Fightback is the only solution to the housing crisis

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In advance of the general election in May 2015, all the main Westminster political parties are setting out their stalls to attract voters. Alongside their major concerns to win votes on issues like immigration and tax, housing is acknowledged by all of them to be in a state of crisis. At their autumn party conferences all of them agreed that something must be done about the shortage of new houses to buy and the availability of mortgages for young families. It is an opportunity, they claimed, to revive a ‘golden age’ of ‘garden cities’ galore, ‘from Oxford to Cambridge’, new towns and fast train lines to accommodate Britain’s commuter workforce. With unabashed faith in the housing market to solve a crisis which it helped to create, they hope to revive the industry and encourage the building of 200,000 new houses a year by 2020. However, there were few plans to tackle the plight of millions of low-paid working class people who are priced out of the housing market now and whose futures are blighted by slum housing and threatened homelessness. Jane Bennett reports.

The Conservatives are relying on a familiar mix of carrots and sticks. Carrots for the housing industry in the shape of mortgage discounts and deregulation – relaxing the requirements for the zero-carbon homes standard or for developers to build a percentage of social housing and so-called affordable housing. Carrots for private sector landlords who are reaping the large rewards of housing scarcity largely unregulated. Sticks for the working class and poor who are promised further cuts in benefits, including harshening the benefit cap to £23,000 a year and scrapping housing benefit for young people. In a triumph of hope over experience, the Tories are still attempting to cut the housing benefit bill by reducing benefit entitlement rather than tackling the housing needs of working class people. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the housing benefit bill (£26bn) has risen by over 20% in the last five years, most of this lining the pockets of private landlords rather than benefiting tenants.

According to researchers, private landlords are set to own £1 trillion worth of homes by late spring 2015, more than three times the 2001 figure. Figures show that since 2001 nearly two million households have been added to the private rented sector and across Britain private landlords receive £3.8bn a month in rent. New pension rules to come into force in April 2015 are likely to further boost this sector, as savers buy property to secure a retirement pension. Rents are rising and the effects have been felt especially severely in London, where in 20 of the 33 boroughs annual rents are now more than the average salaries for a nurse or teacher.

The counterpart to this boom is that slum accommodation and overcrowding are on the rise for working class people. The number of private sector renters who live in poverty has almost doubled in the last ten years, alongside the growth in low-paid jobs and zero-hours contracts. As many people from working families as from workless households are now living in poverty and nearly 1.4 million people are on zero-hours contracts. The two groups who currently spend the most on housing as a proportion of income are private renters in the lowest income groups who spend 55% of their income on housing, and social renters in the poorest income group who spend 33%. These are the groups for whom there is no relief planned from the devastation of the housing crisis.

In the three months to September 2014 more than 11,000 individuals and families were evicted. According to housing charity Shelter, more than 40,000 families have been evicted in a year, a rise of 11.7%. Some of these are a result of the insecurity of poverty pay, but a growing number stem from the shortage of homes for rent in an unregulated market. Landlords can evict at will, as demonstrated by the threat to New Era tenants in northeast London, in order to raise rents or sell off valuable housing at inflated prices. Tenants are having to face the fact that their homes are now ‘financial instruments’ being used primarily to enrich a layer of property speculators rather than to house human beings. At the same time that evictions from private sector tenancies have soared, the number of mortgage repossessions dropped by 63% between 2008 and 2013. This is in part due to low interest rates which cushion mortgage repayments, but also the fact that the level of support for homeowners who are in financial difficulty surpasses anything offered to renters facing eviction.

That the Tory Party favours the privileged against the interests of the working class is no surprise. Nor should be the fact that the Labour Party is devoid of plans to house the poorest sections of the working class. The Labour Party’s plans for housing, the Lyons Review, was the result of a commission composed of former BBC chairman Sir Michael Lyons and a bevy of housing industry representatives including the ubiquitous accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers. At the heart of the report is the belief that the house building market failure is due to lack of supply and the hoarding of land by the big six house building companies who operate on a model that requires double digit returns, as high as 20% per annum. The proposals for dealing with these problems fall far short of what is really required. Tinkering with planning laws and the availability of land have the potential to ginger up the house builders but will not provide housing on a scale and at a price needed by working class families. When, at the end of the Second World War, the Labour Attlee government faced a housing crisis, the plans succeeded precisely because of the recognition that the private building market could not provide the answer and was, indeed, a major part of the problem. Powers to build were transferred to local councils precisely because market forces and the profit motive would not house the masses. This is not the Labour Party’s agenda today.

On the contrary Labour’s plans on the economy differ very little from those of the Tory Party. Ed Balls will not be providing the money or borrowing to finance council or low rent housing. Labour has no plans to lift the burden on benefit claimants or low-paid workers, or indeed to regulate private sector landlords. In the 13 years when Labour was in power, 400,000 council homes were sold off and very few were built to replace them. Tory and Labour plans to limit social housing for migrant workers simply sow the illusion that immigration is to blame for housing shortages. Even after a lot of tinkering to reduce the numbers of people eligible for social housing, there are still more than 1.8 million people on the lists and there are no plans to build houses for them. Likewise Labour has completely failed to oppose austerity cuts that have profoundly worsened the conditions for poor families. They have, for instance, continued to vigorously administer the bedroom tax at a local level even when most honest politicians (there are only a few) have acknowledged that the policy is both discriminatory and, even on its own terms, a failure. In London the Labour boroughs have been just as zealous as the Tories in destroying social housing provision and in persecuting homeless people – witness Newham Council. Why? Simply because the Labour Party represents the interests of the privileged and ruling elite in Britain, just as much as the Tories. Their ambition is to rule us on behalf of the City, the banks and multinationals.

All over the world, the capitalist system forces working class people to live in slums, shanty towns, townships, favelas and ‘refugee’ camps, with the security, health and future prospects of their family members threatened by inhumane conditions. This is for one purpose: in order to maximize profits for the rich. The capitalist economic crisis is forcing down the standard of living of the working class while the ruling class maintains and expands its privileges. In Britain we are witnessing the rapid return of slums, growing numbers of evictions and homelessness. These are the norms for capitalist housing whose consequences have only been redressed when the ruling class has been under threat of working class revolt: after the First and Second World Wars. The only way for our class to have a decent future is to ruthlessly challenge them.

See also the following articles on the housing crisis:

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 242 December 2014/January 2015