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A concierge’s lodge in Paris (cc) Zenithe/Flickr

Educating Tenants: A Historic Remit of Social Housing

In France, the professions of social worker and concierge both emerged in the early 20th century, and both responded to a central concern of social landlords: educating their tenants in the standards of “good living.” Danièle Voldman retraces the history of these community-based professions, and the role they played in supervising the working classes in social housing.

From the beginning of the 20th century, when the first social-housing tenants started to move into their new homes, both public and private social-housing organizations were faced with a problem they had not anticipated: how to enforce what they considered to be the rules of “good living” by populations suspected of ignoring them because they came from unsanitary slums. As the provision of “healthy homes” for modest but solvent populations also had an educational and moral function, social-housing bodies recruited specific staff to fulfil this objective. Among them, concierges and social workers played important roles that have continually evolved as the role of social housing has itself changed. In the 1970s, concierges became known as gardiens (superintendents)—considered a more modern job title—while social workers had to cope with an increasing workload and, above all, changes in the makeup of the populations they dealt with. We offer here an analysis of the evolution of these two professions during the 20th century—a subject seldom discussed in the historical literature—based on the examples of the two powerful public housing offices in the Paris region: the Office Public de la Ville de Paris (OPVP, covering the city of Paris) and the Office Public du Département de la Seine (OPDS, covering the former Seine département, which encompassed Paris and 80 towns in the inner suburbs), founded in 1914 and 1915 respectively. Surveys of the archives of other public housing offices in France (including Lyon, Nantes and Strasbourg), as well as those of certain cooperatives and private companies, show that this analysis concerns all public and private social-housing bodies.

Ensuring tenants were deserving of their dwellings

From the time of their creation in the 1910s and 1920s, the municipal and regional housing offices in the Paris area were concerned with how to select and support their future tenants. Any applicant deemed “antisocial”—a term used continuously throughout the century—was considered undesirable. The archetypal antisocial person was the father of a family with too many children, who was poorly educated, who had “physiological defects” resulting from his social and spatial origins; in other words, the former inhabitant of a slum or lodging room who had not been able to adapt to his new environment. The early administrators felt that educational work was necessary to help tenants move towards their own standards. But they still had to find the right people to carry this work out. A social and statistical department was created at the OPDS in the early 1920s. It maintained allocation statistics, recorded the social and professional profiles of residents, monitored the occupancy rates of dwellings, and centralized “morality reports” ahead of the allocation process. Accordingly, the OPDS hired its first social workers. After the recruitment of a “lady social inspector, of proven dedication and competence,” the needs proved so “immense and urgent” that trainees from several schools of social work were hired to assist her. By 1942, the OPDS had 18 social workers on the payroll. Owing to a lack of funds to cover salaries, a lack of candidates for advertised posts, and difficult wartime circumstances, this figure dropped to 15 in 1949, but by 1958 there were 24 social workers at the OPDS. In addition to preliminary investigations, they were also responsible for following up “problem cases,” such as tenants with a penchant for drinking or violence, or those who exhibited a lack of respect for family and social life. They explained rules of cleanliness and child rearing, the right way to keep an interior, and respect for communal spaces to tenants.

But tenants had other aspirations. Before 1945, the gardens adjoining houses on garden-city estates were the focus of two radically different visions. While landlords saw their function as one of leisure, tenants included them in the economic life of the household, using the space to build henhouses, storage areas, tool sheds and the like. The administrators of social-housing organizations were of the opinion that these constructions attracted rats and bad smells, and forbade their construction, except for flowered arbors, which, they said, were the only way “to conserve the order and aesthetic that [the] architects [had] managed to foster in the Office’s garden cities.” This was a wasted effort, however, and housing offices periodically resorted to ordering the demolition of the crops of buildings that sprouted up, without much success. After 1945, the same scenario repeated itself on the balconies of apartment buildings, which were frequently cluttered with bric‑a‑brac. Not content with simply raising chickens, tenants also refused to part with the dogs and cats that were their day-to-day companions. Administrators, for their part, saw nothing but inconvenience and neighborhood disturbances, such as children playing noisily in communal areas and teenagers roaring their mopeds in car parks or bouncing balls near windows.

The sole preserve of social workers?

In Paris, the OPVP’s management committee examined housing applications, drew up the list of admissions, and prepared regulations governing the relationship between tenants and the Office. As in other social-housing organizations, the review of each housing application went hand in hand with an investigation by a social worker. In 1928, the OPVP employed 10 such social workers—a small number compared to the thousands of investigations they were required to conduct. Consequently, these social workers were sometimes assisted by female junior police officers, at a time when thousands of habitations à bon marché (HBMs; literally “low-cost housing” [1]) were being built in the capital, on the band of land previously occupied by the old city fortifications. Recruitment increased after 1945, in parallel with the establishment of the welfare state and the rapid development of social work.

In the 1960s, when a central register of housing shortages (fichier central des mal-logés) was created as waiting lists and allocation times continued to grow, the long-standing debate on housing allocations that saw political parties accusing each other of favoritism and clientelism became more acute. The explicitly moralizing and normative role of social workers was questioned. Criticism came first from the new social workers, who had left school after the Second World War, and who were younger and more distant from social Catholicism than their elders. Other critics, mainly from the left, accused the social workers who conducted the interviews and investigations of playing too great a role in the allocation process. Nevertheless, preliminary investigations continued and the question of “antisocial tenants” would continue to be raised, in equivalent terms, right up to the end of the 20th century. Housing offices distinguished between families worthy of being taken in, “antisocial” people who needed to be educated, and the few “hopeless cases” who needed to be evicted. Although administrators would periodically deplore dirtiness, degradations, damage to communal areas and other forms of disrespect for buildings observed in certain housing projects, they maintained their faith in education and social work. However, following the oil crisis of the 1970s, when the population makeup of social housing was changing rapidly (with the most affluent families accessing homeownership and the previously excluded poorest entering social housing), they found the task to be an uphill struggle. They began to wonder whether it was really up to public housing offices to bear the full burden of social work, particularly when faced with a growing number of unemployed, single-parent, recently immigrated or polygamous families.

Concierges, superintendents, and maintenance staff

In the first half of the 20th century, concierges—in addition to cleaning communal areas and distributing mail—played a crucial role in public housing, as they collected rents. [2] As intermediaries between tenants and the social landlord, they had to be completely trustworthy and, as the administrators put it, have “a certain authority.” Recruitment of concierges—often a couple in which the husband was the main concierge and the wife the secondary concierge—was mostly conducted among retired civil servants. In July 1921, the Office Public de la Ville de Paris (OPVH) received applications from the maimed and war widows. It refused them because "neither single women nor men without activity or robustness" had the qualities. In addition to collecting rents, the caretakers had to keep the buildings in good order, a task that was far from easy. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, concierges were regularly the victims of assaults committed by disgruntled residents, often “while attempting to ensure rules were followed or protect peaceful tenants,” in the words of one disheartened administrator.

In the face of such incidents, social landlords bemoaned the fact that eviction requests were rarely acted upon. It should be said that the justices of the peace who arbitrated the conflictual relations between social landlords and tenants—and who knew from experience that mediation was complex and the enforcement of judgments time-consuming and unpopular—often gave up on eviction proceedings.

For this reason, in 1926, a plan was drawn up to create new “auxiliary concierges,” to be recruited among former police officers. They would have been paid by public housing offices to back up concierges, provide special surveillance, and conduct night patrols in cellars or on construction sites. In Paris, the prefecture refused to create any additional posts, advising the OPVP to contact a security company. Nevertheless, in the interwar period, women were hired to help concierges clean the stairs, while inspectors were supposed to assist concierges in their other work, relieving the burden on social workers in the process. Periodic demands for increases in staff numbers and salaries, sometimes accompanied by strike action, punctuated the life of the public housing offices.

The consequences of a change of status

In the last third of the 20th century, the roles of public housing offices changed significantly. With the large-scale construction that followed urban renewal in particular, housing offices became planners as well as landlords. This led to an institutional transformation, with the creation of offices publics d’aménagement et de construction (public planning and construction offices), or OPACs. This also implied a change in status for staff, except initially for superintendents, who continued to enjoy a specific status. What were previously public bodies gradually became “companies”—terminology that simply did not feature in the mental and linguistic toolkit of the founding fathers of French public housing.

Within the Paris OPAC, the first collective labor agreement was signed in 1992 for superintendents and managers, who had not been required to perform night and weekend duties since 1987. This agreement concerned working hours and on-call duty times, which were the subject of a dispute with tenants. The latter, through their representatives—a novelty in the 1950s—called for extensive opening hours for superintendents’ lodges, whereas superintendents wanted to stick to the legal maximum working time of 39 hours per week. After further negotiations on working conditions, a second agreement was reached two years later, mainly because of increasing security problems that required additional measures. This agreement led to the widespread installation of intercom systems, door codes, and reinforced doors, as part of a program implemented over several years. Lastly, as security-related incidents showed no signs of abating, the Paris OPAC decided to recruit around 20 new superintendents, going against the general trend to reduce personnel numbers.

Despite many changes to the role of social housing over the last century, public housing organizations still face many of the same questions. How do they ensure poorest are adequately housed while also preserving their bottom line? How do they decide which populations should be housed, and which living arrangements should be prioritized? And how do they ensure populations from different cultures are able to coexist in harmony? From this perspective, the criteria for recruiting social workers and superintendents essentially come down to the same fundamental objectives: providing support and assistance to beneficiaries of social housing while monitoring their adaptation to their new dwelling. Indeed, these two professions are the two historic facets of the task of managing social housing and its occupants.

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To cite this article:

Danièle Voldman & translated by Oliver Waine, “Educating Tenants: A Historic Remit of Social Housing”, Metropolitics, 17 April 2020. URL :

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