Lectures on Housing/Some Aspects of the Housing Problem

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Some Aspects of the Housing Problem.

By A. C. PIGOU, M.A.

In setting out to address you on the topic from which my lecture takes its title, I owe a preliminary apology. I am in no sense a housing expert, and have no special knowledge of the details of the problem, as it presents itself either in large towns or in rural districts. But it is, I think, sometimes useful for a person who is not a specialist to review a special subject in the light of things in general; to try to fit it in as a part of a larger whole; and to see how far it may be regarded, not as something peculiar, but as a particular case of some wider problem. It is from this point of view, and with this endeavour, that I propose to approach our subject this evening. I wish to consider the housing problem as one aspect of the general problem of poverty.

The position from which I start is this. It is the duty of a civilized State to lay down certain minimum conditions in every department of life, below which it refuses to allow any of its free citizens to fall. There must be a minimum standard of conditions in factories, a minimum standard (varying of course with the strain involved in different industries) of leisure, a minimum standard of dwelling accommodation, a minimum standard of education, of medical treatment in case of illness, and of wholesome food and clothing. Each one of these standards, so far as practicable, must be enforced separately. No such plea must be admitted as that, if a man is allowed to work excessive hours, or to live in a cheap and ruinous house, he will be able to attain independently to the required minima in all other departments of life. The standards must be upheld all along the line, and any man or family which fails to attain independently to any one of them must be regarded as a proper subject for State action. The exact level at which the several standards should be set is naturally different in different countries. It should be higher, of course, in those that are rich than in those that are poor. But everywhere, I hold, some system of standards should be set up, and the lapse below any one of them should be made the occasion of intervention by the public authorities. For this position a good defence can, in many instances, be made upon grounds of economy; for expenditure of State moneys, so arranged as to maintain the efficiency of the poor, may often be profitable expenditure. But, even where this ground fails, the policy that I have sketched is amply maintained: for it is no more than the acceptance in fact of the compelling obligation of humanity.

If this much be granted, the next step in our enquiry is to work out the general conception of a minimum standard in its special application to housing. This task is not so simple as it seems; for satisfactory housing accommodation is a complex conception, involving several elements. Of these two have long been recognised. The first has to do with the structure and repair of individual houses. Dilapidated houses, houses that are not rain-proof, houses in which the sanitary arrangements are inadequate, houses so made that there is no proper means of ventilation—the building of these must be forbidden by law, and, if they have been built already, they must, through law, be either renovated or destroyed. The second element has to do with the overcrowding of rooms. To prevent this, also, whether the threatened overcrowding be due to too large a family or to too small a house, or to the taking in of lodgers, direct legislation is necessary. In Mr. Syke's words, what is required "can only be done on a sufficient scale by a statutory definition of overcrowding of cubic space"; and he adds, giving his own view of what this definition should be, "nothing short of 400 cubic feet per head for adults will be satisfactory, although it may reluctantly be reduced to half the amount for children under ten years."[1] A policy on these general lines is pursued by the London County Council in respect of houses managed by them. They have a rule that, among their tenants, "the standard of two persons a room must not be exceeded by more than one child under three years." Annual inspection secures that a change shall be made when natural increase passes beyond these limits; and lodgers can only be taken in with the Council's leave.[2]

In addition, however, to these two obvious elements in satisfactory housing accommodation, we are rapidly coming to recognise a third. If one walks through an ordinary town to-day, and particularly if one walks through London, it is obvious at once that the arrangement and external form of the houses leaves much to be desired. One sees, for instance, a great number of buildings frequently huddled together, stretching in long rows of dismal sameness, with narrow streets and no green spaces. The most conspicuous and most obvious imperfections are usually to be found in those congested districts inhabited by the poor, that exist in the central parts of some large towns. But even in the suburbs where towns are expanding—in some of the out-lying parts of Cambridge, for example—adjacent to open country, there are growing up with a terrible rapidity hideous unbroken tracts of undistinguishable, featureless, gardenless habitations. After a while one becomes so permeated and soaked with the enervating squalor of these drab conditions, that one tends to regard it as an inevitable evil incident of town life. For people living in Cambridge, however—I do not know how you are situated in Manchester—there is an easy way in which that impression can be cancelled. All we have to do is to visit the Garden City at Letchworth, or, if we prefer it, the Garden Suburb of Golder's Green in Hampstead. There the houses are not arranged in rows but are separate. There advantage is taken of undulations of the ground, so that, when one walks down a street, one gets a view between the houses—a view generally embracing greenery and trees. There too, even the smaller houses are not machine-made to a pattern, but have individual character, possess gardens, and are situated near large open spaces of green. Now this contrast gives occasion for reflection. It reveals to us the existence of an essential element in satisfactory housing conditions of which, until recently in England—though the case has long been different in Germany—practically no account was taken. I refer to the satisfactory arrangement of the various houses of which a town or village is composed. Such satisfactory arrangement, we are coming to see more and more clearly, is of extreme importance. It is not merely a matter of the aesthetic sense of a few superior persons. It is a matter of the character and of the health of the people as a whole a matter in a way even more significant than the internal arrangements of factories, because it affects not the workers only, but also their young children. Make your town sufficiently hideous, sufficiently congested, sufficiently void of open space and grass for children's play, and you go far to write, for character and for life, over the gate of it: "All hope abandon ye who enter here." "Le parc," says a French writer, "rend à nos citès industrielles surpeuplées un service spirituel comparable à celui que la cathédrale, dans la grandeur et la beauté de son architecture offrait à la population rurale du moyen âge. Le pare est la cathedrale de la ville moderne."[3] The recognition of this third element in satisfactory housing conditions leads inevitably to the granting of powers to some authority to limit the quantity of building permitted on a given area, and to control the building activities of individuals. It is as idle to expect a well-planned town to result from the independent activities of isolated speculators, as it would be to expect a satisfactory picture to result if each separate square inch were painted by an independent artist. No 'invisible hand' can be relied on to produce a good arrangement of the whole from a combination of separate treatments of the parts. It is necessary that an authority of wider reach should intervene and should tackle the collective problem of beauty, of air and of light, as those other collective problems of gas and water have been already tackled. Hence has come into being, on the pattern of long previous German practice, Mr. Burns's extremely important town-planning Act. In this Act, for the first time, control over individual buildings, from the standpoint, not of individual structure, but of the structure of the town as a whole, is definitely conferred upon those town councils that are willing to accept the powers offered to them. Part II of the Act begins: "A town-planning scheme may be made in accordance with the provisions of this Part of the Act as respects any land which is in course of development, or appears likely to be used for building purposes, with the general object of securing proper sanitary conditions, amenity and convenience in connection with the laying out and use of the land, and of any neighbouring lands." The scheme may be worked out, as is the custom in Germany, many years in advance of actual building, thus laying down beforehand the lines of future development. Furthermore, it may, if desired, be extended to include land on which buildings have already been put up, and may provide "for the demolition or alteration of any buildings thereon, so far as may be necessary for carrying the scheme into effect." Finally, where local authorities are remiss in preparing a plan on their own initiative, power is given to the Local Government Board to order them to take action. There is ground for hope, however, that, so soon as people become thoroughly familiarized with the town-planning idea, local patriotism and inter-local emulation will make resort to external pressure unnecessary.

What has been said so far is intended to illustrate in a rough way the nature of the elements involved in the conception of a minimum standard of housing accommodation. These, as I have suggested, refer respectively to the structure and repair of individual houses, the condition of individual houses as regards overcrowding, and the general arrangement of the whole body of houses in a town or village. So much being understood, we are in a position to attack our main problem. What policy or policies is it desirable to pursue in order that the minimum standard of housing accommodation, which we adopt in theory, may also be attained in practice? This problem is, I think, often deprived of some of the illumination due to it by being treated as a thing standing apart in splendid isolation. It is true, no doubt, that the minimum standard of housing accommodation is more complex than some other minimum standards, such as the minimum standard of leisure. That circumstance, however, does not carry with it any essential difference in character. The broad outline of the practical problem is the same in regard to all our minimum standards. This fact is of great importance. Bearing it in mind, I propose to devote the remainder of this lecture to a discussion of the three principal methods, which, as it seems to me, are at present available for helping forward the establishment of the desired minimum standard of housing accommodation.

I ask your attention first to a policy that is relevant to many forms of minimum standard, and the beneficial influence of which is open to no dispute. The failure of poor persons to attain the level we deem to be satisfactory in the matter of nourishment, of education and of insurance, is frequently the result, not so much of poverty as of ignorance and mismanagement. Sympathy, guidance and instruction by Health visitors and others may often enable them, without any additional expense, greatly to improve their lot. A like statement is true in a pre-eminent degree of certain elements of satisfactory housing. The point to be made is this. A great part of the squalor and discomfort of certain houses of the poor is not the result of inability to pay a reasonable rent, but flows rather from the low character and the want of training of those that inhabit them. Far be it from me, by this observation, to countenance in any way that smug defence of certain landlords neglectful of obvious duties, who say: "It is useless for us to improve our cottages; if we do, the tenants will immediately convert them again into pig-styes." My purpose is quite other than that. It is to show, as the late Miss Octavia Hill so admirably showed by practical example, that there is scope for immense improvement in the houses of the poor, even now while the brute fact of their poverty continues. Miss Hill, with the help of John Ruskin, bought up some houses in a most degraded area and made herself the landlady of them. Throughout she adopted the principle that her enterprise, if it was to be valuable as a social object lesson, must be made to pay. She fixed commercial rents and exacted them with unflinching sternness. The enterprise did pay. In her fight with the wretched conditions that confronted her, she deliberately refused to wield the powerful but double-edged weapon of money charity. The weapon that she did wield was personal influence and disinterested friendship. Every week she visited her tenants to collect the rent. She got to know them as men and women. By her personal appeal she raised their ideals of cleanliness and order. The stairways, which were the landlady's portion—for the houses were let not as wholes but as sets of rooms—she had kept scrupulously clean, and gradually she saw the example spreading to the adjoining rooms. She let it be known when her visits would take place, and, to please her, the tenants began to make efforts to have their houses decent when she came. Sympathy and advice she gave always, money practically never; and, as a result, the whole tone of the lives of those men and women was changed. They became her friends and lifted their ideal of living dimly towards hers. Here lies the essence of the matter. A landlady stands in a relation to her poor tenants in which there is possible immense influence upon character, and, through character, upon the condition of the home. Unfortunately, however, it often happens that the landladies of poor houses are degraded women whose influence is wholly bad. The moral is pointed by Miss Hill in her Homes of the London Poor. "It appears to me," she writes, "to be proved by practical experience, that, when we can induce the rich to undertake the duties of landlord in poor neighbourhoods, and ensure a sufficient amount of the wise, personal supervision of educated and sympathetic people acting as their representatives, we achieve results which are not attainable in any other way … I would call upon those who may possess cottage property in large towns to consider the immense power they thus hold in their hands, and the large influence for good they may exercise by the wise use of that power. When they have to delegate it to others, let them take care to whom they commit it, and let them beware lest, through the widely prevailing system of sub-letting, this power ultimately abides with those who have neither the will nor the knowledge to use it beneficially. … Where are the owners, or lords, or ladies, of most courts like those in which I stood with my two fellow-workers? Who holds dominion there? Who heads the tenants there? If any among the nobly born or better educated own them, do they bear the mark of their hands? And if they do not own them, might they not do so?"[4]

The second remedial policy is a negative one. It consists in prohibition by the State of the sale of commodities unfit for human consumption. This method, as is well-known, is actively employed in England in the case of articles of food. Persons offering bad meat or bad fruit for sale are liable to prosecution, and the condemned goods to confiscation. In the case of housing accommodation an analogous policy has been adopted in England. Part II of the Housing of the Working Classes Act, as slightly amended by the Housing Clauses of the Town Planning Act, provides that an order may be served on the owner of any house adjudged unfit for habitation, requiring him either to render it reasonably habitable or to close it down. If he does not render it reasonably habitable, or take steps towards doing so within three months, the local authority may demolish the house and charge the costs to the landlord. In the Town Planning Act it is also provided that, in the letting of houses adapted for the working classes, there shall be an implied contract that the house is at the start, and shall be throughout the tenancy, kept by the landlord "in all respects reasonably fit for human habitation." This obligation is enforcible by the local authority, and that body is empowered, if necessary, to execute such repairs as may be required at the landlord's expense.[5] When we have to do with a town which has always been, or has somehow become, free from houses unfit for human habitation, the adoption of this policy for the future need not involve any great difficulty. For not many houses could become uninhabitable in such a way that renovation was impracticable in any one year, and there would, therefore, be no danger of closing orders leading to a shortage. All that is needed is strict official supervision and inspection, such as is provided for in the seventeenth section of the Act of 1909, and in the actual conduct of which considerable progress is said, in the latest official report, to have been made in most districts of this country.[6] The case is, however, more difficult in towns where the initiation of reform is confronted by the existence of a large number of houses unfit for habitation. Here the medical officers know that, if they condemn these houses, a considerable number of persons may be rendered altogether homeless. There is no analogous difficulty as regards the condemnation of bad food. At the worst, this means a slight contraction in the consumption of many people. But the condemnation of bad houses threatens a great contraction in the consumption of a few people; and this, of course, involves far greater proportionate suffering. In consequence, the scope of this negative remedy of condemnation is often found, as regards housing accommodation, to be very narrowly limited. Its adoption on a large scale, as a means of abolishing the accumulated slums of the past, is rarely likely to be practicable except in association with some positive policy for the provision of new houses.

What has been said will have made it plain that both the two policies we have been considering are, in their place, valuable means of improvement. Advice and help to poor persons in the art of keeping their houses in a good state—like instruction in the art of cooking—and the condemnation of uninhabitable houses—like the condemnation of diseased meat—may accomplish no small amount of good. By themselves, however, it is obvious that they cannot establish everywhere the desired housing minimum. The root difficulty remains. When all that can be done has been done, there must still be many persons who, if abandoned to their own unaided efforts, cannot afford to purchase that quantity and quality of housing accommodation which the general judgment of the country declares to be a necessary minimum; they are unable, in fact, to offer enough rent to induce builders to provide them with respectable dwellings. In some cases, no doubt, this inability may not be absolute, but may be due to the fact that they attach an unduly low importance to housing accommodation as contrasted with other objects of expenditure; and, when this is the source of the evil, it may be feasible, by rigid inspection and so forth, to compel them to spend more on housing, just as it may be feasible to compel them to spend more on insurance, without forcing down their consumption of other things below the accepted minimum standards. In very many cases, however, inability to afford the price of decent housing is not susceptible of this simple remedy. It arises, at least in part, from the fact that the ill-housed workman's income, however well it may be expended, is insufficient to give command over the various sorts of minima which we deem it proper he should attain. This is the dominant difficulty with which housing reformers are faced. It is not—let me emphasise the point—specially or peculiarly a housing difficulty. Just as many persons cannot afford, without falling short of what is required elsewhere, to purchase a reasonable minimum of housing accommodation, so also they cannot afford to purchase a reasonable minimum of food or of education or of medical attendance. The failure with which we are confronted is the general fact of poverty, whereof inadequate housing is merely a manifestation. Furthermore, that general fact, it is perhaps well at the present time to observe, would still remain, even though Parliament were to set up and enforce a national minimum wage. I shall not attempt here to answer the difficult question whether the establishment of such a wage is or is not, on the whole, desirable. But, however that question be answered, it is certain that its establishment would not secure the universal prevalence of adequate earnings. For earnings depend, not on the wage level alone, but on the wage level coupled with the amount of employment; and the setting up by law of a wage-rate superior to that which many persons can command in a free market could not fail to act injuriously upon the employment they obtain. Whether or not, therefore, a legal minimum wage is established, the fundamental difficulty, that the earnings of many persons are inadequate to the totality of their reasonable needs, still calls for a solution. We are thus led forward inevitably to the consideration of a third policy, additional to the two already discussed, which is relevant to the minimum standard of housing accommodation—the policy, namely, of State aid towards the housing of the poor.

It is plain that, if the public authorities choose to give what is, in effect, a bounty on the production of any commodity largely consumed by poor persons, and so to enable that commodity to be bought by them below cost price, a number of people, who would otherwise have failed to reach one or more of the minimum standards that have been set up, may now succeed in reaching them. This statement is true equally, whether the commodity sold to the poor at less than cost is house accommodation, or clothes, or food, or anything else that they are accustomed to buy: and it is also, of course, true equally, whether the bounty takes the open form of a subsidy to production by private enterprise, or the concealed form of production at a loss by the public authorities themselves. In the current practice of the United Kingdom such subsidies are not given as regards articles of food and clothing, but they are given as regards education, insurance against sickness, and, in selected trades, insurance against unemployment. In Ireland, under the Irish Labourers' Act, they are also given, in substantial measure, as regards housing. Is the policy of giving them in that regard on the whole desirable? This is our final problem.

Before this question can be discussed satisfactorily, it is necessary to clear the ground of an important and widely prevalent misconception. Popular writers often imply that the experience of the old Poor Law has condemned once and for all every form of public assistance to poor persons, except such as is given under disciplinary and deterrent conditions. The provision from national funds, whether in whole or in part, of education, of insurance premiums, or of housing accommodation, is denounced on the ground that it constitutes relief in aid of wages and is, therefore, a reversion to the discredited policy of Speenhamland. This is a mistaken view. It ignores the fact that the root evil of the old Poor Law lay in the circumstance that the subsidies which it granted depended directly upon, and varied inversely with, the wages paid to the recipient, thus creating a direct temptation, on the side of the masters, towards cutting wage-rates, and on the side of the men towards idleness. Subsidies, the amount of which, as paid to separate individuals, varies not inversely with their earnings, but directly with the quantity of their purchases of some commodity, are wholly different from the subsidies of the old Poor Law. Condemnation of the administration of that law has, therefore, no relevance to our present enquiry. The policy of attacking the housing problem with the weapon of State aid does not involve a reversion to rates in aid of wages of the old evil kind, and cannot be dismissed on the authority of experience. It requires, on the contrary, to be examined carefully on its merits.

One further preliminary observation, concerning which no dispute will arise, may conveniently be introduced here. If it is decided to confer a bounty on the provision of housing accommodation for the poor—to provide houses for them, as it is sometimes said, at less than an economic rent—that bounty should not be so arranged as to differentiate in favour of an anti-social distribution of population. There is reason to believe that, in most large towns, the play of economic forces tends to concentrate population more closely than is socially desirable in the central districts. Bounties, therefore, if given at all, should be given in such a way as to counteract, or, at all events not in such a way as to emphasize, that tendency. This seems sufficiently plain. And yet for a long time, the law in some cases enforced, and the London County Council in yet other cases pursued, a line of policy, in which the considerations I have just explained were wholly ignored.[7] Perceiving that the high cost of land in the centre of London made the rents at which workmen's dwellings could be let there abnormally high, the County Council built houses there, wrote off the difference between the commercial value and the value for working-class dwellings of the sites, and offered the houses for hire on terms which involved, in effect, the payment of a heavy subsidy from the ratepayers to their tenants. No corresponding subsidy was given in respect of houses situated in the outlying districts. The result was the same as if food had been offered on special terms to those poor persons who agreed to live in the central parts of London. Working people were, in effect, paid money upon condition that they would occupy sites which, as their market value showed, it was to the national interest to turn to quite other uses. The antisocial congestion of the centre was thus made worse than it would naturally have been. It needs little reflection to perceive that a bounty differentiating in favour of such congestion is the worst possible form of bounty. If differentiation is introduced at all, it should favour dispersion, whether directly by way of grants towards the building of cottages in the outer ring, or indirectly by the subsidizing of cheap workmen's trains and trams. This point of view was embodied in the Cheap Trains Act of 1884, which compelled the provision of workmen's trains to and from the London suburbs, and, conditionally upon the required trains being provided, remitted the passenger duty on all fares of less than 1d. per mile. A similar standpoint is adopted by the London County Council in the management of its tramway system. In 1911 there were 1,684 workmen's cars running daily, with a mileage of 17,928 miles per day.[8]

After all, however, this matter of differentiation is a subordinate one. The fundamental question as to the wisdom or otherwise of properly arranged subsidies upon the housing accommodation offered to the poor still remains to be faced. Ought housing accommodation to be treated as education and insurance are now treated, or ought it to be left, like food and clothing, without the support of any subsidy? I myself approach this question with a major premise that some would dispute. I believe it to be right that the well-to-do should be summoned by the State to help their poorer neighbours whenever that summons can be enforced without evoking gravely injurious reactions upon the production of weath and, therewith, ultimately upon the fortunes of the poor themselves. In view of the fact that good conditions of life undoubtably increase the industrial efficiency of those who enjoy them, State assistance—granted always that it is so arranged as to avoid directly tempting workers into idleness—might, I think, be given in considerable measure before any such injurious reactions were set up. This proposition seems to me to hold good of State subsidies upon education, insurance, housing, food and clothing equally. No decisive objection in principle can be established against any of these things. It is evident, however, that the practical problem of arranging a system of subsidies in such a way that it shall not contain obviously objectionable features is much more difficult as regards some of them than it is as regards others. Articles of food and clothing are produced in a great number of different places and sold through a great number of different shops. This circumstance—to say nothing of the difficulty of distinguishing between articles consumed in the main by the poor and by the rich,—seems to raise an almost insuperable obstacle to the grant of State aid in respect of poor people's purchases of such things. Education, on the other hand, is provided through a much smaller number of separate centres and is, furthermore, a commodity that can be furnished much more satisfactorily than food and clothing by public, as distinguished from private, enterprise. The administrative problem of organizing a bounty in respect of it is, therefore, considerably less complex. The case of insurance, though somewhat harder than that of education, is still much easier than that of food and clothing. The housing of the poor stands, as it seems to me, in an intermediate position. There are strong grounds for holding that the task of building houses is not generally one for which public authorities are well suited.[9] Private enterprise ought not, therefore, to be discouraged by the grant of public aid towards the cost of houses erected by town councils unaccompanied by the grant of similar aid towards the cost of those erected by private enterprise. Plainly, however, to arrange for the payment of subsidies to the large number of separate private persons who are concerned in the building of small houses is an exceedingly large task and one in the conduct of which abuses could hardly fail to arise. These considerations leave no room for doubt that the policy of subsidies in aid of the housing of the poor is open to serious practical objections. For my own part, however, I am not convinced that these objections are incapable of being overcome. On the whole,—though on such a matter it is impossible to speak with assurance—I am inclined to rank housing with education and insurance, in regard to which subsidies are already provided, rather than with food and clothing, in regard to which such subsidies are not, and so far as present indications go, cannot in general—I do not refer to the special case of school children—be provided. Whether or not this be the correct view, I am convinced that carefully drawn schemes of State assistance towards the housing of the poor ought not to be condemned out of hand upon grounds of principle. They deserve, if not support, at least sympathetic consideration.

  1. Public Health and Housing, pp. 151-2.
  2. Housing of the Working Class, L.C.C. Report, 1913, pp. 103-4.
  3. Benoit-Levy, La Ville et son Image, p, 11.
  4. Loc, cit, pp. 51-2 and 39.
  5. Local Government Board Report for 1912-3, p. xxviii.
  6. cf. Memorandum (No. 3) on the Operation of the Housing, Town Planning, etc. Act 1909. [Cd. 7206]. p. 2.
  7. Cf. Housing of the Working Classes, L.C.C. Report, 1913 pp 115.
  8. Housing of the Working Classes, L.C.C. Report, 1913, p. 108.
  9. On the relative advantages of public versus private building Mr. Nettleford has some very weighty remarks: "The housing question is very largely a personal question, and cannot be successfully dealt with in the wholesale fashion which is the only way possible when Local Authorities insist upon themselves building the actual houses required, instead of being content, and wisely content, to encourage others to build houses on proper lines, keeping themselves free to supervise and control what is done, which is after all their first and most important function." (Practical Housing, p. 116).