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Illusion of profit drives wages down?

February 20, 2008

Very good presentation last night at APA by Margaret Garb, historian at Washington U who has researched post-Fire working class housing arrangements and their financing in Chicago. Evidently she did a lot of detailed research, focusing on a single block of the old Harrison/Halsted district (obliterated in the 1960s by the UIC campus), examining who bought and sold property, how they financed, who rented, who boarded, their occupations and incomes, etc.

One striking similarity to more recent times is that workers used the equity in their residences, as well as any other real estate they may have acquired, to supplement their incomes. As a result of this, Garb asserts, wages were driven down because they didn’t have to be high enough to cover the full cost of living. Of course, as has been made clear in recent months, much of the “profit” from real estate ownership is illusory, leaving working people in some difficulty.

Other interesting stuff, from my notes:

The Jeffersonian ideal of sturdy yeoman farmers or tradesmen included ownership of your own farm or workspace. By the later 19th century, the ideal of homeownership remained, but for the most part production occurred elsewhere. In this era, about 2/3 of the households were renters. Many people owned their houses but rented their lots, leading to the extensive house-moving business (which I recall was described by Perry Duis in Challenging Chicago, but I hadn’t focused on the implication that land was rented.)

Working people generally couldn’t afford to buy a house outright for cash, and got loans from friends and neighbors. This led in the 1880s to the beginning of building & loan associations. Another source of financing was builders, notably S. E. Gross.

Workers often used second mortages, or refinanced, to draw equity from their homes for major cash needs, to get over periods of unemployment, etc.

Pay for unskilled workers dropped from $25/week in 1873 to $9 in 1879.

Homes with indoor plumbing went for $500-$900 more than other homes, with the result that some workers protested the extension of water & sewer lines as a kind of gentrification that would raise prices beyond their reach. But of course areas lacking these facilities had higher rates of disease.

Garb refers to C T Yerkes as an active land speculator. While this was mentioned briefly in Robber Baron, it would be good to know more about his activities. Reasonably, one may suppose that Yerkes never expected to make much profit from operating his street railways, but rather by using them to facilitate land speculation.

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