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Housing and Human Problems

One morning in the early 1920's, a young mother trudged up the front steps of a town hall in one of the London suburbs. She was confronted at the top by a portly commissionaire, pompous in his petty authority, but she pushed angrily past him and found her way to the Mayor’s parlour at last. There was certainly no respect for civic dignity about her as she barged through the door and demanded of the official there when he was going to get her and her family somewhere decent to live.

Her husband had been unemployed for two whole years after his return from the slaughter of the Great War, and their marriage was early feeling the strain of trying to live with their young ones in two small rooms. No wonder the poor woman was at her wits end. In desperation, she pleaded— and threatened (she would drown herself and her three children, she said), but it made no difference. The official was not impressed.

You had to have a “regular” job in those days even to get on the Council’s waiting list. Eventually they took over the whole of their pokey terraced house, but by then there were three more children, so they were not much better off anyway. The young wife did not solve her housing problem. Like many others, she lived, grew old and died in the same seedy place. And like so many others of her day and since, she never did grasp the real reason for her plight, and for the sordid conditions of her life which threw a barrier between her husband and herself, so that they really hardly knew each other, even after forty years of marriage.

Perhaps you could shrug this story off if it were just an isolated instance, but the sheer human tragedy of the housing problem will just not let you do that. The lives of those affected are soaked in misery and despair in the grim struggle to raise families sometimes under the most appalling conditions. It is hardly surprising that tempers fray, nerves suffer and couples who started married life full of love and high hopes, often end up barely tolerating each other. If you think this is far-fetched, remember that social workers in London’s East End, for example, find frequently that among those who consult them about their bad housing conditions are many who are under medical treatment for nervous disorders.

Ironically enough, there is a new brand of neurosis associated with the high blocks of flats in which workers are re-housed, and in fact there is growing suspicion that the very act of taking families from streets and separating them sometimes at great heights is having an adverse effect on their health. The working class mother may have had to cope with ghastly slum conditions before, but at least she did not have to keep her young children cooped up in a flat because the playground is too far below for her to keep an eye on them. Like most workers, she is kept busy, and there is always the nagging fear that one of her kiddies will somehow escape her attention and fall to his death from a balcony or landing.

But bad nerves are only one of the evil effects. It does not take a great deal of brains to realise that cramped and dilapidated dwellings are injurious to health in countless ways. In fact, so great has this become that some local authorities deal with it as a separate priority under “Medical re-housing.” In theory, of course, you are eligible for special consideration if you have some health defect which your doctor thinks has been caused or aggravated by your living conditions. It often carries little weight in practice, though, because the shortage of workers’ houses has become so acute that only a small fraction of those available is allocated to medical cases.

In London, the housing famine is acute, and the County Council have since 1958 been able to reserve only a miserable 250 flats a year for re-housing the seriously ill. Before then, it was a mere one hundred. In 1961, the whole allocation had been used up by the spring and there were still more than a thousand urgent cases outstanding. And even if you are lucky enough to be so ill that you are offered a flat, you may find that it is one of the older blocks, without a bathroom or lift, and with a shared W.C. So your troubles are by no means over and you could easily find yourself back on the waiting list before long.

Take a look at some of the other human tragedies of the housing scandal. Understandably, we are so preoccupied with the plight of families and the bad effects on youngsters that we tend to forget the pathetic conditions that many single people have to endure. Young, middle-aged, and old are all afflicted, but perhaps the last group suffer most because of their infirmities and inability to earn a living. Mostly you will find such people in private (as opposed to municipal) dwellings, such as the oldest tenement blocks of East London. The accommodation is generally cheap, which at once tells us a lot about it in terms of dilapidation and sheer misery for the occupants. Try living for twenty years, as one epileptic did, in a room 7 ft. by 6 ft. with plasterless walls and a leaking roof, and you will get our meaning. Often there is very bad overcrowding, and conditions in many of the houses are indescribable.

Struggling along on the very borderline of destitution, there is a loneliness and black despair which many times overtakes these people, and they seldom manage to get clear of their awful predicament. They are generally the ones with whom capitalism can deal particularly harshly, such as widows, divorcees, those in failing health and even mental cases. Their common misery is the product of their common identity as members of the working class.

But there is one other group who have given up the strain of trying even for the meagre respectability of a dingy furnished room. Ironically, in many cases they have lost what accommodation they had as their lodgings were closed to make way for slum clearance. They sleep anywhere they can—odd nooks and crannies, bombed sites and railway stations. During the day they do work of sorts, although clearly they do not earn much at it. For them, the hopelessness of the situation is just something they have accepted in blank apathy and each day of struggle is pretty much the same as the next. Their predicament gives us an insight into the horrible pressures which mount against single people living on their own in a place like London.

Rarely do they appear on the waiting lists of local councils. They probably realise the utter futility of trying this, because the queue is miles long as it is. As one observer has put it, they suddenly find themselves clinging to the very edges of society. Maybe some have been ill for a while, and without friends or relations to help them have found themselves on the streets. Others have drifted from one dingy room to another before succumbing and joining the rest of the destitutes.

Capitalism does things in a big way. It can produce huge quantities of goods and build enormous cities. And just as surely, in its usual contradictory way, the majority of its people have to put up with narrow, drab lives. And for the lonely ones the very bigness of capitalism's towns restrict their chances of ever belonging anywhere. This extremity illustrates perhaps most of all the underlying tragedy of the whole housing problem. To say that it is a problem of working class poverty is indeed a truism which runs like a thread through workers' whole lives. For poverty of ownership in the means of life begets poverty in so many other things— perhaps in human contact and friendship most of all.

Eddie Critchfield