Labour Offers a ‘Housing Revolution’ for Generation Rent

by Jamie Sims

21 November 2019

Graeme Maclean/Flickr

The Labour party has unveiled its housing policies for the upcoming election, offering the prospect of genuinely affordable and quality housing to a generation of young people stuck with a choice of either substandard private rented accommodation or living with their parents. With 12m private renters in the UK, Labour’s policies could be serious vote-winners – if renters register to vote and turn out on election day.

Labour plans to undertake a massive house-building programme, pledging to build 100,000 new council houses and 50,000 social rented houses a year by the end of the next parliament. It also promises discounted homes to facilitate home ownership, and high environmental standards as part of the manifesto’s green commitments.

Further still, Labour says it will junk the broken definition of ‘affordable housing’ – currently defined as up to 80% of market rates – in favour of stronger definitions of living rent and social rent.

Generation Rent and Corbynism.

‘Generation Rent’ is a now major political force. Millions of young people live in private rented accommodation at the mercy of an unregulated and rapacious class of landlords. Keir Milburn, co-host of Novara Media’s ACFM podcast, has demonstrated the connection between the housing situation of young people and our increasing tendency to support socialist politics, arguing that Generation Rent is also ‘Generation Left’.

The Conservatives have always relied on homeowners. When Margaret Thatcher introduced ‘Right to Buy’ she sought – successfully – to generate millions of new Conservative voters. In the short run it was a calculation that paid off – at the cost of running down Britain’s social housing stock and ramping up inequality. In the long run, however, many of those sold-off council homes have ended up as buy-to-let properties, and as home ownership becomes a distant dream the Tories are now losing ground to Labour among those who cannot see a future beyond renting.

In this sense, Labour’s policies will draw support from those who have lost out in Britain’s dysfunctional housing market, and who are likely to comprise a large section of the 2m people who have registered to vote since the election was called. Meanwhile, the Renters Vote campaign, led by the community and tenants’ union Acorn, has been registering tenants and homeless people to vote across the country and has asked political parties to adopt its renter manifesto.

Housing for the few.

Reflecting its stated commitment to put the interests of the many above profits for the few, Labour is explicitly taking aim at the private developers and slum landlords responsible for the housing crisis. Jeremy Corbyn said of the proposals: “Housing should be for the many, not a speculation opportunity for dodgy landlords and the wealthy few.”

Housing is one of the areas where we see most starkly the conflict between profit-seeking and meeting human needs within capitalism. The basic need for shelter is leveraged as an investment opportunity; even individual homeowners are encouraged to view their houses as investments rather than places to live and to jealously guard the value of their ‘asset’. Without robust protections for renters, projects of ‘regeneration’ or ‘redevelopment’ of urban areas become social cleansing, where working class tenants are evicted and displaced en masse.

The Conservatives are the party of landlords. Karl Marx’s century-old comment about them remains true: “The Tories in England long imagined that they were enthusiastic about monarchy, the church, and the beauties of the old English constitution, until the day of danger wrung from them the confession that they are enthusiastic only about ground rent.”

Nearly one in three Conservative MPs are landlords. We don’t yet know what the Tories’ housing policy will look like, since the party is delaying the publication of its manifesto to avoid serious scrutiny of its policies, but we may see some grand promises if Boris Johnson’s bombastic claims about Tory spending plans during the recent ITV debate are anything to go by.

But it’s worth bearing in mind the untrustworthiness of Tory promises – in particular that none of their promised 200,000 ‘starter homes’ have been built. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are no better, with their manifesto’s housing policy including highlights such as a plan to “limit rent hikes” by building automatic annual rent increases into new tenancies…

What is ‘affordable’ housing anyway?

Young people are spending an increasingly high proportion of their incomes on rent. A major cause of this is the government’s bogus definition of what constitutes ‘affordable’ housing. As housing prices rise ever-higher, especially in big cities like London, the idea that 80% of market rent is ‘affordable’ becomes increasingly absurd.

Under Labour’s plans, the broken ‘affordable’ definition would be replaced with ‘social rent’ and ‘living rent’. Social rents would be set at around of market rents on a national level, while living rents would be linked to one third of average local incomes.

One problem the proposals don’t appear to address is the way that developers currently get out of meeting their ‘affordable housing’ requirements. This is often facilitated by councillors – both Labour and Conservative – with cosy relationships to developers. However, despite this hurdle, there is a lot to applaud in Labour’s proposals, and alongside promises to massively expand council housing, the policies throw a lifeline to Generation Rent.

The “housing revolution” being proposed by Labour is undoubtedly a step forward for renters. But beyond 12 December, renters should also look at other ways to get organised. The Renter Manifesto put together by Acorn and other groups makes 15 key demands which include ending Section 21 no-fault evictions, establishing rent controls, enshrining renters’ right to organise, and giving them much more control over their homes.

While changes are absolutely necessary at policy level, direct action and solidarity can win concessions from landlords and force developers to take community needs seriously, as the recent victory of the LS26 Save Our Homes campaign in Leeds shows. That is the only way a “housing revolution” legislated at Westminster can truly deliver for the many, not the few.

Jamie Sims is a private renter and housing activist based in Sheffield.

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