Lectures on Housing/How far it is possible to provide Satisfactory Houses for the Working Classes at rents which they can afford to pay

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Lectures on Housing
How far it is possible to provide Satisfactory Houses for the Working Classes at rents which they can afford to pay
Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree

How Far it is Possible to Provide Satisfactory Houses for the Working Classes, at Rents which they can afford to pay.

By B. Seebohm Rowntree.


Let us, first, review very briefly the present conditions under which the working people of this country are housed. We may separate their houses into three divisions which, though it is impossible to draw a rigid line of demarcation between them, will be found helpful for purposes of classification. In the lowest division are houses which, though they may be found in isolation, or in small groups, are generally congested in slums—houses deficient in some or all of the following essential conditions: light, space, ventilation, warmth, dryness, and water supply. A house should fulfil the minimum standard of hygienic requirements in all these respects, but these houses fall very far short of it. Although we have no accurate statistics, such information as we have points to the fact that probably as many as two or three million people live in houses belonging to this class.

In the next division are houses which are probably occupied by about 65 to 80 per cent. of the working people of this country. These houses, which we may speak of as Class 2, usually open directly upon the street, and have a living room, with a small scullery behind, two or three bedrooms—much more frequently two than three—and a small backyard. We do not, as a nation, realise that one-fourth of the dwellings of this country have less than four rooms; these houses have not more than two bedrooms, and of course, no bathroom. We do not realise that one person in ten is living under what are technically known as "overcrowded conditions"—that is, with more than two persons to every room in the house. And these houses are crowded thirty, forty, and even fifty to the acre. We know the long dreary streets of them. In any long railway journey we pass through town after town, and see these dismal rows without a vestige of greenery about them, only characterised by their meanness and by their deadly monotony. When such homes are overcrowded, and only have two bedrooms, it is impossible, or next to impossible, to live decently, especially when the family is grown up. Of course, too, this crowding together of people per acre and per room, has the most prejudicial effect upon the health of the community. Disease not only spreads with extraordinary rapidity, but is generated under such conditions—a fact especially noticeable in the case of tuberculosis. A house that is lacking in light and ventilation, as houses are bound to be in these narrow streets, provides just the conditions which are most favourable to the development of this terrible malady; and yet many millions of the working people are living in such houses.

Next there is the highest division of working class houses—Class 3—built perhaps twenty or twenty-five, and sometimes even fewer, to the acre, with a parlour, a little hall or passage, a living room, a scullery behind that, and three bedrooms, with occasionally a bathroom. Probably from ten to twenty per cent. of our workers are living in these houses. They are sanitary, and as a rule, fairly well planned—sometimes extremely well planned—so far as their interior arrangements are concerned; but generally speaking, they also are built in long rows. They often have a little front garden, a bow window, and a large backyard or a small garden behind.

Such are housing conditions among our workers to-day. Although they leave so much to be desired, the working classes pay a huge proportion of their income in rent.

It is about fourteen years since I investigated the facts in York, but I very much doubt whether they would be materially different to-day.

Taking the families whose total income—not merely the income of the chief wage-earner—was between 20s. and 30s., I found that 16 to 17 per cent., or about one-sixth, of it was absorbed in rent. From an investigation in Middlesbrough, made a few weeks ago, similar figures emerged, i.e., families whose total income varied from 20s. to 30s. were spending from 16 to 17 per cent. of it in rent. In towns where rents are high the proportion is higher. A short time ago I investigated a number of houses in London, and there it rose to 20 to 25 per cent. But taking the country as a whole, probably the majority of the working classes are paying at least one-sixth of their total income in rent, although the quality of the dwellings is often so unsatisfactory.

But now we are confronted with the fact that there is a great shortage even of such houses as I have described. Recent investigations in a great number of towns, show pretty clearly that in about half the towns of England there are many working men who cannot get accommodation suited to their needs. Either they must go into houses that are much too large, and take lodgers to help to pay the rent, or they must crowd into houses that are unsatisfactory or much too small, not because they are unable or unwilling to pay for better ones, but because there are none to be had. This shortage is particularly acute at present for various reasons. The first is the scare which arose at the time of the Finance Act. All the political bickering, in which one party tried to paint the possible consequences of the Act in the most lurid colours, while the other party tried to defend it, undoubtedly created a panic in the country. But then, other conditions have discouraged the building of small houses. In the first place, it has been difficult to get money at any price. Good securities, which were yielding 2¾ per cent., 10 or 12 years ago, can be bought so cheaply now that they yield 3¾ per cent., and gilt-edged securities can be obtained to pay 4 per cent. People have not been tempted to invest in house property, which is always an anxiety, when they had such good alternatives in absolutely liquid securities. Next, there has been a very rapid rise in the cost of constructing a house—a rise of 10 or 12 per cent, during the last 10 years. Added to these causes which have discouraged the building of new houses, the increased activity of Sanitary Authorities, under the 1909 Housing and Town planning Act, has resulted in the closing of a large number of houses. All these factors—the panic connected with the Finance Act, the condition of the money market, the rise in the cost of construction, and the great number of houses closed since 1909, have contributed to the present shortage.

But though at the moment this shortage is unusually acute, it is no new thing. There is always a shortage, and it is accentuated in times of trade boom, when money is dear, and when builders, instead of speculating, are putting up factories and shops. It will be worth while to enquire why the supply of houses always tends to fall short of the demand. A house is a commodity which it takes about a century to consume. If there is a shortage of bread, the bakers bake more loaves at once, and those loaves are consumed during the period of exceptional demand. So if there is a shortage of boots, the bootmakers manufacture more, and they are sold and worn out while the high demand lasts; but a person who thinks of building a house, or an investor who thinks of buying it, wants to be quite sure that the demand for it will continue, especially as it is not an exceptionally lucrative form of property, and offers no great inducement to run heavy risks. And so there must always be a considerable shortage before the builder is willing to build or the investor to invest.

Again, land values are extremely inflexible. At present, for instance, the builder often says: "The cost of construction has gone up, and money is very dear, and it does not pay me to build unless I can get land at a reasonable figure." So he goes to the landlord with: "If you will let me have that land for a hundred pounds an acre less, I would put up a few houses." But the landlord replies "No, why should I?" Nor does he, because land is a commodity which is not perishable. If he were selling fruit and the demand were slack, he would be bound immediately to reduce his price, as otherwise his goods would perish on his hands. Or if he were selling diamonds, to take another extreme case, and had fixed his price too high, he might completely kill his market. No one is under any compulsion to buy diamonds, and too high a price may discourage buyers altogether. But in the case of land, the owner knows that with the growing population the demand is bound to grow, since whatever they dispense with, people must have land. Therefore he maintains his price, saying, from his point of view, "If you don't pay it to-day, you will do so in the long run." But the builder reflects: "I cannot squeeze the price of material: I cannot squeeze the price of labour, and I cannot borrow money at a lower rate of interest, so as I cannot get cheaper land, I shall not build."

There is no doubt that all these factors check the supply of houses. But it is also checked by the poverty of the working-man. He cannot pay a rent which tempts the builder; in other words, the margin of profit that the builder can make out of him is so small that his demand for a house is not effective. He wants and needs it, but he cannot pay a price which will secure it.

These, then, are the permanent causes of shortage: that a house takes a century to consume; that land values are, comparatively speaking, inflexible, and that a working-man can only afford a cheap house.

Coming now to the question, "Can satisfactory houses be provided for the working classes at rents which they can afford to pay"? I should like to say that, in my opinion, apart from any question of hygiene, long monotonous rows of houses are eminently unsatisfactory, and I should like to make it impossible to continue to build them. There is no reason why we should not limit the number of houses which may be built to the acre. Just as bye-laws enact that the rooms in a house shall not be less than a certain height, or a certain superficial area, they should limit the number of houses to the acre, since overcrowding per acre may be just as serious as overcrowding per room. Why should we not town-plan the whole of England, instead of allowing the present utterly casual method of erecting houses? The best municipalities are already engaged in town-planning, though I believe that only Birmingham has got a scheme through. However, there are about two hundred schemes afloat, though some of them are very partial, and refer to very small areas. But there is no reason why, within a certain number of years, every town should not prepare a town-plan, and limit the number of houses to the acre to ten, twelve, fourteen, or eighteen, or some reasonable number, to give air and space around them. That is essential if we are to give our workers homes. At present, if I may quote a phrase that hits the mark, we are not even housing, but only warehousing them.

Obviously, whether such a step is possible depends on two things—on the cost of the house, and the wage of the man. What does the cost of the house depend on? It depends on five things: the cost of the land, the cost of developing it, the cost of constructing the house, the interest payable on the capital invested in it, and the rates that have to be paid upon it. Those are the five directions in which we must seek to economise. Let us take them one by one.

We often hear it said that the price of land enters to such a very slight extent into the total cost of a house, that it need not trouble us. Except in the centre of great cities, the price of a site, taking a fair average, is only about £35, or say 30s. a year, or 7d. a week, including the cost of the roads and the sewers. That seems to be nothing; but the reason is that, on account of the cost of land, we squeeze 30, 40, and 50 houses to the acre, and so the site purchased is excessively small. Those long dismal streets are, in the first instance, the result of the cost of land. In the country, where it is cheap, we see houses with bits of garden. But the nearer we draw to the town, the smaller the garden grows, till at last it resigns altogether in favour of the backyard. As land becomes dearer the backyard in turn grows smaller and smaller, until it is reduced to the very least compass that the bye-laws will permit. When it becomes dearer still it is necessary to erect tenement dwellings—and there are landings in tenement dwellings in London, up four or five storeys, which the women have not left for four years. They live like canaries in a cage.

With forty houses to the acre, every £100 per acre costs one halfpenny per week, but with only twelve houses per acre, it costs three halfpence per week. That means sevenpence halfpenny per week if £500 per acre is paid, and if the cost of the roads and the sewers is £300—a fair average—that is another fourpence halfpenny. Now a shilling a week for the developed land is really an important consideration. And we must remember what we often forget, that when land is dear, the workman does not necessarily pay more—perhaps he cannot, but he gets less for what he pays.

If we are to develop on Garden City lines we ought to have land at not more than £300 an acre; and we must ask whether it is available for building workmen's houses at a figure within that limit. Now, the price of land is largely determined by the relation between the available supply and the effective demand. Therefore, the way to cheapen land, since obviously we do not want to lessen the demand, is to increase the available supply. There are three ways of doing this which we must consider with reference to working men's cottages. We can give greater powers for the acquisition of land for building them. At present it is extremely difficult for a Municipal Authority to acquire land compulsorily. Many of the Housing Acts, although they were intended to be simple, have proved in practice both cumbersome and costly; and that is also true of the powers possessed by municipalities and by the State for the acquisition of land. We can simplify those powers, and thus make it possible to obtain land much more cheaply by compulsion.

Another way of cheapening land is advocated by a certain group of people who believe in the taxation of land values. They point out that at present land is rated or taxed, not upon its capital value, but upon its letting value at the moment. A site, for instance, that is worth a thousand pounds an acre, and is let at a pound an acre for grazing, is rated on a basis of a pound an acre—indeed, in such a case, it is only rated on the basis of 10s. an acre, because of the Agricultural Rating Act. Clearly such a system of assessment gives its owner no inducement to put it to its best use. There is no doubt that any alteration in our rating system by which land was assessed for rating on its capital value instead of on the basis of the rent it was producing, would bring into the market a good deal of land which at present is not available.

But there is another way, and that is by improving transit facilities. All round our towns there is any amount of land, at perhaps £50 an acre. A very little way out of even London, land may be bought at that price. But it seems clear that we shall never make such land available for the housing of the working people, until we have a much more complete system of transit. It must be very cheap and very rapid transit, and it must be especially adapted to the working hours of the district. The most complete transit system in the world belongs to Belgium—a country which I investigated very closely for four years. In Belgium, one-third of the town-workers live in the country, and they come into the town by cheap workmen's trains. In Liège, which has a population of 160,000, there are 10,000 people coming in from the country to work. If we could get an improved system of transit, we could make available a large amount of cheap land, and it would then be quite easy to spread houses more widely over the ground. It is sometimes argued that the workmen would not take advantage of such facilities if they were provided—that he wants to live near his work. I doubt it, and for this reason, that whenever he has a chance of living away from his work he takes it. Of course, some people, such as Covent Garden porters, who have to be at work at 3 o'clock in the morning, must live absolutely on the spot. But the man who goes to work at ordinary times is quite willing to travel for half an hour if he can do so in decent comfort, and can secure a really better home by the daily journey.

There is a little village outside York, 2½ miles from the middle of the city, with no means of transit except walking or bicycling along a muddy road, yet the houses could be let over and over again. The history of Garden Suburbs, all over the country, shows that a great many people are anxious to live in them. They go out at the first chance, and their friends come and see them, and are fired by their example. It means a garden, where vegetables can be grown, and the children can play, and it means a far more healthy, a better, and a bigger house, at the same rent that they paid in the town. The children grow up and marry, and want to live under similar conditions. People are growing weary of the old and present state of things. A man who for the last ten years has lived in the worst slums of London, told me the other day that the deepening discontent of the young men with what satisfied their fathers, is extraordinary. When they marry they want to take their wives to better houses, away from the wretched environments in which they were brought up.

If we could get transit facilities which were ample, cheap, and rapid, at the right hours of the day, enormous numbers would flock to garden suburbs merely on grounds of health. But there are other advantages. Take the case of the casual worker. Sometimes the Belgian docker when he goes down to Antwerp on his early morning train between five and six, merely looks round and says: "There is nothing doing here to-day, I'm off." And he goes back to work in his garden, instead of hanging about the docks and fighting almost like a wild beast with other men for the few jobs that turn up. He has two occupations; he is a docker and he is a gardener. Again, many a bricklayer whose work is in Brussels never goes near the town in the winter time. He too, works at his garden, and leaves what bit of bricklaying there is in Brussels to his mate who lives there. Like the docker, he has two trades—an enormous advantage when work is scarce. Instead of walking up and down the streets—and there is nothing on God's earth that drags a man down faster than unemployment—instead of going pathetically from factory to factory asking for a job, he tills his bit of land. He may have to live for a time on potatoes, and a bit of bacon and greenstuff, but he does not starve, and he is ten times better off than his mate in the town. I was amazed, in Belgium, to see how the hardships of unemployment were mitigated by the possession of this garden, which acted as a buffer between the family and destitution. Probably there are at least half a million casual workers in this country. They never know from week to week, sometimes from day to day, whether they will have anything to do; and as a man grows older, his chances of getting work from the casual labour market decrease. Now, if he is simply seeking work for wages, it is all or nothing; he is employed or he is not. He may be 95 per cent. as good as the man that gets a particular job, but that 95 per cent. is absolutely wasted when he gets no work at all. But if he has a little land, he can use his 95 per cent. or 90 per cent., or, as he gets older, his 80 or 75 per cent. of strength and skill on that land, and it will be so much to the good.

Again, dwelling outside the town, if it were made possible by cheap and rapid transit, would widen the range of possible occupation. A man might till the garden of another man who is working overtime and cannot attend to it himself, but is willing to pay a substitute. Or he may work for a neighbouring farmer. It would make the position of both the regular man and the casual very much better than it is at the present time.

Moreover, it is remarkable what a man can get out of a little plot of land. For three years I very exhaustively examined the returns of 24 plots of land. I had every bit of produce from them weighed and measured, and valued. I got working people to tell me exactly what they paid for produce bought in the market—often last thing on Saturday night when prices were at their lowest—a fruiterer in a small shop gave me week by week his prices for three years for similar produce, and I took whichever was the lower—the fruiterer's, or the market price, and I valued the produce of the 24 plots, and I found that in those little gardens, cultivated by men working some in a factory, others on the railway, they were getting on the average a net £31 worth off every acre—£53 gross and £31 net. If a man had only an eighth of an acre, he could get 1s. 4d. a week from it.

Without labouring this point, I urge, then, that land must be cheapened, by rating, by improved methods of acquisition, by cheap transit, or by all three methods together.

As to improved development, there is no doubt that roads can be made somewhat more cheaply. This does not mean that we should have inferior roads, but with fewer houses to the acre, they need not be so heavy, the actual paved road can be narrower, and the spaces between the houses can be mainly utilised for gardens. A cheaper development per house is possible with 12 houses to the acre than with 40.

As to the house itself, there have been numbers of experiments in the cost of building. I was recently in a house which cost £90. It had a big kitchen and a scullery, a bathroom, and three bedrooms. It was very comfortable and very dry, but it was not beautiful, and as we want to make our houses better and not worse, we must not do too much, although we can do something, in the way of cheapening construction.

But a great deal can be done in the direction of getting cheaper money, if we can persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to let us have it. If money can be borrowed from the Public Works Loan Commissioners for the building of houses at 1 per cent. less than from private sources, that 1 per cent., on a house costing £260, is equal to a saving of a shilling a week in the rent. There is a very good case indeed for getting more of this money, and the loan would be tolerably safe. To-day, if a municipality builds, it can get the whole amount at the lowest price—3½ per cent. A Public Utility Society, such as a Tenant Co-partnership Society, can get two-thirds of the value. An individual who wants to buy or build a house for himself can get four-fifths under the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act; but hardly anyone takes advantage of that Act, and probably most people are ignorant of it. A private speculative builder can get half, but if he has little capital of his own he needs more than half, and he can get more on mortgage.

Probably if a larger proportion of the capital required for land and building—say 85 per cent. instead of 66 per cent.—were lent to Public Utility Societies, they would spring up all over the country. A Public Utility Society is a group of people who band themselves together to build houses, undertaking to receive not more than 5 per cent. interest on their money. They build, and then let, and give the tenants a real inducement to look after the property well in the form of a bonus if the cost of repairs is low, and if the houses are well let. These Societies are making headway. There are no complete statistics, but whereas in 1905 the capital which the Societies federated with "Co-partnership Tenants Ltd" had invested in houses amounted to £92,000. By the end of 1912 it had risen to £1,190,000. It is a growing movement, and it will grow more rapidly with reasonable encouragement. Of course if the Public Works Loan Commissioners lent a larger proportion of building capital than they do now, they would be justified in charging interest at a somewhat higher rate, the difference between the new and the present rate going to a national reserve fund, out of which possible losses might be paid. In addition it would no doubt be necessary for the Government to guarantee the Commissioners against loss.

We must touch briefly on the question of rates. They have risen 14½ per cent. in the last ten years in County Boroughs, and 17 per cent. in Urban Districts in England and Wales, and now they average about 8/- in the pound. Probably the great mass of the working people pay in rates what is equivalent to a shilling Income Tax, and there is little doubt that that is an undue strain on their resources. It has already been hinted that the National Exchequer is going to bear certain burdens which at present fall upon local rates. From the point of view of the working man, there seems to be a strong argument for partially unrating improvements and placing the rate instead upon the capital value of the land.

These three then are the ways in which we may hope to cheapen houses: or—and this is even more to the point—since we want better houses rather than cheaper ones, build houses better without increasing their cost above the level of to-day. We can cheapen land by means of transit, rating reform, and improved methods of acquisition. We can cheapen money by obtaining more of it from the Public Works Loan Commissioners, and we can lessen rates by placing a proportion of them upon the site instead of the building. If these things were done, the better-class working man would take a really pleasant house outside the town. His former house would be left vacant, and there would tend to be a slight slump in house property, which would make the old-fashioned, though sanitary house, appear less desirable; its price would drop, and then it could be let to the working man who hitherto could not afford a sanitary house at all.

Undoubtedly, however, a large number of bona fide working men, regular workers, or casual workers, would still be unable to afford a sanitary and satisfactory house. It is impossible really to solve the housing problem till this condition of things has been altered, and a wide extension of the policy of the Trade Boards Act, placing an increasing number of trades under it, and fixing a minimum wage for them, is essential to true housing reform. I am convinced that the principle is thoroughly sound. It is disastrous to the nation as a whole, that many of its workers should be unable to pay for proper accommodation, nor can it ultimately benefit the employer. We must not only cheapen housing and decasualise labour, but we must raise wages, and then we can definitely compel the municipalities to carry out the law which says "Every house in this locality shall be reasonably fit for habitation." At present it is not enforced, for the simple reason that it imposes too great a burden upon the local authorities. If the central authority were to enforce it, the local authorities would have to turn thousands of people into the streets. The fact is that until we have dealt with low-paid and casual labour, such a law is largely a dead letter. But that once dealt with, nothing is left but the residuum of the population—the aged, the infirm, the vicious, and so forth—who must be provided for by methods of public relief.

In conclusion, let us first of all make a survey of housing conditions, and let every locality know exactly what problem it has to face. Let us, as rapidly as possible, expand the minimum wage policy, which we have already adopted in our mines, our confectionery, our tailoring, our shirt-making, our chain-making, and other industries. Let us press forward measures for the decasualisation of labour. Let us make town-planning compulsory, with a restriction on the number of houses per acre, provide all towns with adequate transit facilities, and give improved powers for the acquisition of land. Let us lend money more freely to Public Utility Societies, and lessen the burden of rates on small houses. Let us make it the statutory duty of all towns to see that their inhabitants are satisfactorily housed, and finally let the grant in aid of rates, from the National Exchequer, be made conditional upon the proper fulfilment of their statutory duties by local authorities.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1954, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.