Victorian housing enjoys a renaissance

There’s a lot of neo-Victorianism around housing at the moment. It’s not just the Dickens bicentenary – although that has encouraged just about everyone to lever cheap literary references into the most improbable places.

The latest Survey of English Housing confirms that housing is trending towards the Victorian situation of more private renting and less homeownership. More and more families are now raising children in privately rented homes – something which almost died out in the late twentieth century. Rising rents and pressure in the market means there are more opportunities to exploit the vulnerable and desperate. Some of the rogue practices Shelter has uncovered would shame Christopher Casby, the greedy landlord of Bleeding Heart Yard in ‘Little Dorrit’.

Even here the tone of recent debates is beginning to sound positively Victorian as the government alternately appeals to the moral value of work and stokes public resentment of scroungers to build support for its benefit reforms. This distinctly Victorian stance clearly strikes a chord with the public.

Thanks in part to welfare cuts, that most Victorian of housing problems – overcrowding – looks set to make a comeback too. Shelter’s research has shown how large swathes of London will become unaffordable to private renters on housing benefit. But we don’t know how the people affected will react: economic theory suggests they will move to cheaper areas, and perhaps many will. But history suggests they will squeeze into smaller spaces to stay in their neighbourhoods, crowding multiple families into poor quality private rented homes. In other words: slums.

As Sarah Wise documents in her excellent book, The Blackest Streets, Victorian slums inspired a surprising degree of loyalty from their residents, no matter how bad conditions were. Wise also shows that slum housing was very profitable for unscrupulous landlords like Casby, who could squeeze their desperate tenants with impunity. The growing problem of appalling conditions and rogue landlords in today’s private rented sector could be the start of a worrying trend.

One Victorian phenomenon that hasn’t reappeared is large scale philanthropy. Victorian capitalism may have left many in poverty, but it made some very rich indeed – and some of the Victorian super rich used their wealth to build housing for the poor. After building his first social estate in Spitalfields in 1864, on the edge of the same slum Wise describes, American banker George Peabody gave £500,000 to ‘ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy’ of London. This sum is equivalent to £725m in today’s money – you could build a lot of homes with that, even in London, if the bankers of the 21st century felt so inclined. Where are the Goldman Sachs estates for the urban poor?