The struggle for decent homes cuts to the heart of post-crisis Britain

by Lewis Bassett

6 April 2015

This month sees the second birthday of Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth, a group which organises around issues of housing and gentrification. As one of the organisers in this group I thought it might be worthwhile painting a picture, as I see it, of the struggle against gentrification and the demand of decent homes for all. This struggle, I propose, not only stems from a moral concern with homelessness and the class and ethnic cleansing of London but is also in fact a struggle to organise the working class as a political force nationally. This is because radical politics over housing go right to the heart of the UK’s current model of accumulation and threatens to unpick the relationship between the winners and losers of our financialised post-Lehman Brothers economy.

Recovery? What recovery?

London’s rising house values are one factor in the UK’s much touted ‘return to growth’. GDP, revised upwards at 2.6% in the UK for last year, accounts not only for the value generated by new products being made and sold but also accounts for increases in property prices, which have risen as sharply as 15% in the south of England.

However, not captured by the aggregate of GDP is the effect of rising house prices on growth in other sectors. The owners of property with a rising value in the south of England are more able to buy that extra flat white, go to the cinema or take an Uber home. The consequences of this spending for (most often precarious and London-centric) service sector employment is obvious. Inflated house prices are therefore a key engine of growth.

Causes of the recent rise in house prices are: first, low interest rates meaning mortgages are cheap; second, quantitative easing which has resulted in banks making ‘safe’ or short-term financial investments in stocks and property over directly productive investment; third, sources of globalised money looking for safe places to invest after the crisis. Finally, as with all bubbles, the causes are cyclical: as houses prices go up more money is spent in London, more jobs are hence generated and so demand for housing in the capital is increased – house prices go up…

What is a house?

A house is not like other financial assets because people live in them. Just as the bubble in the US which led to the crisis ended in widespread repossessions and homelessness, the fate of homes as financialised assets impact upon people’s lives. In the end, it is the person with a basic demand for things like decent shelter who take the brunt of capitalism: whether that is the worker and not the boss, the taxpayer not the banker, or in the case of housing the renter or mortgage owner rather than the landlord or the bank.

This dual nature of housing, as both a basic need (some might say a right) and a financialised asset has today directly polarised those who own housing from those who don’t. Take renters: in London, wage earners spend an average 59% of their income on rent. The problem is even more drastic when we consider the urban poor, those who for whatever reason (and there are many more reasons than Tory propaganda would suggest) survive on benefits. As one example, in little more than a year Lambeth council housed 1,356 homelessness applicants in temporary accommodation. Apart from the fact that in the overwhelming majority of cases this housing is unsuitable, it is also predominantly owned by private landlords who charge the council astronomical rates for use of their slums.

Whatever spirit of ’45 they might once have had, housing offices now act almost exclusively as bureaucracies for categorising the non-deserving poor (immigrant, working/not working, without family, not disabled enough, etc.) from the deserving poor (British, ex-armed forces, severely disabled, etc.). Furthermore, recent legislation in the Localism Act has allowed councils to discharge of their homelessness duty into the private sector.

What do we mean by ‘housing crisis’?

As a recent show on Novara FM emphasised, it has become clear to all including David Cameron that the UK is in the midst of a housing crisis. However I propose that this term obscures what is in fact a crisis of class relations.

As we have seen, in terms of both the recipients of state housing benefits (private landlords) and the functioning of each council’s housing bureaucracy, the welfare state now acts primarily according to the benefit of the property-owning and in particular the landlord class – a class we might accurately label as rentiers. And it is this class of rentiers who have largely been the beneficiaries of the so-called recovery.

The division between those who own assets and those who live in them is the same division as between those who direct the economy and those who live within its crises. For the latter the housing crisis is hardly defined by demand and supply, nor is it in any generalisable way defined by forced evictions from the capital.

It is a combination of high rents, unsuitable accommodation, internal migration (from Brixton to Hackney for example), a near complete erosion of tenants rights, bullying and intimidation from Landlords and the council, the lack of any popular right to determine the course of ‘regeneration’, corrupt local government, so on and so on, which defines this crisis. In a word, the phenomenon of the housing crisis means all power to the anarchic rule of the propertied class, otherwise known as ‘the market’.

The good bit.

Working class organisations have begun to emerge from this crisis. These efforts have so far included the Radical Housing Network, bringing together groups like ours and the E15 Mums, and Unite Community – a promising project by the UK’s largest trade union aimed at organising those outside of stable employment.

It’s clear that these struggles, and their many visible and less visible successes, do not originate from the likes of the Ukip, Labour or even the Greens. At its most fundamental then, the answer to this crisis will be the efforts of groups like those mentioned to organise a cross-tenure opposition against the interests of the rentier class, the current weight of which smothers our existence.

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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.