1920s >> 1923 >> no-222-february-1923

Rent and Houses

House and tenement owners in Scotland are squealing because the Government, which represents property owners generally, have not taken steps to save them from the results of their own ignorance and neglect. According to the Rent Act passed by the late Government, house owners should give notice to vacate premises when increasing rent. Many of them did not do so, hence numerous summonses for return of rent illegally charged, and a withholding of rent until the debt is paid off.

The Government is on the horns of a dilemma because relief has been promised to the owners, which shall be made retrospective. To break such a promise would, of course, be beneath the dignity of the “Mother of Parliaments”; while to make the tenants pay up would constitute a precedent and look too much like class legislation.. But a virtue can be made of necessity. The Government could subsidise the owners or tell them to pocket their losses. Whichever course they take, the claim will be made that it was the tenants who were considered, because they were poor workers who could not afford to pay.

Obviously, while the Act is in force, it is up to those who own houses to observe it. If they neglect to do so, with all the advantages on their side of better acquaintance with legal forms, they should submit to the penalty without squealing.

Of course, all sorts of unpleasant results are predicted if the no-rent strike is persisted in. One is that house building will cease because no-one will build unless rents are assured.

High rents and shortage of houses are undoubtedly a real hardship for the workers. Though it is nothing new for them to be herded in jerry-built drums with little or no convenience. Hutches that let in the wind, wet, and fog, but keep out the sunlight. Back-to-back tenements and flats, damp cellars and ramshackle attics are quite commonplace as “Englishmen’s homes.” There is nothing new in the fact that families of eight or ten live in a single room and take in lodgers. Pre-war newspapers often cited such instances. Why the outcry ?

The two things, shortage of houses and high rents, generally coincide. Given the first, the second follows. The capitalists who are interested in the production of any commodity always prefer to see the supply short of the demand, because it enables them to raise prices. The commodity in the present case is the use of a house for a period of weeks or months. The house owner realises his cost of production by drawing rents while the house remains habitable. He sells, and the tenant buys house accommodation or shelter, on the same basis and according to the same laws that govern the buying and selling of other commodities. Supply and demand are responsible for fluctuations in rent, while cost of production is the main level between the two extremes. When rents fluctuate upwards, either the workers must have increased wages to enable them to pay, or they must go short of other necessaries. Removals by night are far less common when there is a real shortage of houses, and private landlords as well as local councils invariably give preference to tenants who have a regular job with well-established firms, where they can be got at if pressure to pay becomes necessary.

The two alternatives before the wage workers are, therefore, to pay the landlord and go short of other necessaries, or struggle for a higher wage. But this is as much the concern of capitalists generally as it is of the workers. If capitalists require a certain standard of efficiency in their wage-slaves, the latter must be fed and clothed up to that standard. The whole question, consequently, resolves itself into a tug-of-war between one section of the capitalist class and all the rest, the workers’ standard of living taking the strain. At the moment the housing interests have the pull.

This explains somewhat the deep concern of writers in the capitalist Press about the shortage of houses and high rents. Until rents are reduced, capitalists generally cannot enforce the wage reductions they so earnestly desire without seriously impairing the efficiency of their wage-slaves. The agitation is on a par with the Free Trade movement of Cobden and Bright. The free importation of foreign corn was immediately followed by wholesale reductions in wages, because the workers could live more cheaply.

The capitalist system never did and never can insure to the bulk of the workers decent and convenient houses in which to live without overcrowding. The “council houses” are no better and no cheaper than those of the jerry-builder. House owners to-day know quite well that overcrowding suits their pockets far better than overbuilding, hence the demand that house building shall be left to private enterprise.

What is wrong is capitalism: private or class ownership of the means of wealth production and distribution for profit. The workers do not live on profits; why, then, should they produce for profits? They should organise politically for control of the State machinery in order to establish a system of society based on production for use. Under such a system, where the people controlled production and distribution through democratic administrations set up by themselves, houses would be built when and where they were needed. The wants of the people would determine the nature and extent of all production instead of, as to-day, the profits of a ruling class.
F. Foan