Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tenancy Culture Studies: Jimmy Olsen and 'The Secret Slumlord of Metropolis'

Today's subject of study comes from issue number 127 of that fine periodical, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, in which our hero does battle with a foe more sinister than Lex Luthor, or Mr Mxyzptlk, or Gorilla Grodd... housing-related poverty.

(Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen no 127)

It's March 1970. Superman's Pal and cub reporter for the Daily Planet, Jimmy Olsen, has moved into a derelict tenement to get the inside story on the slums of Metropolis. His neighbours endure leaking ceilings, rotting stairways and vermin infestations. When Jimmy asks old Mr Collins, who sleeps under old newspapers because there's no heating in the building, 'why do you people stand for such neglect? Why don't you move?', Mr Collins answers:

'Cough-cough! Because the Bond Company, which owns most of these houses, makes us put up three months rent in advance... and we lose the money if we break the lease!'

Jimmy hits trouble too. His article for the Daily Planet is kiboshed by corrupt editor Perry White when advertisers threaten to withdraw their business. Undaunted, Jimmy writes the story up as a book, but loses the manuscript out his broken window (it gets caught in Superman's slipstream, who had popped in for a visit.) His landlord, the mysterious 'Mr Squeeze', kidnaps Jimmy, imprisons him in a basement, shaves his head and threatens to kill him if he continues his expose.

But Jimmy has his day. Discovering Mr Squeeze's true identity, Jimmy and his fellow slum-dwellers march on Squeeze Manor and unleash hundreds of rats and cockroaches on the society-types there assembled. Superman hauls Mr Squeeze off to prison for the kidnapping caper. And, finally, the slum is redeveloped, by Superman at super-speed, into a public housing estate, 'Olsen Gardens'.

This comic would be secure in its place in the annals of tenancy culture studies for nothing other than that final image of Superman soaring into the sky carrying aloft a prefabricated public housing unit, but there is more to it than that.

The publication date – March 1970 – is important. This places Jimmy Olsen no 127 at the head of the new Realism movement in comics, a month before the publication of the conventional front-runner, Green Lantern no 76 (in which Green Lantern and Green Arrow team up against another slum landlord). It also places Jimmy Olsen amongst the wave of writers, researchers and, later, government inquiries investigating the persistence of poverty and poor housing at the height of that postwar 'golden age' of economic development and prosperity.

This wave began with Harrington's The Other America (1960) and included, in Britain, Abel-Smith & Townsend's The Poor and Poorest (1965) and, in Australia, Ronald Henderson's survey of poverty in Melbourne (1970), then Henderson's national survey, conducted as Commissioner of the Federal Government's Inquiry into Poverty (1975).

That inquiry included a special report by Adrian Bradbrook on Poverty and the Residential Landlord-Tenant Relationship (1975), which analysed tenancy laws in three Australian States and concluded:

'Unfortunately, a study of the existing legal principles shows that the law is sadly deficient in most of the areas of tenant needs. No advice or assistance is provided for a prospective tenant by any governmental agency in any State, there is no legislation to ensure that the tenant is not bound by onerous or oppressive terms in a lease, and the means of solving any dispute between a landlord and a tenant are far from fair and sensible...'

Bradbrook then recommended law reform to regulate security deposits, prohibit other non-rent charges, oblige landlords to do repairs, create a fair standard form of lease, and provide dispute resolution by specialist tribunals, amongst other things. It took a couple of decades, but eventually all Australian States and Territories implemented residential tenancies legislation that more or less reflect the Bradbrook principles. These pieces of legislation represent pretty mild consumer protection – and the speed with which they allow tenancies to be terminated suits landlords very well – but without them rental housing would be governed by the principle of caveat emptor, and many of the abuses inflicted on Jimmy Olsen would be allowed to be perpetrated by our own local Mr Squeezes.

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