The Housing Problem

Joseph Hyder: The Case for Land Nationalisation

Chapter X: The Housing Problem

Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!
Isaiah v. 8.

Is it to be credited that this crowding together of men in houses dovetailed into each other, with everything of Nature – winds, flowers, verdure, the healthy smell of earth, shut out and replaced by a thousand miasms – is it, I say, to be credited that this is the normal condition of beings born with natural cravings for activity and pure air, with an intelligent eye for Nature’s manifold picturesqueness, with bodies requiring to be exercised, no less than heads? The very necessity for drains tells against us. All manure was meant directly to nourish the land it accumulates on – not to pollute our streams and rivers. Cities, as they now are, and must probably always be, are abscesses of Nature. The soil and terrestrial space are not meant for the rearing of food only, but to be dwelt and moved about on – to be daily enjoyed in all the variety of wholesome sights, sounds, and odours they afford us.
 Robert Dick, M.D., On the Evils, Impolicy and Anomaly of 
Individuals being Landlords and Nations Tenants.

Oh I if those who rule the destinies of nations would but remember this – if they would but think how hard it is for the very poor to have engendered in their hearts that love of home from which all domestic virtues spring, when they live in dense and squalid masses, where social decency is lost, or rather never found – if they would but turn away from the wide thoroughfares and great houses, and strive to improve the wretched dwellings in byways, where only poverty may walk, many low roofs would point more truly to the sky than the loftiest steeple that now rears proudly up from the midst of guilt, and crime, and horrible disease, to mock them by its contrast.
 Charles Dickens,The Old Curiosity Shop, chap, xxxviii.

We spend thousands in carrying out the separation of classes in prison; for God’s sake let us try to separate them a little before they go to prison. We are afraid of the dangerous classes; for God’s sake let us bestir ourselves to stop that reckless confusion and neglect which reign in the alleys and courts of our great towns, and which recruit those very dangerous classes from the class which ought to be and still is, in spite of our folly, England’s strength and England’s glory. Let us no longer stand by idle, and see moral purity, in street after street, pent in the same noisome den with moral corruption, to be involved in one common doom, as the Latin tyrant of old used to bind together the dead corpse and the living victim. But let the man who would deserve well of his city, well of his country, set his heart and brain to the great purpose of giving the workmen dwellings fit for a virtuous and a civilised being, and, like the priest of old, stand between the living and the dead that the plague may be stayed.
 Charles Kingsley.

No thought of pride has any connection, in my mind, with the idea of London. I am always haunted by the awfulness of London; by the great appalling effect of these millions cast down, as it would appear, by hazard on the banks of this noble stream, working each in their own groove and their own cell, without regard or knowledge of each other, without knowing each other, without having the slightest idea how the other lives – the heedless casualty of unnumbered thousands of men. Sixty years ago a great Englishman, Cobbett, called it a wen. If it was a wen then, what is it now? A tumour, an elephantiasis, sucking into its gorged system half the life and the blood and the bone of the rural districts.
 Lord Rosebery, speech at St. James’s Hall, March 1892.

IF a stranger from another planet could visit us, there is nothing that would be so likely to arrest his attention as the housing conditions of the masses of the people. For he would find that, with all the materials and all the conditions for the construction of good houses abundant, yet there is such a chronic scarcity of them that the great majority of the people are, according to any reasonable standard, disgracefully overcrowded. 

We have plenty of stone and clay, and we have land lying waste that would supply all the timber that is needed. We have no lack of earth-room, no lack of capital, no lack of labour; yet houses are scarce and dear, and often miserably defective and dangerously insanitary. The need for more and better houses is so obvious that it is admitted on all hands. Social reformers, philanthropists, and statesmen recognise it and strive in various ways to meet it. Act after Act has been passed by Parliament to deal with it, and some improvement has been made, but it still remains one of the most outstanding of society’s unsolved problems. And the reason is simply this, that men have attempted to remove the evils of bad or insufficient housing without understanding the causes, which give rise to them. 

Scarcity and Overcrowding
Now it is impossible for any serious student of the housing question to fail to see that it is at bottom a land question; and further, that the housing difficulty is the natural fruit of private property in land. It is inconceivable that it could ever have arisen at all if the people as a whole, instead of private individuals, had had the ownership and control of land. It is inconceivable that they would ever have herded themselves in overcrowded slums and alleys if they had had the alternative, which, under public landownership, they would have had, of access to all the necessary materials of which houses are made, and of the space which they ought to occupy.

Is it possible to imagine that any man would have been without a house, if the wood were his for the labour of growing and working it up, if the stone were his for the labour of quarrying and dressing it, if the clay were his for the labour of digging and baking it into bricks? Under such conditions any scarcity of houses is absolutely unthinkable. 

Put a man upon an uninhabited island, and provide him with a few implements, one of the very first things he would do would be to build for himself a home. Let the island, however, be the private property of another man, so that he must not cut the timber, nor quarry the stone, nor dig the clay, nor even choose a site, without paying for the owner’s permission, and everything would be altered. 

Apart from the scarcity of houses, which involves the crowding of people into them, there is an overcrowding of houses upon the land. Now, whether the area of the British Isles is, or is not, large enough to yield food for the whole of the British nation, is a debatable question, although time will probably show that, if it were cultivated as it might be, it is extensive enough even for that. But that it is at any rate large enough to render unnecessary any crowding of the homes of the people upon limited areas, is beyond any possible questioning. 

It is sometimes said that overcrowding is due to the people themselves, to their lack of appreciation of spacious surroundings to their homes, and that, even if they had had the collective ownership of land, overcrowding would still have grown up until they demanded better conditions. To this contention the action of the landlords themselves is sufficient answer. They have never suffered from any scarcity of house-room, and they have always taken care to provide ample space around their homes. It is, therefore, reasonable to infer that, if the whole people had had like advantages, they would have acted in like manner. 

They could not all, of course, have provided themselves with mansions and parks, but they could all have provided for themselves far better houses than they have ever had, and to each house could have been, and would have been, allotted a reasonable amount of land. 

The Best Use of Land Impossible under Private Ownership
But, with land in private ownership, the people have had no choice. They must take what is offered, or go without altogether. For, in the eyes of the private owner, town land is looked upon simply as an instrument for the extortion of rent. That being so, the highest possible rent is aimed at as a matter of course. Now, the highest rent can seldom be got by putting land to its best use. For the best use of land means that it produces the best possible conditions for those who actually live upon it. It means that the actual occupiers shall have sufficient space for their health, comfort, and happiness. It is therefore incompatible with overcrowding.

But what the occupier regards as the best use of land is diametrically opposed to the view, which is naturally taken by the owner. If he can put fifty gardenless houses upon an acre, he can get nearly five times more rent than he could if he put only ten houses upon the same site. And the choice entirely rests with him. The tenants who will have to inhabit the houses have no say in the matter at all. If other landlords were to offer better conditions they would, of course, attract tenants from more crowded areas. But as all (or nearly all) landlords are actuated by the same motive, the desire to get the greatest possible amount of rent for their particular properties, it is the natural tendency for them all to prefer a dense population, rather than a scattered one, upon their building sites. 

Conflicting Interests
Now this conflict of interests between owners and tenants lies at the very heart of the housing problem. To it is due most of the slums that disgrace our civilisation. They have all grown up upon private land, or upon land that has been dealt with upon the principles of private ownership.

Whatever improvement in housing conditions has taken place has come from the action of public authorities in limiting and restraining the natural tendencies of private owners to overcrowd their properties, and from the action of a very limited number of owners, who, for the sake of the well-being of their tenants, have voluntarily sacrificed the potential rent-bearing capacities of their properties, and have thus departed from the practice which is followed by most other men in their position. 

If unrestrained by the law, owners would build upon every available inch of their land. Every limitation imposed upon their so-called right “to do as they like with their own” has encountered their opposition, and has been carried in spite of them. But no mere building by-laws are likely to put an end to overcrowding altogether. Propertied interests are held in too much respect for that. Even the by-laws we have are administered by Councils in which such interests are predominantly represented, and it is not unknown for owners of insanitary property to sit upon, and even to preside over, the very Committees whose duty is to order its demolition. 

Land Cheapening Insufficient
Neither is it conceivable that the mere cheapening of land, such as is promised by the advocates of the taxation of land values, will avail, so long as the land itself is held as private property. In the first place, there is no warrant, either in experience or economic theory, for the belief that the taxation of land would effect a. general cheapening of it. In the second place, even if it did it would leave intact the before-mentioned clash of interests between owners and tenants. It would still be to the interest of each owner to put the land to what he, and he alone, regards as the best use for it. That some land would be cheaper if all land were taxed on its full and true value, is probably true. But the assumption that this would necessarily involve the putting of all land to the best use of which it is capable, is an untenable one.

Such an assumption is always based upon the theory that the multiplication of buildings is a good thing in itself. Certainly there are many places where buildings are badly needed, but there are other places where buildings ought to be prevented. In urban centres it would not be a good thing for every vacant plot to be covered with bricks and mortar. The best use of land is not always as a building site. Trees and grass, flowers and shrubs, are as necessary as houses. The mere cheapening of land makes no provision for them. But the public ownership of land does. For it implies that the community as a whole, that is to say the actual occupiers of land in their collective capacity, shall decide the uses to which land shall be put. It eliminates entirely the incentive that naturally moves a private owner, whether the land is cheap or dear, to put his own profit before the general wellbeing. 

Public ownership of land means cheap land, but it means much more than that. It means not merely the ample provision of building sites, but also the selection of the most suitable areas for building, and the preservation of open spaces. For there are some districts that are unsuitable for the one purpose, but suitable for the other. This is far loo important a matter to be left to the discretion of private owners. The mere fact that they may be taxed, instead of being exempt from taxation, would in no way be a guarantee that they would perform such duties of selection and reservation so well as the community could itself do if it were the master of its own area. 

Crowding on Cheap Land
Now, the dearness of land is not the only cause of bad housing conditions. We see the very same evils where land is cheap and abundant. For though, in a town, land is withheld for purposes of speculation in the unearned increment, it is withheld also in the country districts, but for other reasons. The idea that every country labourer has at least a good garden on which he can grow fruit and vegetables for his family is, unfortunately, far from being warranted by the facts. If such gardens were so general as is commonly supposed, why has there been such a hunger in the villages for garden allotments? The gardens that ought to have been provided when the cottages were built have had to be supplied by special legislation, and labourers have often to go long distances from their homes, when their work is done, to cultivate allotments for which an extortionate rent has to be paid; a rent that is generally quite disproportionate to the rent that the farmer pays for exactly the same kind of land on the other side of the hedge.

Again and again there are to be seen, in all parts of the country, labourers’ cottages built flush with the road, like the houses in a crowded city street, and backing on to a field, with no part, or but a small part, of the field allotted to them for gardens. The land is cheap enough, and there is plenty of it, but it is not to be had by the labourer at any price. Private ownership stands in the way. The labourer must live in the cottage provided for him, and be as thankful for the privilege as he can find it in his nature to be. He has no more voice as to the way he shall be housed than the horses he drives, or the cattle he tends. They also must take what is offered, or go without, and he is no better in that respect than they are. 

The Cottage Famine
Then there is the actual scarcity of rural cottages, which is a very fruitful cause of driving men from the villages, either to the towns or to other lands. It is said that cottage-building does not pay. Does not pay whom? And why does it not pay? Here again we come to the land question. For the reason it does not pay to build cottages is that agricultural wages are so low that the average labourer cannot afford a rent that will cover ordinary commercial interest on the cost of their construction. He is engaged in a sweated industry. It is the greatest industry in the country, it is the oldest, it is the most fundamentally necessary of all. But the labourer, upon whose bent back it is carried, cannot afford to pay for decent shelter. He must be spoon-fed with charity rents, and, failing them, he must be banished from the countryside altogether.

He is the most pathetic figure in the landscape. His sad condition evokes the sympathies of all but the most callous or thoughtless. And he is so patient, with the patience of the stalled ox. He is so necessary withal, that really we must do something for him. But what shall it be? 

“Put a tax upon foreign wheat and make the growing of home wheat profitable,” say the landlord and the farmer, forgetting that, low as the labourer’s wage is, it was lower still in the days when Protection drove food to famine prices. 

“Let us build cottages for him,” say others, “cottages of the cheapest and flimsiest character, and, if there be a deficiency, let the whole nation shoulder it.” And the evil is so great, and the need for remedying it is so urgent, that even this is better than leaving things as they are, even though it be but another way of subsidising wages and housing the labourers by a new species of charity rents. 

But suppose we try the experiment of putting the labourer into a position to get a better price for his labour. There would then be no more need to consider schemes for supplying him with cottages at uncommercial rents than for supplying him with food and clothing at uncommercial prices. The cottage problem would solve itself. For the same law which would set him free to demand a better wage, would also set all the land free that is wanted to supply him with a home, both the site and the materials. 

The more closely it is studied the more clearly must it be seen that the labourer’s poverty is fundamentally due to his landlessness. He has no more right in his native village than a horse has. He is always using land, but it is always somebody else’s land. He is always a hired servant. There is no hope of him becoming his own master. He has only one thing to sell, his labour, and he has always to sell it in a market that is against him. For he has no second choice. The land is closed to him. He has no second string to his bow. Hired service is his only means of livelihood. All the conditions of servitude are his. And so his wages are always the minimum upon which he can support a bare animal existence. He has no reserves to fall back upon. He is within a week of starvation if illness overtake him, unless charity comes to his rescue, and, in old age, only a meagre national pension (but a splendid precedent) stands between him and the workhouse and the pauper’s grave. 

The advantages which can be won by collective bargaining are not for him. For a strong trade union can hardly be built up upon the poor subscriptions, which he can alone afford; and the expenses of organisation are made heavy by the distances to be covered. Moreover the very idea of a trade union is entirely repellent to all the governing powers of country life. A labourer must risk home as well as employment if he dares to do that which a town workman may do as a matter of course. He is a marked man, and is likely to find himself ere long under what is practically a sentence of banishment. 

A Simple Principle
How different it would be if the simple principle were established that the labourer has as much right to the land as the squire himself, and that each ought to count one, and one only, in the matter of land rights as they do at the census! How different it would be if every labourer who chose to avail himself of his chance had his cow, to provide milk for home consumption, and how much better it would be for his wife and children if they were as familiar with such a diet as now they are strangers to it. With his pigs and his poultry, his fruit trees, his sacks of potatoes and flour, the produce of his own land held in joint ownership with his fellows, he could make his bargain with the farmer on a level footing. It would be a free contract, and a fair one. Out of the fair wages, which would then result lie could afford a rent that would attract capital to the provision of all the cottages that were needed, and, if the community itself were to take part in so beneficial a work, it would be so much the better.

The small proportion, which the value of land generally bears to the cost of the house itself, is often employed as an argument to prove the comparative unimportance of the land question in relation to the housing question. The difficulty is alleged, therefore, to turn upon the cost of construction, and the rate of interest upon capital, rather than upon the cost of land. Certainly these are very important factors. Nevertheless it remains true, that, with wages at their proper level of fair earnings, there would be no scarcity of houses, and that every man would be able to pay a rent that would cover the fair cost of construction and maintenance, and a fair commercial return upon the outlay expended; always provided that the land could be obtained on fair terms, and the value of it be applied to reduce or extinguish the taxation which now acts as a second rent. 

The Question of Space
It must, moreover, never be forgotten that the question of space, apart altogether from its monetary value, is one of the most important considerations in dealing with the housing problem. Take the case of two houses, built from the same plans, identical in every respect but the single one of the space allotted. Their cost is the same, the rate of interest on the capital devoted to their construction is the same. But one is built flush with the street boundary, a house adjoins it on each side, only space for a back-yard or a tiny garden is allotted to it, and all adjacent sites are developed on the same principle of making “the best use of land,” as it is commonly regarded by private owners. The land may be quite cheap, but none of it is spared for the improvement of the surroundings of the house. The children have no playground except the street. The father stands at the street corner, or in the public-house, in his leisure hours.

From the same plans is built another house, but it is set back from the street, and a little garden space is provided at the front. At the back a much more liberal allotment of ground is made. The children may play in the open air, and yet be at home under the guardianship of their parents; the mother has plenty of room for drying clothes, the father has ground for cultivating flowers or vegetables, and employing his spare time in a healthful and pleasant way in beautifying the surroundings of his home. He can take his chair out on to the grass, and smoke his pipe and read his book in the shade of his own fruit trees, and in the privacy of his own grounds. The public-house has no attractions for him. 

The first house has in it the potentialities of a slum, the second of a home. The only difference is that one is built as if there were a land famine, and the other is not. And the monetary value of the extra space, even at ordinary building rates, is perhaps sixpence a week. 

Now, private owners cannot be depended upon to supply the garden space that ought to be allotted to every house as a matter of course from the commencement. But, under public ownership of land, the people would decide such matters for themselves, and they would hardly fail to effect a complete transformation of housing conditions for the better. 

The Rating of Improvements
But, besides the inevitable clashing of the interests of private owners and their tenants, there remains another evil arising out of private property in land which acts as a check and an expense upon building, the appropriation of land rent by individuals compels the local authorities to raise their revenues by taxing improvements. The rent of a house must therefore cover cost of the site, cost of the construction, and the rates that are now levied upon house and site together as well.

If land were public property the income from it would render unnecessary the taxation of buildings. And, as the erection of a good house would not be penalised by the imposition of a tax in proportion to its value, this would tend to the cheapening of houses and the lowering of rents. To a certain extent this very exemption would tend to add to the value of the land, and, under private property in land, the advantage that ought to accrue would be largely nullified. But, under public ownership, the resulting increase in the value of land could be controlled, and, in any case, it would be given back to the tenants again in public services. 

To sum up, it is seen that the present land system, in one way or another, is the prime cause of low wages in the country, and consequently in the towns too, of the withholding of land from building, and of the further artificial enhancement of rents by the rating of improvements. No mere modification of that system, which leaves the land still in the control of private owners, will prevent either the crowding of too many people into the houses, or the crowding of too many houses upon limited areas, or will remedy the shortage of houses which has such disastrous consequences upon the health and even the character of the people. The community must itself take possession of the land, gradually if need be, and, giving fair compensation according to a plan to be hereafter explained, become the owner of every building site in the country, and of all the natural reservoirs of all the materials of which houses are made. And, it having these, the housing difficulty will vanish and become a memory only, and a wonder to coming generations that it ever existed at all.