The landlord is recognized as a costly anachronism, whose moral claim, even to compensation for expropriation, is constantly getting weaker.
—Matthew Arnold, quoted in London Daily News.
Property-Sweating in London
London Daily News. Condensed for Public Opinion
It has often been said that Matthew Arnold was unfair when he wrote, "the landlord is recognized as a costly anachronism, whose moral claim, even to compensation for expropriation, is constantly getting weaker." We know there are many good and excellent landlords. If the great critic had only said "slumlord" instead, everyone would have agreed with him. For the slumlords have reduced their trade to the basest of callings. They seem to work on the principle that if one class sweat the poor in the matter of wages they can sweat them in the matter of rent. Quite a new class of landlord has come upon the scene of late years. He has seen the growing clamor for room to live, and has come down on the clamoring poor like a wolf on the fold. The people's need has truly become his opportunity. He has created a new form of sweating — to wit, property-sweating.
Property-sweating is not only concerned with high rents, but with the worst forms of house-jobbing. The slumlords use the very capital of the poor — that is, their key-money — as a further weapon against them. The old rule of depositing a shilling for a key used to be made to insure the key's return on a tenant's leaving. With houses so scarce, one distracted family would try to score off others by offering larger deposits. It is easy to see how such a system found favor with house-agents and propertysweaters. In portions of South London, particularly in the streets around the Elephant and Castle, where a shilling used to be paid until quite recently, sums of five and ten pounds are often demanded, and as often paid. With the large amounts this amassed key-money represents, they buy up other slum property, and impose their harsh terms over a larger field. As the Islington medical officer has pointed out, these people "look on their possessions as so much bricks and mortar which, irrespective of their condition, must bring them in so much interest per annum. . . Some of them are 'associations,'but all of them only think of returns to be realized in the form of £ s. d. These are they who sweat their properties, allow them to be crowded to their utmost limit, and pay no heed to the demands of their tenants for the most reasonable cleansing." But they do much more than this. By their system of trafficking in slum property, and botching it up with shoddy repairs, they perpetuate the slums. Many an area would have been cleared under the housing act had not the property-sweaters come upon the scene. Not only do they keep the municipality at bay, but they drive away the good landlords and the good builders.
Perhaps the lowest depths are reached when the property-sweater, in his thirst for rent, encourages the keeping of disorderly houses. From these places he knows he can extort whatsoever he cares to ask. I have it on the authority of vestrymen and clergymen whose work lies around Piccadilly and Shaftesbury-avenue, that rents as high as thirty shillings a room are obtained for such places. And, observe, it is the property-sweater who encourages this kind of thing. He knows no one could pay such extravagant rents were his premises not used as disorderly houses. But he connives at it all, and has been known to raise the rents of surrounding tenements to the enormous figure paid for the other places. When respectable tenants protest that the increased rent is more than their total wages, they have been told to do what so-and-so are doing and then they will be able to pay easily. It is barely a fortnight ago since a man was sent to prison for six months from the Newington quarter sessions for what really represented the lowest form of house-jobbing. He was a house-agent who acted for a speculator. Two of the tenants had carried on their tenancies as disorderly houses and been sent to prison; and it was proved in court that the agent had personally waited upon the other tenants and had told some of them that he didn't care for what purposes the houses were used so long as he got his rent. He actually incited tenants to turn their homes into disorderly houses. Still worse, it was proved that he had not only received exorbitant rents from the tenant who had done so, but was also receiving further weekly sums from them for the privilege of breaking the law. The agent was sent to prison for six months. But he is only one of scores of landlords and agents all over London who are doing the same kind of thing at the present moment.