AREVIEW OF THE WRITINGS OF A nineteenth-century British housing reformer may seem out of place in the pages of a magazine devoted to contemporary American philanthropy — especially when the book lacks an American publisher. But while U.S. readers of Philanthropy will have to call (or email) across the pond to order a copy, the book’s subject and author are very much worth their attention. The book’s foreword advances the claim that “Octavia Hill’s ideas can be found at the heart of most of today’s social policy pre-occupations.” Those ideas are no less relevant to American than to British social policy: if we want to think seriously about right and wrong ways to improve the condition of the poor, the writings of this Victorian reformer offer an excellent starting point.
Octavia Hill (1838-1912) was born into a prominent British radical family. Her father, who edited a socialist newspaper, went bankrupt when she was two and soon afterward suffered a nervous breakdown. This left Hill (in this respect atypical of genteel Victorian reformers) to grow up fatherless and in considerable poverty. She was a gifted art student and a protegee of art critic John Ruskin. But Hill found her calling in 1865 when Ruskin purchased three houses, to be rented to working-class tenants, for her to renovate and manage. Ultimately she would manage no fewer than 1,900 flats and houses. Hill devoted the rest of her life to improving the moral condition of her tenants and the material condition of the tenements in which they lived.
It is Hill’s dual focus on both moral and material improvement that assures her continued relevance today, when many other prominent housing reformers are deservedly forgotten. Hill never shared the utopian fantasy that better buildings could magically remedy social problems all by themselves. She did, of course, improve the physical condition of the properties she managed; but she also understood that poverty could be caused and exacerbated by self-defeating, immoral attitudes and behavior. Hill was unapologetic in seeking to promote better behavior among the poor, and to inculcate qualities like “self-control, energy, prudence, and industry.” It was not enough to erect modern, more comfortable, and spacious housing; the poor also had to be encouraged to practice the simple virtues that would make them better people (and, not incidentally, less likely to remain poor).
An age-old question confronting those who combat poverty is the relative importance of the material environment in which the poor live and their behaviors and attitudes: Must a better environment be provided to improve the behavior of the poor, or must the poor somehow better themselves before they can appreciate an improved environment? An amusing, though excessively flippant, formulation of this question was offered by an American journalist in 1883: “Does the pig make the sty or the sty, the pig?”
Hill answered “Yes” and “Yes.” “You cannot deal with the people and their houses separately. The principle on which the whole work rests is that the inhabitants and their surroundings must be improved together.” If pressed, however, Hill would probably have given the nod to character improvement — at least among the poorest of the poor — as the more pressing task:
Without training these poorest people, no improvement in their houses will be of much avail. Read the most harrowing description of the worst courts, and notice how many of the sorrows would not be remedied by cheap, good houses; watch the people, and . . . then realise that the problem before you is . . . more complicated than that of building; that you will have, before you can raise these very poorest, to help them to become better in themselves.
The crucial question, of course, is how precisely one helps people “become better in themselves.” Hill’s practice offers useful counsel on that score. For one thing, she insisted that her tenants pay their rent promptly. (To facilitate their doing so, she encouraged her tenants to save money when employed; she also provided part-time jobs keeping up the houses when they were between jobs.)
Paying the rent promptly had practical advantages for the tenants, who thus avoided being crushed under a mountain of debt. The more fundamental consideration, though, was moral: “The mere fact that the man is kept up to his duty is a help to him, and increases his self-respect and hope of doing better.” It was wrong to conceive of the poor simply as passive recipients, gaping mouths waiting to be fed. It was preferable to make legitimate demands upon the poor (to work, support themselves, pay their bills), to see them as agents able to do their duty, hence to control and shape their destiny. “The fulfillment of their duties” offered “the best education” to the poor, by giving them what handouts never can: “A dignity and glad feeling of honourable behavior.”
Commending honorable behavior means little without stigmatizing bad behavior, a practice Hill insisted on in the name of the many poor people who behaved honorably. (The current notion that criticizing the bad behavior of a few poor people is “blaming the victim” would probably have struck her as curious.) To improve the lives of her tenants, Hill accordingly did not hesitate to evict “those who would not pay, or who led clearly immoral lives.”
This helped her tenants by preventing chaos and disorder from encroaching upon people who were striving against all odds to live orderly lives on small means. Thus Hill bemoaned “the terrorism exercised by the rough over the timid and industrious poor.” And she denounced as “cheap charity” a clergyman’s appeal that she retain a drunkard as a tenant, since “it is not you or I that are kept awake at night by this man, and who have to get up all the same early to a long day’s work.”
Because she wanted to improve her tenants’ environment, Hill also took great pains in deciding whom to house where. Thus she did not place “two bad people side by side, or . . . a terribly bad person beside a very respectable one.” For both good and bad reasons, managers of American public housing projects do not have anything approaching Hill’s autonomy in making judgements about tenants and taking action based on them. Still, it is noteworthy that the massive failures of American public housing are prompting at least an incipient return to Hill’s moralism. Thus, drug dealers are finally becoming subject to eviction from public housing, and an important trend in public housing (evident, for instance, in St. Louis’s Murphy Park Residences) involves raising the income limits for eligibility. The rationale for this change is that the jobholders who become eligible for public housing will help stabilize bad neighborhoods and provide positive role models for the poorest of the poor.
Hill’s work and writings embody an idea of great importance and one that remains relevant: promoting good behavior among the poor is not an attack upon them, or a diversion from attempts to assist them economically, but a crucial aspect of any plan that aims seriously to help them. Today we are returning to perspectives like Hill’s, but only after more than a generation of ridiculing and rejecting them. Accordingly, the editor of this collection responds to the critique that Hill was guilty of being “judgmental” by pointing out that “she would have been amazed that anyone could have considered the word pejorative. Of course she was judgmental; she had to use her judgment in hundreds of small matters every day of her working life, trying to help people who had enjoyed few advantages in life to do the best for themselves.”
Joel Schwartz is a contributing editor to Philanthropy.
Editor’s note: Octavia Hill and the Social Housing Debate is available from IEA for £7.00 plus £1.50 airmail postage. IEA can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by fax (011-44-171-799-2137).