What did “fit for human habitation” mean?

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Expedition 36 flight engineer, conducts an ocular health exam. – Nasa photograph.

Dr Woods Hutchinson, a doctor and health writer, once calmly said that New York should be torn down and rebuilt in a manner “fit for human habitation.”  According to the Columbus journal of Nebraska, he thought  “the money for this purpose should be secured by confiscating the fortunes of millionaires as fast as they die.”

Not that the Columbus journal agreed with Dr Hutchinson, or the people who “know nothing, do nothing, [and] cheer themselves hoarse with his suggestion.”

One wonders if Dr Hutchinson were merely joking, and others merely laughing along with him.  Then again, if you’ve ever been to certain parts of New York City, you might think he was being serious.

However, other stories show that people took the idea of dwellings being “fit for human habitation” very seriously.   When landlord-politicians object to building codes that require homes to be “fit for human habitation,” you wonder whether these landlord-politicians know their history.

At the end of the First World War, many ethnic Greeks were forced out of their homes in the former Ottoman empire, and were overcrowded in refugee camps “unfit for human habitation.”  The Bourbon News, in Paris, Kentucky, reported on the problem facing Greek refugees.

Live Like Animals

Six Thousand Refugee Greeks reported in fearful plight.

People at Batum Lack Clothing and Shelter and Are Dying at Rate of From 35 to 50 a Day.

New York. Six thousand Greek refugees at Batum, Transcaucasia, their clothing worn to shreds, are “living like wild animals in dens” and dying at the rate of from thirty-five to fifty a day, writes Dr. W. E. Rambo, a Near East Relief worker of West Philadelphia, Pa., in a report from the Black sea port received here.

In what he calls “a tragic exodus that bids to become historic,” Dr. Rambo says the Greek government already has repatriated 20,000 who emigrated from the Near East to colonize Thrace and that from 10,000 to 12,000 remain to be transported from Batum back to their homeland.

Most of these, he says, are physically strong, but the 6,000 refugees from other regions who flocked to Batum in the expectation of relief have been in that city five months, waiting in vain for help, their condition daily becoming more desperate on account of the rigors of the present Georgian winter.

The Greek government, Dr. Rambo explains, disclaiming responsibility for the plight of the people, has undertaken, through humane considerations only, to feed and doctor the refugees, but, so far, has declined to transport them to Greece, on the ground that there is insufficient housing there to shelter them.

“Meanwhile,” the letter says, “the 6000 are overcrowded In barracks unfit for human habitation. The families have no privacy. Some are lying in bed day and night because they have no clothing to protect them from the cold or cover their nakedness. Unless speedy relief comes to these people, most of them will die during the winter. Already the remnants of the original refugees are in despair. One of them said to me: ‘We are no longer waiting for ships ; we are waiting for death. Of 5,767 in this party in the beginning, only about 2,400 remain 3,367 are dead. Another party of 6,800 has 2,800 survivors 4,000 are dead. Of the survivors 700 are ill.”

You might have heard stories of leper colonies in Hawaii.  As expected, not everyone wanted lepers in a nearby island.  There were health concerns about one leper colony not being fit for human habitation, and so measures were taken to prevent more lepers being brought there from abroad.

The following report appeared in the Honolulu Republican on 28 February, 1901:


Amended Bill to Keep Out Sick People From Abroad.



House Health Committee at Board of Health Meeting – Visitation of Settlement and Supply of Taro –
Beckley Defers Questions.

The committee’ on public health of the House of Representatives visited the Board of Health in session yesterday afternoon. Members of the Board present were:
Dr. J. H. Raymond, president; Attorney General E. P. Dole, Dr. C. B. Cooper, E. C. Winston, Dr. N. B. Emerson and F. J. Lowrey.

Dr. J. S. B. Pratt, the executive officer, and C. B. Reynolds, the superintendent of the Leper Settlement, were in attendance. Chas. Wilcox, secretary, being absent, Miss Mae Weir officiated in his place.

Barring Out Disease.

The president submitted an amended draft of a bill to be submitted to the Legislature. It is changed from the original draft previously reported by substituting the words “leprosy or pulmonary tuberculosis” for “infectious or contagious disease,” as causes for prohibiting the entrance of persons Into the Territory of Hawaii. It was pointed out by the president that the original words were too sweeping, as they would debar the landing of persons suffering from acute maladies who were entitled to immediate hospital treatment In quarantine. When such diseases broke out in a vessel that had started on its voyage with a clean bill of health, the vessel on arriving was entitled to quarantine and pratique [sic] according to the laws of all civilized nations.

Attorney General Dole disclaimed knowledge of medical science. Yet he was prepared to say that the islands would have to choose between tourists and consumptives. If the country became known as a sanitarium for people afflicted with tuberculosis, it would have to be reconciled to the absence of tourists.

President Raymond agreed with Mr. Dole’s idea. So far as he was concerned officially, however, the only question was that of protection to the public health. For such a disease as small pox the proposed resolution was not required. It would have to be dealt with under the usual Quarantine methods. The permission to consumptive persons to enter the Territory was a different matter.

The resolution passed and copies were ordered to be given to the health committees of the Senate and House.

Kakaako Premises Condemned.

The following resolution submitted by the executive officer passed with out discussion upon the president’s explanation of the circumstances:
“Resolved, That all that piece or parcel of land situate in The District of Honolulu, Island of Oahu, lying on the Ewa side of the street known as Kerosene Warehouse street being the second lot makai [sic] of Queen street, owned or controlled by Mr. Kamaka, is insanitary, a source of filth and cause of sickness, unfit for human habitation, and a danger to the public health.

“Resolved, That the said premises must be forthwith vacated, until such time as they are rendered fit for human habitation without endangering the public health.

“Resolved, That the City Sanitary Officer of the Board be and he hereby is authorized, empowered and directed to serve notice upon the said Kamaka, his servants and agents, and upon any and all, persons having control of or occupying said premises to put the said premises in a condition fit for human habitation, without endangering the public health, or to vacate the same within forty-eight hours.

“Resolved, That upon failure to comply with said notice the, City Sanitary Officer of the Board, with such assistance as may be necessary, is hereby authorized, empowered and directed to cause said premises not put in condition fit for human habitation as aforesaid or not vacated by those In control or In occupancy thereof, to be vacated, using only so much force as may be necessary for that purpose and doing no injury to any property not required in the enforcement of said order.”


  • The Columbus journal, 21 December 21, 1910
  • The Bourbon news., February 22, 1921
  • The Honolulu Republican, 28 February, 1901

As we can see, people of all incomes and political stripes are have long been concerned that others live in homes “fit for human habitation.” This helps prevent the spread of disease, it saves lives.

It comes as a shock to learn that, in peacetime, with the absence of outbreaks or leper colonies, when we have the resources to house everyone, that UK politicians decided that requiring homes of British subjects to be “fit for human habitation” was a bad thing, on the ground that this would create “unnecessary regulation.”

Requiring homes to have gnomes, or grass to be shorter than 3 inches, or any other superfluous thing is unnecessary regulation. Requiring them to be fit for human habitation is basic, common sense.

Some say vested interests is the problem. Can politicians be trusted to make the right choice when they profit from making the wrong choices? Well, would you vote against the safety of your own customers? No.
I personally would vote to force my competition to pay as much attention to health and safety as I do, so the cheap skate can’t undercut me by putting lives at risk. I don’t think I’m alone there.

What about landlords who can’t afford to pay for safety improvements? Well, here again, we could use political influence to a good end, if that’s possible. Perhaps those cheapskate landlords could vote themselves subsidy, or a tax break, to make their buildings safer.

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