Jumat, 02 Desember 2011

Happy 173rd Birthday, Octavia Hill

The nineteenth century was the great age of the reformer, and one of the greats of the age was today's birthday girl, British housing and charity reformer Octavia Hill (1838-1912). She's not much remembered these days, but in her own time she occupied a pedestal similar to Florence Nightingale's; indeed, at the First Australasian Conference on Charity in Melbourne in 1890, the convenor, when asked about the proper organisation of charity, could answer 'oh, the best authorities are St Paul and Octavia Hill.' And her unacknowledged influence persists in social housing tenancy management today.

(Octavia Hill, looking not a day over 130.)

Hill was a reformer in the classical liberal tradition of working upon the 'character' of poor and working people – 'character', in this intellectual tradition, being a kind of mediating substance between the degrading, demoralising circumstances of the modern city and the free will of the liberal subject. Character consisted in habits, particularly of thrift, restraint and duty; these habits applied could build up more character.

Hill's particular innovation was to work upon the habits of character through the landlord-tenant relationship. She described her philosophy in evidence given to the 1885 Housing Royal Commission:

The people's homes are bad, partly because they are badly built and arranged; they are ten-fold worse because the tenants' habits and lives are what they are. Transplant them tomorrow to healthy and commodious homes, and they would pollute and destroy them. There needs, and will need for some time, a reformatory work which will demand that loving zeal of individuals which cannot be had for money, and cannot be legislated for by Parliament.

Thanks for the 'love', Octavia! Hill pursued her 'reformatory work' by managing tenancies for poor households, on a ‘five per cent philanthropy’ basis, in houses owned by private landlords and her own supporters. Bernard Bosanquet, a contemporary and supporter, described Hill’s techniques as proceeding on ‘the simple but not familiar idea that a landlord has a moral duty to his tenant’:
The system consists in the employment of trained women as agents and rent-collectors, who manage the property as any decent owner ought to manage it, but with a good deal of individual supervision…. [I]t is absolutely indispensable for the houses of people who have lost the habit of living in comfort and cleanliness.

Hill and her workers attended to repairs and improvements, and in return insisted on payment of the rent strictly as it fell due – less for any commercial reason than for the lesson in thrift it taught her tenants. And Hill knew her tenants: in particular, she used the practice of collecting rent directly from tenants at their premises to insinuate a surveillance of character into their households, by inquiring after the circumstances of household members and giving advice and warnings.

This work, Hill insisted, was to be done by women only – ‘ladies must do it, for it is detailed work; ladies must do it for it is household work’. Her system was, in effect, a new application of the technique of the ‘lady visitors’ developed earlier by charitable organisations in almshouses, workhouses and asylums, and Hill herself explicitly articulated the disciplinary power of her techniques with classical liberal reformism:

It is a tremendous despotism, but it is exercised with a view of bringing out the powers of the people, and treating them as responsible for themselves within certain limits… you cannot get the individual action in any other way that I know of.

This 'tremendous despot' did not establish a formal organisation through which to conduct her system of management – it is estimated that she managed about 2 000 tenancies at the time of her death, and her workers managed more in their own schemes – but several Octavia Hill Societies were established in Europe and North America, and in 1916 her workers established the Association of Women House Property Managers. At the time, Hill’s methods of individual visiting, questioning and advice were accepted as the state of the art in reformist tenancy management, as well as being taken up more widely in the emerging field of social work.

In other respects, however, Hill's vision for housing reform was overtaken by events. She refused to countenance the public provision of housing or housing subsidies – corrosive to the character of the poor, you know – so she did not have a direct hand in the development, at the close of the nineteenth century, of the first public housing schemes. On the contrary, these schemes where much more influenced by the vision of Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City reformers, and questions of physical form, rather than tenancy management. (Hill backed the wrong pony on female suffrage too – she was opposed to it.)

But Hill's method was still a ready resource for the growing housing authorities, so over the twentieth century the very personal aspect of Hill’s method became something of a minor theme in social housing practice. In Britain and around the world, housing officers would continue to perform intensive investigations into the circumstances of applicants and tenants, and counsel them in the correct uses of their dwellings and surrounding spaces. At New South Wales's own Erskineville estate, built in the 1930s by the NSW Housing Improvement Board, a genuine English woman housing officer was employed, in the words of Pix magazine, for ‘the delicate task of choosing the families most suitable…. Miss Margaret Ratcliffe, housing manager, investigated all their personal problems, individual requirements and visited their homes to see for herself under what conditions they were living’. Decades later, the NSW Housing Commission's field manual would instruct housing officers to 'observe sleeping arrangements when visiting the premises in connection with arrears reports, etc, and take appropriate action when irregularities are found.'

And this scrutinising, moralising, 'despotisic' theme in social housing tenancy management continues today. Ironically, it is in the operation of Housing NSW's income-related rent rebate system – which Hill would have deplored – that some of the strongest expression of this theme can be found. Under the rental rebate system, tenants are required to seek their landlord's 'approval' for any additional occupants, and keep the landlord apprised as to the amount and source of each of their household members' income. And when it comes to actually paying, rent in public housing has, as in Hill’s system, a moral significance. If anything, this moral significance is heightened by the fact that they are not economic rents. In a sense, the rent rebate system objectively and precisely accounts for each tenant’s need and inability, adjusts their legal liability accordingly, and what is left is the tenant’s responsibility. Where tenants fail in their responsibility in this regard, their own culpability is emphasised. What starts out as a system for administering to people's needs ends up as a regime for policing their domestic diligence and honesty.

Many happy returns, Octavia Hill.