The History Of Apartment Buildings
Liz Hodgkinson is an experienced property developer, landlord and journalist. Over the past decade she has bought, renovated and rented out or lived in many flats of all kinds, from new-build to Victorian, from purpose-built 60s and 70s blocks, to conversions and mansion blocks. She contributes a regular landlord and tenant column to the Evening Standard and also writes for the Mail on Sunday, The Lady, Saga, The Independent and Daily Mail.
For most of recorded time, humans have lived in houses or, at least, in separate dwellings. Even though extended families may, at times, have lived in the same house or hut, they will always have been connected by blood or marriage. It was not the case, until fairly recently, that unconnected people lived permanently under the same roof, unless it was in an Upstairs, Downstairs type of situation, where some inhabitants were servants or slaves.
Flats, where everybody lives in a separate unit in the same building, and where everybody is equal, are a relatively modern invention, and can still be seen as an experiment in living that has only been partially successful. It was only really when high-density housing was needed, mainly in urban areas, that the kind of communal residential buildings we now know as flats, came into existence.
In the past, it was mainly poor people, servants and apprentices or those who had no other choice who lived in parts of houses such as attics, basements, garrets, rookeries, and very often in parts of houses not originally designed for human habitation. In any case, where attics and basements were intended for residential use, they were vastly inferior in style and construction to the rest of the house.
Most British people aspired to live in their own houses, although apartment living started to become popular in many European cities during the nineteenth century. Apartment house construction in Scotland, however, dates back to the sixteenth century, when blocks of flats were built in Edinburgh. In fact, the word ‘flat’ to denote a suite of rooms in a larger building comes from the Scottish word ‘flaet’, meaning a floor, or a storey.
In Scottish law, the term ‘common interest’ was used to describe the tenure rights of occupants, and enabled residents to own not only their individual apartments, but also to own rights in the common parts. This law is an early version of the co-ops and condominiums in America, where residents collectively own the building, and is very different from the leasehold laws that came to be established for British blocks of flats.
THE FIRST FLATS
The first blocks of flats to be built in Britain were in central London, and were of two very different types: housing for the affluent middle and professional classes, and housing for the very poor.
And never the twain should meet – at least, not until previously high-class apartment blocks fell into disrepair and became inhabited by squatters and the homeless.
The first upper-class blocks of flats were built in Victoria, London, in 1853. In 1886 the most prestigious apartment building of its time, Albert Hall Mansions, was completed for very well-to-do people.
In the mid-nineteenth century, what were known as ‘catering flats’ began to be built to offer residential accommodation to affluent people who wanted a pied-à-terre in town in addition to their country pile. The flats were aimed at single people or childless couples (not so very different from today) and some were segregated by sex, and known as ‘gentlemen’s apartments’ or ‘ladies’ apartments’. The original blocks of flats aimed at the affluent were not designed for family occupation, and consisted of separate suites of rooms intended to be inhabited by people who were not related to each other and, indeed, very likely did not even know each other. As such, this was a brand new way of living, aimed at those who wanted a self-contained type of life on their own rather than be surrounded by their families, as in the past.
In the novels of Jane Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontes, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope, nobody, but nobody, lives on their own apart from misers and those shunned by society. It was considered a terribly unnatural way to live, and not something a normally sociable person would ever want. In any case, when the only form of housing was separate houses, it was not really possible to live alone.
The advent of flats gradually changed all those perceptions, until you get to the novels of Anita Brookner, where just about all of her central characters live in solitude in a hermetically-sealed London flat.
The novelist Henry James, a lifelong celibate, lived for much of his life in one of these original central London flats in Carlyle Mansions, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.
These early flats were luxurious for the time and were intended to combine the best of private living with hotel facilities. They consisted of self-contained suites of various sizes, where housekeeping, cleaning and catering services were often on offer. There was a common dining room where residents could eat and also billiard rooms and games rooms. All these extra services were included in the rent and initially at least it was not possible to buy or lease these suites. In time, though, residents wanted more security of tenure and began to buy leases, or long rents, from the owners.
One reason these apartments were built in the first place was to overcome the servant problem, becoming acute towards the end of the nineteenth century. These upmarket apartments did not need droves of servants, although Henry James had his faithful manservant with him, as many services were provided by the management.
Not all that popular
But in general, the demand for flats at this time was not great, and according to Norbert Schrenauer, author of the mighty tome 6000 Years of Housing, there were two main reasons for this: fear of the spread of infection from such close living, and the problem of noise. Apparently, too, the innate conservatism of the building industry at the time meant that developers tended to stick to the more traditional type of housing.
Also, British people continued to resist flat living where they had the choice, preferring their own house, however humble, with its own front door and garden, than life in an anonymous block of flats.
HOUSING FOR THE POOR
There were, though, other apartment buildings going up in mid-Victorian times, and these were aimed at a quite different sector of the population from Albert Hall Mansions and the like: the urban poor, or very poor.
Flats for these people were built by philanthropists such as Peabody and Guinness, and indeed, you can still see antiquated-looking buildings bearing the names Peabody Buildings and Guinness Buildings in ornate Victorian lettering, in many parts of London.
The first apartment building of this type was opened on February 29, 1864 in Spitalfields, in the East End of London, by the American philanthropist George Peabody.
The building consisted of seven tenements of three rooms at five shillings (25p) a week; 42 tenements of two rooms at four shillings (20p) a week; six tenements of two rooms at 3/6 (15 ½p) a week, and two tenements of one room at 2/6 (12 ½p) a week.
The living rooms in these early tenements measured 13’ by 10’ and the ceilings were eight feet high. Staircases and corridors were lit by gas fixtures and there were laundries on the top floor. There were no bathrooms in the individual tenements but lavatories on every floor. There was also the unimaginable luxury that hot baths were available simply by asking the superintendent for a key.
These tenements were intended for poor people ‘of good character’ and were highly innovative for the time. The rents, at least in the Peabody Buildings, were set ‘at cost’ which meant that they simply covered what the building cost to run, with no profits for anybody.
Also in Victorian times, what we now know as maisonettes were built for working-class people in large industrial towns such as Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Liverpool. These maisonettes consisted of a separate upstairs and downstairs in a long terrace, with two front doors side by side. One family would live upstairs and the other, downstairs, but be completely separate from each other. Even the back yards at the rear of the property were separate, so that each family had complete privacy, even though living literally on top of each other.
My first married home was one of these maisonettes and consisted of three bedrooms, one living room, a tiny kitchen and bathroom and dingy backyard. The rent in 1965 for this unfurnished upstairs maisonette was £3.10s (£3.50) a week. Not long ago, a friend returned to the area and said the street was completely unspoilt, by which he meant unmodernised. These maisonettes now mainly house social tenants.
In the 1920s and 30s, more blocks of flats were built by philanthropists for the urban poor, but the aspiration was still to have a complete house rather than live in a flat.
In the 1940s, especially just after the Second World War, councils and local authorities started building blocks of flats, again often very innovative for their time.
The ‘children’s laureate’, writer Jacqueline Wilson, has recalled how she went to live with her family in a council flat in Kingston, Surrey, in the 1950s and could not believe the luxury – there was hot water on tap, central heating and a bathroom … these were all amenities which were certainly not automatic in working-class housing at the time.
Also around this time, existing houses in areas such as Notting Hill, West London, had pretty much fallen into disrepair, and were bought cheaply by slum landlords with the idea of turning them into nasty flats for poor people and immigrants. These cheap rented dwellings gave flats a bad name. One such dwelling, 10 Rillington Place, was a dismal, dilapidated tiny terrace house badly converted into three flats. On the top floor lived Beryl and Timothy Evans and on the bottom floor, the serial killer John Christie. After Christie left the flat, some West Indians, recent immigrants, moved in and noticed a strange, very nasty smell in the place. It came from decomposing bodies walled up in the kitchen. The new tenants called the police and Christie was eventually hanged for the murder of at least five women. Soon after this, Rillington Place was pulled down and the street was renamed Ruston Mews. But until it was comprehensively gentrified in the 1980s and 90s, Notting Hill was full of these slum flats and, indeed, was notorious for them.
During the 1950s and 60s, council flats continued to be built but by this time, they tended to be tower blocks, which initially seemed a good idea but the high-rise soon became synonymous with sink estates. Although the term high-rise is one of approbation in America, in the UK it is now always used pejoratively.
Until the mid-twentieth century, with the grand exception of the imposing mansion blocks in places like Knightsbridge and Belgravia, flats were very much seen as housing for poor people who could not afford a proper house. The 1960s song, ‘My old man’s a dustman/ He wears a dustman’s hat/ He wears gorblimey trousers/ and he lives in a council flat’ summed up the prevailing conception of council flats being the very lowest in housing options.
But before long, luxury blocks of flats were being built which were aimed at professional people. These luxury flats tended to be in ultra-desirable locations where it was no longer possible or affordable to have separate houses. One of my early boyfriends, in the 1960s, lived with his parents in a modern flat overlooking Kew Gardens. This seemed to me very glamorous, as I had never before known anybody who lived in a flat.
Also in the 1960s, ‘bachelor flats’ or what we would now call studio flats, were designed to give single people self-contained places of their own. Before this, as we read in the novels of Barbara Pym, single working people of limited or ordinary means had to resort to ‘rooms’ where they would often have to share bathrooms and kitchens.
FLAT LIVING BECOMES STYLISH
Although as the twentieth century progressed, more people in London started living in flats, owing to considerations of space and money, prevailing attitudes towards flat living only started to improve in the mid-1990s, when ever smarter and trendier apartment blocks began to be constructed. The buy-to-let phenomenon, plus advances in building technology, meant that flats were, finally, becoming highly desirable and, in many cases, more desirable than houses.
For just as apartment buildings of the nineteenth century had laundries, games rooms, common dining rooms and lifts – all very innovative for the time – so present-day apartments also usher in many new ideas in housing. The more luxurious buildings now offer spas, gyms, 24-hour concierge services, underground valet parking and swimming pools, whereas the Peabody Trust is now opting for modular, prefabricated housing which provides cheap, contemporary flats.
The Peabody Trust, for instance, developed a new concept of modular housing in 1998 in Murray Grove, Hackney, where the finished apartments were available at cost rent, adhering to the original Peabody principle. The Murray Grove building is aimed at young singles and couples who cannot afford a mortgage but who do not qualify for social housing. Needless to say, the demand is huge.
THE PROBLEMS OF TENURE
So far as Britons were concerned, there was always an inherent problem with the tenure of apartments, for those not content merely to rent week by week. It was this factor, really, which militated most against flat living becoming truly desirable. The original council flats, mansion-block apartments and Peabody-type buildings were all rented rather than owned.
At time went on, it was really the problems with tenure and ownership which prevented more people from buying flats, as few understood the ramifications of leasehold. Most people who had a choice did not like the idea of leasehold, as this was very much seen as a kind of second-best way of owning, and not the real thing at all.
By contrast, everybody understood what freehold meant and where they could, people preferred to buy a freehold property they would own in perpetuity.
Where council flats were concerned, everything changed anyway with the right-to-buy ushered in by Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s, where former council tenants could buy their lease at a massive discount, and then sell it on if they wished after living there for a minimum of three years. Thus, council flats went onto the open market in the late 1980s, and soon began to compete with private housing, as these flats were often in excellent locations. Most of these original leases were for 125 years and, indeed still are, for council tenants buying long leases.
Although it was relatively easy for a local authority to sell separate houses, establishing leases for council flats for previous tenants who wished to buy, was complicated, as it meant there would be a mixture of leaseholders and tenants in the same block. These problems have still not been fully ironed out, and make buying a former council property a more difficult endeavour than buying a flat in the private sector.
A CONTINUING PROBLEM
What we now understand as leasehold law developed piecemeal as more people became interested in buying their flats or, at least, in buying a long lease. But our complicated system goes back to the Norman Conquest, when William the Conqueror annexed all the land in the country for himself.
William declared that all the land belonged to him and then gave it away to his followers in return for services to the king.
These new landholders were originally known as tenants and their holdings, as tenures. Lords who held land from the king in time divided up their holdings and parcelled it out to subordinate tenants, who also owed them some kind of service. This is how the feudal land laws, remnants of which remain in place to this day, came into existence and eventually affected modern leasehold flats.
The point about tenure is that the landholder did not absolutely own the land but derived right of possession from somebody else, and for a specified time. During the Middle Ages, there were three types of ownership in existence: ‘estate in fee simple’; ‘estate in fee tail’ and ‘life estate’.
The types of ownership
Briefly, the first type of ownership meant that land could be inherited by the owner’s male heirs according to the system of primogeniture; the second type of ownership meant that there was an identified line of succession outside which the land could not be transferred, and the third simply lasted for the life of the tenant, and ended on his death.
Part of the plot of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice hinges on the concept of entail; Mrs Bennet wants Elizabeth to marry the ghastly Mr Collins because the estate is entailed and would pass directly to him on Mr Bennet’s death. Be that as it may, no Bennet daughter was prepared to marry Mr Collins for the sake of securing the property.
Nowadays, the only vestige of the old land laws is the ‘estate in fee simple’ which means in effect that if you buy a house which stands on its own land, you will own that piece of property in perpetuity, or until you come to sell. That is what is meant nowadays by freehold. But if you own an apartment, say on the third floor of a block, you cannot own the freehold because your property does not stand directly on the land.
The term leasehold, which denotes the number of years remaining on the lease, is in many ways a lingering reminder of the old feudal system which meant that after the number of years was up, the land or estate reverted to the lord.
But the old idea that property eventually belongs to the Crown persists in the fact that if leasehold buildings which have become limited companies do not make proper annual returns to Companies House, the whole thing can revert to ownership by the Crown and individual leaseholders lose everything.
The Law of Property Act, 1925, was an attempt to rationalise land laws and bring them in tune with modern times and reflect modern usage. But although much was done to sweep away the old feudal laws, the concepts of freehold and leasehold became enshrined in the new laws. In most other countries, you can buy the freehold of an apartment and still own the land on which it is built, through the system of co-operative ownership.
For some reason though, British governments have never quite succeeded in doing away with old leasehold laws where you can’t buy your flat but only a length of tenure.
It is true that there are some freehold flats in this country, but they are a legal fiction, and never worth very much on the open market. This is because mortgage lenders are reluctant to lend money on a property which does not conform to known laws, as they fear they will not be able to repossess should the mortgagee fall into arrears.
But as flat living becomes ever more the norm, leaseholders are acquiring more security of tenure. When relatively few people lived in flats, it was not really worth the government’s time reforming the laws, but now things have changed.
Present-day leaseholders can collectively enfranchise, which means they can buy the freehold from the landlord. Individually leaseholders have the right to extend their lease to 90 years, at a ‘reasonable’ cost, and they can exercise the Right to Manage, without having to prove any dereliction on the part of the freeholder or managing agents.
THE HISTORY OF SERVICE CHARGES
Service charges are always a bone of contention in blocks of flats as nobody likes paying them. At first the whole system seems unfair. You, the leaseholder, buy the lease, and then have to keep paying for repairs when you never own the place.
This does not happen if you are an ordinary tenant on an Assured Shorthold Tenancy, so why does it happen when you buy a lease?
When people first began to live in apartment buildings, they almost always rented from the landlord or freeholder. This rent would include all services, often including what we would now call utility bills, such as for heating, lighting and water.
But then, as time went on, occupants wanted more security of tenure, and so leases began to be offered – 5 years, 10 years, 20 years and so on. As leases lengthened, occupants started to sell these leases, or what was left on them, to others.
Once leases began to be sold on the open market, money was no longer paid to the landlord, but to the outgoing leaseholder. This meant that the freeholder would now have no income from selling the leases and no way of funding the running of the building.
So service charges were introduced, whereby all leaseholders had to pay an annual amount to the freeholder for running the place, otherwise it would rapidly fall into disrepair.
But as nobody liked paying service charges and everybody almost always thought they were too high, ways had to be formulated both for ensuring that service charges were paid and, also, that freeholders were not unduly profiting from their leaseholders.
Then as time went on, the original freeholders died or sold on the freehold to others, and, in this way, leasehold law and flat living gradually became ridiculously complicated. Half the time, leaseholders had no idea who the freeholder was. It could be an individual, a company or a consortium, even an insurance or finance company.
Then, original leases began to run down and lose their value. So, again, a way had to be found of ensuring that long leaseholders could continue to live in their homes. That was when the right to a lease extension came in.
These are the variables that can exist in a block of flats:
- Leaseholders with an outside freeholder.
- Leaseholders with a share of the freehold who have formed a company limited by guarantee.
- Outside managing agents.
- There is a head leaseholder below the freeholder.
- The block is self-managed.
- There is a Residents’ Association.
- There are some leaseholders and some tenants paying monthly rent (ex-local authority blocks).
- There may be many absentee landlords subletting.
- In rare cases, the flats themselves may be freehold.
- The building may be Commonhold.
- The leases may all be the same.
- The leases may be very different from each other.
- There may be leaseholders with wildly varying lengths of lease left.
- There may be a sinking fund.
- There may be no sinking fund.
- The block may be well run.
- The block may be badly run.
- With some new blocks, the tenure may be something new – commonhold.
Many people still see flats as types of cheap houses, without really understanding that in effect, when they buy a flat, they are buying into a morass of complications which often even the most astute legal brains fail to untangle satisfactorily.
And none of the above remotely apply when you buy a house. You just buy the house and that’s it. And just to make things even more complicated, there are very many types of flats you can buy.