What exactly is a “slum house”? Fifty years ago it was defined as having any combination of two or more of the following: “lack of weatherproofing, lack of proper water facilities, lack of proper sewage facilities, insufficient light or ventilation, overcrowding, weak and insufficient structure, decay and damage, lack of proper heating, fire hazards or lack of fire escape, insects or rodents.”
At first you might think this was just a dictionary or textbook definition. It wasn’t. It was a collection of facts, and local facts at that, uncovered by a group of dauntless young investigative reporters in St. John’s in early 1971.
Armed with what seems to be more than enough wrongs needing exposure, these reporters came together to publish “The St. John’s Alternate Press”, described as a tri-weekly community newsmagazine. (The MUN Library’s Directory of Newfoundland & Labrador Magazines lists it as a monthly.)
Whatever. The first issue hits the streets in late May, 1971. The last one came out in April of the following year. Single copies cost 25 cents. Advertising, to underwrite costs of printing and distribution and perhaps even to extend a few shekels to the writers, must have been well below requirements. Possibly not many business people wanted to appear to align themselves with the kind of stand-up-and-be-counted journalism for which “AP” stood.
Accompanying the analysis of substandard housing in St. John’s in the first issue was a bordered, separate item headlined “Some prominent landlords in the older section of St. John’s”. Under that banner were the names of property owners deemed by the publication to be slum landlords.
The (then) Attorney General of the province, Leslie R. Curtis, was particularly singled-out by a full page headed, “ANTI-CITIZEN of the ISSUE”. In part, it was alleged that “of the 200 homes surveyed for the story on slum housing in this issue, Curtis and his wife Marion owned seven.” It was noted that, “Mr. Curtis is Justice Minister today, as he was 22 years ago when Newfoundland joined Confederation. In those 22 years he has contributed nothing to the solution of our housing problems.”
Another block of text elsewhere in the issue was headlined, “Some prominent landlords in the older section of St. John’s”. It then gave names, house numbers and streets. The word “slum” did not appear in this block but, presumably, armed with the definition as given above, one could drive around the older parts of the city and decide for oneself if any particular address was a slum.
Despite the name-calling, finger-pointing and the exposed fact that there was a woeful lack of legislation to protect tenants (tenants who, one could easily conclude, were vulnerable to whatever reverses society might have in store for them) there were some appalling living conditions unveiled. This was the 1970s. We were no longer a fish-only backwater. Yet readers of the Alternate Press might be forgiven for thinking they were reading about the Depression days.
One woman, a welfare recipient, was said to live in an upstairs apartment on John Street. “She lives in abject squalor, not because of her own efforts, but because she is the tenant of an unsympathetic landlord, and legally, she has no rights as a tenant,” the magazine stated.
“Her apartment contains two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, two porch-like rooms and a bathroom. On paper it doesn’t seem too bad for $50. a month.” (The rent was cheap; $50 in 1970 is equivalent to about $320 now). “There is no hot water, however no bath or bathroom sink, and no fire escape. The lack of a fire escape is frightening because her kitchen oil stove is kept in an oil barrel at the top of the stairs. The stove is the only means of heat in the apartment which, until recently, had only one window with glass in it.”
The report pointed out that mattresses and bedclothes had been ruined because of rain and snow seeping into the John Street apartment. Readers were told that the occupant “complained to her landlord and city council to get windows put in her home — this has been done now but she has received an eviction notice form her landlord.”
Not only was the woman (she had a handicapped son living with her) identified in the report but so was the house number and the property owner. Presumably there could be no suspicion of AP publishing fiction.
Said AP, “most tenants, while having complaints about their homes and their landlords don’t expect more than their money’s worth. ‘We can’t expect very much for the rent we pay’ is an oft used rationalization. Other tenants are proud, fixing up their own houses often at their own expense.”
It was also shown that the only legislation ever enacted (up to then, 1970) to protect tenants in Newfoundland was passed in 1941 “and deals with unfurnished apartments only. It was passed to protect Newfoundland tenants from being thrown out of their homes in favour of Americans and Canadians stationed here during the war who could afford to pay more than most local people.”
Another case cited by Alternate Press was that of a woman living is a furnished apartment on Henry Street. She had signed a lease without carefully reading it “and thus had to do her own repairing. The house was leaky; it had a defective oil stove and was so cold, (the occupant) had to sleep in an overcoat to keep warm.” Again, when this tenant tried to seek outside help to bring pressure to bear on the landlord, he decided to evict her.
Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org