[The Luton Reporter: Tuesday, June 24th, 1919]
Six months have elapsed since Luton Corporation were persuaded to give approval for the erection of 1,000 municipal houses – less than half the number, it was stated at the time, required to meet the deficiency which has arisen through the war and its after-effects.
Today, there is no sign of a brick, not a mound of earth moved towards the preparation of the foundations. Even the housing plans have yet to make their appearance and go through the ordeal of scrutiny and criticism, and the most optimistic are none too sanguine that there will be many of the new houses in occupation in 1919.
Meanwhile the cry everywhere is for more house accommodation. It comes from the men who have been out to fight for England, home and beauty and returned to find that one of the essentials – home – is a myth; from the people – employers and employed – who have seriously taken to heart the oft-repeated truism that the rapid recovery of the nation depends on industrial reconstruction and increased production; and from the helpless workers and artisans who have not the wherewithal to take a hand in the prevailing house ramp and must pay the penalty of eviction from comfortable, hard-worked-for and tenderly cared for homes and a Hobson's choice makeshift somewhere at a cost out of all proportion both to their earnings and the accommodation they secure.
House after house is being sold over the heads of old tenants to people whose only prospect of obtaining residential quarters is to buy a dwelling at a greatly inflated figure on the chance of obtaining possession through the process of the courts. A heavy premium is put upon the key of any place that falls empty; and whole families are compelled to pack themselves into two and three rooms and see their furniture go to rack and ruin through inability to secure proper storage accommodation.
Unfurnished rooms are almost as difficult to find as empty houses, and in almost all classes of home two, three and sometimes even four families are herded together in a state of housing overcrowding that makes neither for ideal family life or sanitary conditions.
The situation has, indeed, become so acute that some of our public men who are able to view such matters from a semi-detached standpoint are even beginning to wake up to an appreciation of the seriousness.
A Reporter representative has devoted considerable time during the past week to careful and exhaustive inquiries in a variety of quarters as to the position, and from a very well informed source we have the estimate that there are at least 2,000 people wanting houses in Luton today. This may appear rather an astounding figure, but there is sound prima facie evidence to support it.
There are approximately 1,300 houses in the town, and as long ago as October 1917 the Town Council came to the conclusion that there was an immediate shortage of 1,100 houses, and this shortage increased to the extent of about 500 a year. This was the normal growth of the town before the war, and we have not been able to find that there has been more than one new house erected in Luton since that conclusion was arrived at.
We have heard surprise expressed that the dearth of accommodation should have made itself so acute since the armistice, in view of the large exodus of workers who were only temporary residents while engaged in the local munition factories. But there is quite a simple explanation.
While the munition birds of passage have been going, local men who have been serving with the forces have been returning discharged or demobilised. The bulk of the munition workers were either unmarried, or married people retaining their permanent homes elsewhere and content with merely sleeping accommodation, two and sometimes three in a room. But many of the returned soldiers are family men wanting a home of their own.
When they went to serve their wives may have been glad to be relieved of the burden of a separate home, and on grounds of company or economy, or both, threw in their lot with relatives. But now they naturally desire a return to their old home conditions.
Younger brothers have returned home and want shelter under the parental roof, and, consequently, accommodation which was sufficient at a pinch for two families during the war is now rendered altogether inadequate. Besides this, many of the returned soldiers who went out single have since married an brought back wives and, in some cases, children. They has no need to set up a home during the war, but they now desire to launch out in that direction. And the same applies to workers at home who have made wartime marriages.
So great is the demand and the dearth that if a reasonable house in a reasonable quarter is offered at anything like a reasonable rent there would be 200 or 300 applicants for it inside 24 hours. And the situation has given rise to evils which may be classified under two different heads.
One is the phase of the matter represented by the monthly list of possession applications to the County Court judge. House property, we are assured, is not changing hands in Luton at any abnormal rate compared with pre-war days, but an abnormal feature is that the bulk of the purchases are of single houses bought undoubtedly in the hope of being able to obtain possession.
The desire of people with means to get securely settled in a home, coupled with the huge cost of building today, has afforded landlords a fine opportunity of selling to great advantage, and the prospect of a little profiteering has outweighed consideration for old tenants. One hears of houses built below the war for below £450 commanding £650 and even £700, and a case cited of a builder who, wanting a house for his own occupation, found it cheaper a handsome profit on an existing dwelling than build one for himself.
This state of affairs seems to have been a temptation to some people to even sell the house in their own occupation and buy another on the chance of getting possession. All this, of course, increases the element of disturbance, and only a day or two ago we heard of an insurance agent who in one day came across no fewer than ten people having received notices to quit because their houses having been sold over their heads.
The local Labour Party are vigorously taking up this matter, and we hear they have information of some 30 cases of this kind, ranging from a bank cashier to the occupants of two rooms over a shop. The Labour Party are disinclined to disclose their hand for the moment, but it is no secret that they were responsible for affording legal aid in two of the cases brought before the County Court on Thursday, and we are told there is the prospect of something very drastic being done unless steps are quickly taken to relieve the present scandal.
HOW THE POOR LIVE
Another aspect of the matter is that revealed by the Police Court Missioner at the police court on Saturday week. Me Hawkes cited the case of a widow with three daughters paying six shillings a week rent, with an extra shilling as her share of the gas, for a small bedroom and another room containing a sink and copper, both practically underground. The height of the room is not more than six feet, and the dampness can be seen all around. The place is kept beautifully clean, but the woodwork and flooring is simply crumbling away through rot.
This is by no means an isolated incident. Another condition very bad in Luton is represented by the little two-roomed cottages set up in the backyards of other cottages. There is a room downstairs about nine feet square and one bedroom up, and in some of these live a whole family. There is one occupied by a mother, a son of 18 or 19 and two daughters, aged 14 and 11, and they have to do the best they can with one bedroom, parted off with a screen.
Another case is that of a consumptive woman who, while waiting to go to a sanatorium, should certainly have a bedroom to herself. While, however, he husband was away she took in another woman with three children, and now both the husbands have returned. The tenant naturally wants the use of of the only two bedrooms, but the other family cannot get other accommodation. And so there are two families crowded into this small place under conditions that make for danger to health.
“The chief source of trouble,” said Mr Hawkes, “is the old property of 50 years or more ago. It was not built according to modern notions of health, and it has been sadly neglected during the war and is really in a damp and dilapidated state. Owing to the high price of labour and materials, owners will not do anything unless they are forced, and most of it wants sweeping away.
“When people talk about those who live in these places being fit only for rabbit hutches, and people who would turn a palace into a pigsty, I say it is a lie. The average poor Luton woman keeps her house as clean as possible, but what can she do with broken bricks and tiles, ceilings dropping down in pieces and the paper black and peeling from the wall? There are thousands of people living under such conditions that if an epidemic once starts it will not be easily stopped.
“If only our Town Council had imagination enough to fit up some of the existing military huts as bungalows, a great deal could be done to relieve the pressure so that some of the houses could be done up and improved.”