Octavia Hill Association tenements

Court having nine small houses in rear of a tenement house. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania

3rd & Queen Sts

The Octavia Hill Association was formed in 1898 to improve the condition of working- class housing in Philadelphia. Named after British reformer Octavia Hill, the association purchased, renovated and managed clean, safe housing for the growing poor black and immigrant populations (primarily Jewish, Polish, and Italian) who were relegated to the back alleys of Southwark. By 1916 the Association owned or managed more than 400 houses and was instrumental in the creation of the Philadelphia Housing Code passed in 1913. OHA activities declined after World War I due to changes in the housing and financial markets, but Octavia Hill still exists today as real estate-management company. Having expanded beyond Southwark/Queen Village, Octavia Hill specializes in managing historic structures spanning a range of affordable and luxury residential units.

Unlike the high-rise tenements of New York, Southwark's alleys and courtyards of ramshackle, three-story bandbox houses (or trinities) were often hidden from street view. The obscurity of their location made it easier for the authorities and the middle classes to deny or ignore the existence of the slums. Octavia Hill Association sought to call attention to the overcrowding, open sewer and overflowing privies, and to bring light, air and sanitation to their tenants. The "friendly rent collectors" did not discriminate among the poor, blacks, or immigrants, but did require standards (as set by Octavia Hill staff) of cleanliness, hygiene, and housekeeping to seek and retain residence in their properties.

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