's new solutions, then, reflected its changing con-

ception of the city. At its founding in 1916, the BHL viewed the

city as dynamic and expanding, capable of assimilating newcomers

from its tenement areas into used houses which would "filter

down" to the tenement dwellers. By the early twenties, Cincin-

nati's housing reformers faced an apparent breakdown of the old

system because of the war-induced housing shortage and the

migration of thousands of blacks into the city. Houses stopped

filtering down, and race relations became tense as competition for

housing space increased. The League continued its emphasis on

housing regulation and education and, in fact, expanded its interest

to the Cincinnati metropolitan area, but identified the housing

shortage as the real problem and supported a variety of endeavors

to relieve it. The failure to resolve that problem led Bleecker

Marquette and several other BHL leaders to support the idea of

positive governmental housing assistance prior to the Great De-


The BHL's call for federal action was, in part, a response to

its new perception that the city's central business district and

surrounding industrial areas would no longer be expanding. Since

there was no longer any guarantee that the CBD's growth would

destroy the city's rundown areas, or that there no longer existed

an avenue of escape for the tenement resident by the "filtering

down" process, BHL officials turned their attention toward clear-

ing and redeveloping the city's worst residential areas. The Lea-

gue, unable itself to master or gather resources needed for such

massive redevelopment, identified the federal government as the

only possible agent of change. As a consequence of this new

awareness, the BHL transferred its previously-held role of housing

leadership to the federal government for the good of the Cincin-

nati metropolitan community.







59. Marquette, The BHL Reports for 1939, 1.