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PEOPLE AND HOUSES
If one were to summarise the general opinion as to the Housing Problem in London at the present time, it would probably take something like the following form :
The pressure upon house accommodation for the working class is getting more and more severe, leading to increased overcrowding and extortionate rents, and making it impossible for the sanitary officials to do their duty. It is a common occurrence for respectable working men to have to take their families to the workhouse for want of room to live. The remedy is energetic building, and more especially the substitution of blocks of tenements, under good management, for small houses and cottage property. This view is supported by those in authority, who encourage, and to some extent insist upon the policy of increased building within the town, and even within areas already overinhabited. And perhaps we should add that all well-disposed people agree in condemning the London landlord as an oppressor of the poor, who takes advantage of their misfortunes to extort rents to the uttermost farthing.
When however the facts are considered, both in detail and with respect to all parts of London, it would seem necessary to modify these opinions, and perhaps to reconsider our policy. I wish to lay stress upon the importance of the way in which the facts should be considered. By taking some particular street or area out of relation to the whole, there is no limit to the blackness and hopelessness of the picture which may be drawn ; while, on the other hand, merely to take statistics about London as a whole can give us little help towards solving local problems. But if we take district by district and watch what is going on in each, we can get general results of more significance than mere figures.
The Charity Organisation Society has special advantages for an examination of this kind in its local committees in every district in London. Through these committees a large amount
of evidence has recently been collected, both from its own officers and from others with opportunities of knowing, such as houseagents, estate managers, relieving officers, district visitors, clergy, and local householders and tenants. What follows is mainly based upon this evidence, though I have no reason to suppose that those who gave it would agree with the conclusions I draw from it.
In the first place, I am inclined to think that the pressure upon accommodation is to some extent apparent rather than real; and that in so far as it is real, it is confined to a particular class and particular localities. From this it would follow that the problem is partly one of better redistribution of the population, and not solely of increased accommodation.
In maintaining that the pressure is apparent rather than real, one has to keep steadily in mind the peculiar nature of a large class of Londoners, and interpret the facts with reference to that. The sort of facts to be interpreted come before us frequently. From Paddington we hear that for small houses on the Queen's Park Estate there are at least 400 applications and vacancies. In Holborn a superintendent of buildings reports that hundreds of people apply for rooms weekly, and none are to let. In Lambeth an instance is given of a house which was taken for a club; it was thought unnecessary to put up blinds, and in consequence thirty or forty persons a day called to know if there were not rooms to let. But it does not at all follow that all these applications mean that the applicants are homeless, or even that they are under great pressure to move.
The inhabitants of London are extraordinarily mobile over small areas, though much less so over a large one; their possessions are so small that moving involves little expense, and amongst the lower class a process of constant shifting is resorted to as a means of escaping rent and other liabilities. Among many most respectable families, again, there is a love of novelty which makes them eager to seize upon any new habitation which can show some attraction, such as tiled grates or new-fashioned boilers; and these, again, are always on the move. It is like the old game of General Post, or Puss-in-the-Corner; there may be a seat for each, but when everyone is on the move, there will inevitably be a struggle for seats. Even a small proportion of the population in this restless condition would necessarily give an appearance of excessive demand for accommodation.
Have we any reason for supposing, then, that a better distribution of the people, or mobility over a larger area, would meet the difficulty? To some extent it seems clear that it would. Take, for instance, Lambeth, where there is said to be considerable pressure; Camberwell, where six cases applied to the workhouse in twelve months owing to difficulty in finding rooms; and Newington, where “there has been a marked increase in rents during the past four years,” and where the Medical Officer of Health says that there is a good deal of overcrowding; and consider these districts with reference to adjacent districts in South London. In East Dulwich a house-agent reports a block of 100 small houses which could be let at once ; and in Dulwich village the estate manager reports several six-roomed houses for which tenants cannot be found. In Battersea, notwithstanding immigration from Chelsea, our informant thinks there is no great pressure, and knows of more than one landlord who would be glad to let his rooms to good tenants. In Bermondsey, though considerable difficulty is experienced in getting accommodation, nevertheless there are generally rooms to be let in the Guinness Trust Buildings; and in Southwark, itself a crowded district, a rent collector “has always had some rooms to let, and rather more recently than usual”; and another experienced worker reports that while “ there is a far greater demand for small houses than the supply can meet. . . . flats or rooms in the small houses are still frequently unlet for a considerable period at a time.”
I conclude then, that the pressure upon accommodation is to some extent apparent rather than real, due partly to a natural desire to benefit by all the latest improvements, and partly to the restlessness of a certain part of the population; and that it might be partly met by a better redistribution.
The difficulty which actually exists presses almost entirely and very heavily upon a particular class and in particular areas; and that class is the poorest and least able to resist it. It includes people (a) of indifferent character, (b) in irregular work, (c) with more than two or three small children. All these are obliged to pay high rents for bad accommodation, and for permission to overcrowd. It is clear that the overcrowding is not caused by the high rents ; i.e. a man does not overcrowd because he cannot afford rent for more room; but the high rent is the result of the overcrowding of this particular class. This will be clearer from the evidence which follows.
In the first place, let us take increasing rents as a test of the pressure for accommodation, and we shall find that everywhere the rise is most marked in the "worst " streets, and least in the “ better” (our inquiry applies to the working class, and “better” No. 37.-VOL. X
does not include anything above their means). Indeed, we are struck by the very small rise which has taken place in the normal or better class streets. Taking district by district we get the following answers as to the rise of rents during the the last four or five years :
Kensington.-In South Kensington no great pressure on accommodation, nor any notable increase in rents; in Notting Hill, considerably increased pressure and considerable rise in rents; i.e. as much as 18. a room.
Hampstead.—Rise of about 6d. a week in rents of poorest quarters, but no decided increase in other areas.
N. St. Pancras.--No marked increase of rents in the district. In some of the worst streets where alone large families can get rooms, the price of two rooms has gone up, say from 68. 60. to 78. 6d.
Holloway.-A rise of 6d. to 1s. weekly in all poorer parts.
Holborn.—Difference of opinion. A householder thinks rents have not risen, but the cheap rooms have been pulled down.
Clerkenwell.—Rents have not risen in the better parts; in a poor street the rents of houses have risen from 148. to 168.
Bethnal Green.-A great rise, more marked in the poorer streets.
Southwark.—No marked increase ; in some parts from 3d. to 6d. a room ; in others “18. every few years ;” partly indemnity for unpaid rent.
Newington.-(A very bad” district), marked increase.
Not all the districts distinguish between “better” and worse”; but the only apparent exception to the rule is Chelsea, where there is said to be no marked increase in poorer districts. But Chelsea, which has been rapidly destroying its working-class habitations, has always found an easy and natural safety-valve in Battersea, which has received, and continues to receive, its exiled workers.
If we leave aside, then, for the moment the worse areas, we are at once faced by the fact that the rise in rents during the last four or five years has been, not indeed unimportant, but certainly moderate; and has probably been met by a more than equivalent rise in wages. Moreover, considering the progressively increasing cost of building and all connected operations, and considering also the stringency of sanitary regulations, it seems not unlikely that the majority of landlords, or, at any rate, the landlords of the greater part of London, are actually being satisfied with a smaller return for their money, while tenants are getting more than the value of the rise in "improvements." But to return to the “worse
It seems contrary to all economic laws that there should be this pressure upon bad accommodation at a high and continually increasing cost; 1 and there must, one would think, be powerful influences at work to cause it.
One such influence may probably be found in the increased caution on the part of landlords in “better” streets. They are becoming more and more careful to protect themselves, not only against chances of non-payment, but also against tenants who are likely to offend against sanitary regulations by overcrowding or otherwise. That they have their difficulties as well as their iniquities is well illustrated by the following extracts, which show the two sides of the question :
(1) At the Lambeth County Court Mrs. W. applied for an extension of time to give up a house at Peckham Rye. The landlord, she said, had taken the doors and windows out of the place, but neither her husband nor herself had been able to get other accommodation, as they had seven children. The landlord had refused to take the rent, and they had lived “very cold" without doors and windows since November. The plea put in by the landlord was that they were not the class of tenant he desired to bave.
(2) A man applied to the Southwark Police Court for assistance in regaining possession of a room, which he had let to a man who paid no rent. For six weeks they had been ten in a room ; he had let it to the man for himself, his wife and two children, and the man went and brought in his father and mother and four other children. The parochial authorities were taking proceedings against him for overcrowding his premises, but the man refused
It may be right enough that an "uncleared rent book" or unsatisfactory character should make it difficult for a man to get accommodation, but the hardship becomes very real when the mere fact of having a young family forces him into expensive and unhealthy surroundings. That the process of selection is becoming very strict under both heads there is much evidence to show; and among other offenders, if offence we are to consider it, are the managers of the various “blocks” which are supposed to solve the problem of housing the London poor.
Fulham. It is found most difficult for a man with a family of three or more children to obtain accommodation.
I Generally speaking, the rent is not only relatively, but actually higher in bad streets than in good ones.