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“To change the conversation, we have to change who is part of it”

What can we learn from Octavia Hill to fix the housing crisis?

Octavia Hill, a visionary in her time with her mission to ‘make lives noble, homes happy and family life good’. A message I fear means very little to some organisations today.

A shortage of affordable homes, unscrupulous landlords, skyrocketing prices leading to less home ownership, high private rent with less tenancy security, prioritising cost over quality when it comes to building and maintaining homes are just some of the reasons we’re facing a housing crisis of this scale today.

As a pioneer of social reform and housing management in Victorian London, Octavia Hill recognised that people needed more than just housing. She focused on regeneration – bringing homes up to a decent standard, with continuous improvement focused on tenant participation to achieve this.

Octavia had a close relationship with her tenants, she regularly visited their homes, collected rent in person and spent time talking to them, finding out about their lives. She helped them build skills, recognise financial responsibility and those out of work provided support to get back into employment. She valued mixed communities – recognising it’s importance to create a connected community, avoiding over-crowding and under-occupying and dealing with anti-social behaviour.

She was a strong advocate of quality homes and small scale housing developments, disapproving of the typical housing blocks commonly built in London as they weren’t necessarily cheaper to build or maintain, had more issues in common areas, displeasing to look, encouraged lack of ownership and did not allow for additional development.

She also understood the health benefit of green spaces and clean air for her tenants and lobbied the government for greener policies, protecting numerous London parks from being built on which are still standing today.

Octavia believed that people needed to be treated in a way that enhanced their self-respect and valued them in whatever capacity they could be. Believing people should become self-sufficient and take personal responsibility for their wellbeing, Octavia had a dislike to state intervention when it came to housing and the welfare of the people. Government decisions naturally led to easy or cheaper solutions which only created poorly designed buildings of lesser quality with a disregard for the people’s needs. The disaster at Grenfell is a prime example of what Octavia was trying to prevent.

Her philosophy of housing management underpins our current way of working to this day, with her attitudes towards space, beauty and the improvement of people alongside their homes providing a much needed human touch to housing sector.

We have to ask ourselves; if housing associations, councils and the government all adopted Octavia’s belief system, would we even have a housing crisis to begin with?

Too long have we been reacting to the housing crisis and is it now too late to switch a preventative approach which focuses on the person instead of the monetary gain through the selling of properties.

Looking at what Octavia could have offered in today’s fast paced world really goes back to old ways; personal relationships with our customers, creating a sense of community and combating social isolation, campaign for open space to enhance the lives of tenants, tackle empty properties and high end buyers on 2ndor 3rd homes which may rarely be used, tackle empty buildings kept by shareholders or larger companies for profit, campaign for better living conditions for the most vulnerable in our communities and making customer feel valued within their own capacity.

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* These blogs are a collection of thoughts and opinions from people living or working in the North. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the People's Powerhouse.

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