The popular cartoonist of the 1930s and 1940s Osbert Lancaster, is remembered for his many critiques of architecture and town planning. He famously dismissed the growing suburbs of the 1930s of English Towns and Cities for their architectural style and monotony. He described these suburbs, Wimbledon (London),Childwall (Liverpool), Heald Green (Manchester) and so on as the ‘slums of the future’ and coined the term ‘bypass variegated’ for their style and setting. But the boom in house ownership in 1930s England was unprecedented and offered a new way of life for inner city residents who could for the first time afford the terms of the low cost mortgages being offered by Building Societies. Until this point, many families had to live in cramped, overcrowded and often shared dwellings with other families. In many such properties facilities such as bathrooms, even for families with children had to be shared. The opportunity to live in the leafy suburbs of the city, in a spacious house and in one which you would own (even if it took 25 years) was a much better alternative to life in the Rooming House, life in the twilight district of the city, life in what we now call the inner city.
In urban renewal popular culture and studies the word ‘Rooming House’ should bring shivers to any researcher, academic or thinker concerned with the current and future state of our cities and neighbourhoods. The Rooming House, was effectively a room, or couple of rooms in a house rented out by folks as a place to live. Often located in areas of cities that were previously prosperous that contained large villas and mansions that were now too big to rent out, Rooming Houses offered accommodation to those in society that could not afford to obtain a mortgage to buy a house and those down on their luck. Often this sector was unregulated and rents were often extortionate so that those who live in such property were effectively trapped in a downward cycle not being able to escape this dreadful housing option.
The development of a growing municipal housing sector after from 1914 onwards, together with the private sector boom of the 1930s and 1945 post war reconstruction, effectively put pay to the use of the Rooming House as a housing option for families. Whilst the term Rooming House was effectively forgotten about by the majority of the population whose housing conditions had improved greatly from their parents generation, they still existed. Take a drive south out of Liverpool City Centre for example and while driving through Toxteth towards Mossley Hill down Princes Avenue and you will see the Rooming House District in full view to all, fine old Victorian Villas extensively subdivided and in a state of decay. This problem of the Liverpool Rooming House District was extensively reported upon in 1977 with the Final Report of the Government Sponsored Inner Urban Areas Study. This Report, evocatively entitled ‘Change or Decay’ called for extensive policies to eradicate once and for all the scourge of the Rooming Housing District, something was considered to be a major failing of what was then a Universal Welfare System that was 30 years old. So 35 years later, what happened? Where Rooming Houses finally eradicated from our cities, did various Acts of Parliament and Regeneration Programmes consign this form of overcrowded housing to the dustbin of the history of our towns and cities.
Sadly, whilst anyone can point to the fantastic urban revitalisation of our city centres, Rooming Houses still exist if in a slightly ‘upgraded’ form.
Welcome to the world of the Rooming House – 2012 Upgrade Version. The 2012 version at first glance may not be as bleak as the original 1900s version but sometimes it’s not that far away. As well as being interested in this subject from an urban planning point of view, I have a personal interest in the rebirth of the Rooming House. Together with my wife and 13 year old daughter I currently live in one. It is ok to live in, full of mod cons, our own shower and kitchen, a lovely refurbishment. It is horrendously expensive to rent and very small – in fact by my calculations the cost per square foot to rent is the same as some apartments I have seen for rent in Manhattan New York City. Our current dwelling was marketed to rent as a flat not far from Reading Town Centre, but it is a subdivision of a small terrace house into two flats, two rooming house dwellings of our modern age.
We have moved to the South East for better work prospects and within four years we will own a house of our own but until then in order to keep our rent as low as possible to save it the Rooming House District for us.
We live off the Oxford Road in Reading, a fairly busy working class neighbourhood which has a fairly thriving high street. In our street there are about 200 terraced houses from the 1910 period of which I estimate 80% to now have been converted into smaller living units for families – modern day Rooming Houses. Most small streets up and down the Oxford Road appear to have gone the same way. All such conversions apart from creating a parking problem in an already overcrowded street for cars makes the situation for parking permits currently unbearable for both the Local Council and Local Residents. Most houses, if they are now subdivided and containing a family of say three or four people in each sub-division are blatantly over-crowded. Most folks like me, only live in this area because rents are the cheapest in town and when they can move somewhere better they will.
All this you could argue isn’t a great problem and it is how cities work. In fact with regard to the current popular movement concerning Sustainable Urban Development put forward by bodies such as the Congress for New Urbanism, having compact and walkable neighbourhoods is a good thing and sub-division is an environmentally sustainable and good use of urban resources. I say to the Congress of New Urbanism, please why don’t you try and live in a Rooming House District and then we can have a good chat about it!
From a Structural Marxist analysis of the Urban Land Economy (and one which I support and wish to build upon) the sub-division of housing in this manner is inevitable.
In fact this process is the expression in built form of the Capital System that governs our lives in the form of the Developer maximising the most value out of property in a town where low cost housing is in short supply and housing demand is high due to its commuting proximity to London (25 minutes to Paddington) The renowned Urban Geographer and current Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the City of New York University – David Harvey in his classic text from 1973 – Social Justice and the City, calls this the maximisation of Use and Exchange Values. Due to the demand for housing, the Developer is extracting as much use value out of the spatial built form knowing that the consumer of the built form (the Tenant) urgently requires accommodation – this ultimately increases the exchange value (Rent) that is paid to use the spatial built form in question (Property).
Writing at a similar time to Professor Harvey (but I think not in conjunction) the French Modern Philosopher Henri Lefebvre produced a book in 1974 called La production de l’espace – The Production of Space. In this text, Lefebvre showed the reader that Capitalism, in its effect upon the practice of everyday life and urban society, will appropriate urban spaces for the maximization of its aims – the increase on return in investment. In this analysis Capital, in the form of the developer, when subdividing a property is doing this with only one intention, to increase the ability of the built spatial form in question (housing units) to generate profit.
All good stuff I am hearing many readers of this say but so what! – it is stating the obvious that developers will want to maximize profit and return on investment. One could argue that this isn’t exactly a great advancement on the theory of Political Economy when applied to the built environment. In many ways I can accept such criticism but I do hope that in some small way my assessment of the theory of the Production of Space applied to modern day English Cities does advance the Epistemological basis of such learning and thinking.
However, regardless of this interesting argument of urban theory applied to Rooming Houses the pressing issue here surely is what are the policy responses (if any) from Central and Local Government to the emergence of Rooming Houses. I will be examining this issue in my next key writings on this subject – if anyone has comments to add to this please just let me know.