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From The Socialist newspaper, 26 November 2014

Housing crisis! What do socialists say?

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition stands for rent control and building council housing

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition stands for rent control and building council housing   (Click to enlarge)

Sarah Wrack

The housing crisis is hitting everyone in the face. The mainstream press, politicians and economists all feign concern. Not to mention the real concern of those of us actually affected by it! Every potential avenue to decent housing is being shut down.

While 65% of homes are still owner-occupied, for most young people the prospect of ever being in the position of owning their own home is fast slipping away. In London, the age that the average person can buy their first home is 52. Over three million people in their 20s and early 30s are stuck living with their parents. Half of those who don't own a home have given up hope of ever doing so.

It's clear that homes are still being sold. But particularly in London and the South East, most of the buying is being done by the super-rich, property speculators and wannabe-landlords. In 2012 85% of prime property purchases were completed with overseas money and in 2013 40% of house purchases were paid for with cash.

In the past, many who couldn't afford to buy would turn to social housing. But that is now impossible for most. There are an estimated 1.7 million on social housing waiting lists in England alone - that's one in 12 families.

Even getting onto the list has been made incredibly hard for all but the most desperate. Once on the list, people are potentially faced with years of hell - being expected to live in 'temporary' bed and breakfast accommodation for a long period, for example.

Social housing attacked

If, after jumping through all these hoops, someone does make it into social housing, their problems don't necessarily end. In the past social housing was meant to guarantee cheap rent, a secure tenancy and oblige the council to maintain and repair its housing stock. But this is being rolled back.

Social housing grants are now only given to housing associations and arms-length management companies, not directly to councils. Secure tenancies are being attacked. Much council housing is being essentially left to rot - purposely run down to give councils an excuse to demolish, sell off or renovate in a way that leaves homes unaffordable to original tenants.

If you can't buy and you can't get social housing, the only real option left is the private renting sector. This leaves tenants completely at the whim of private landlords who only feel responsibility to ensure their rental income. The 2011 census showed 3.5 million people privately renting - almost double what it had been ten years earlier.

But private renting is not an easy option either. Increasing competition for rented housing means that landlords and letting agents feel they have all the power. It's not uncommon to be told you can only view a property if you don't have any other viewings booked and are able to make a decision and pay the deposit on the spot.

Completely unregulated

Unlike in the past and in some other countries, rents in the private sector are completely unregulated. Private renters spend an average of 43% of their income on rent. This doesn't only put a strain on individuals but on the welfare system, as housing benefit increasingly has to be relied on. Between 2008 and 2012 there was a 9% increase in the proportion of households receiving housing benefit who are in work.

Conditions are also much less regulated in the private sector. A recent example highlighted in the press was of a room in a London shared house costing 420 a month that could only be accessed by crawling in on all fours. Damp, overcrowding and rodents are all to be expected.

On top of all of this, there's a huge and growing shortage of homes available. In London alone it's estimated there are already 283,000 too few homes. Most estimates say at least 250,000 homes a year need to be built to keep up with the demands of a growing population.

In 29 of the 30 years leading up to 1978, local councils built more than 90,000 homes a year. But from that point neoliberalism ate into the idea that councils should provide homes for local populations. By 1999 only 50 homes were built by councils and 19,000 by housing associations.

Russell Brand marching with New Era estate tenants and supporters, who are fighting rent hikes and eviction at the hands of a US investment company which owns the estate, photo Paul Mattsson

Russell Brand marching with New Era estate tenants and supporters, who are fighting rent hikes and eviction at the hands of a US investment company which owns the estate, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

The only option, we're told by politicians from all the main parties, is to rely on private developers. Just like private landlords, private developers' motivation is how to make money. They have no incentive to build homes that people can afford. None is being given by government.

The Con-Dems changed the definition of 'affordable' to mean 80% of market rent. This means, for example, that some 'affordable' homes were recently approved by London Mayor Boris Johnson that could cost 2,400 a month.

They also changed the rules on the proportion of affordable housing that new developments have to contain to allow developers to negotiate or provide none at all if they plead poverty. 60% of developments fall short of targets set by local councils. In London, Johnson ruled out the idea of setting a target for the percentage of new homes that should be affordable.

These companies are being handed billions of pounds of public money in subsidies. All around the country public land and buildings are being sold to private developers for sometimes almost nothing. Campaigners should make a clear stand against this land grab. Recent figures showed that there is enough public land to build two million homes, with councils owning enough for one million. Public land should be used for public good, not for the development of homes so expensive they force local people out of the area.

No alternative?

While mainstream politicians claim they are doing everything they can to tackle the housing crisis, it's clear that there are things that can be done, and in some areas, to a limited extent are being done.

Some councils, for example, provide cheap mortgages to local residents. Many councils are setting up compulsory licencing schemes for private landlords. These require landlords to meet certain requirements, for example proper referencing, not overcrowding, etc. Why don't Labour councils make a stand and include in these requirements not charging rip-off rents? We need rent control now.

Democratic committees of local people, including tenants' representatives, trade unions, and elected councillors could be set up to decide fair rent caps. These committees could include representatives of local landlords too and allow them to make their case on what income they need. The starting point though, should be that having a decent and affordable home is a right that individual landlords should not have the power to deny.

There are one million empty homes in the UK, including 300,000 that are empty long-term. Councils have powers for compulsory purchase of such homes but hardly ever use them. Homes sitting empty for no good reason should be taken over and used to house local people.

And councils have borrowing powers that mean they could finance big house building programmes in every area. This funding wouldn't last forever but should be combined with campaigning for the government to divert its subsidies for private developers to the much more cost-effective and beneficial building of council housing.

Clearly, no council is carrying out all these things, but they demonstrate just a fraction of what is possible. Tackling the housing crisis could only be done with policies like these which require a head-on confrontation with government, big property developers, mass landlords and the super-rich.

But being willing to have such a confrontation is not without precedent. Look at the example of Liverpool City Council in the 1980s. Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, played a leading role in that council. It came to power, as with councils now, when big cuts were being made to local government budgets.

Instead of meekly passing on those cuts, that council stood up and fought for the things needed by the people of Liverpool. It set a budget based on those needs, invested in jobs, housing and local services and led a mass campaign to demand the money back from central government.

Socialist-led Liverpool city council's struggle in 1983-87 led to mass demonstrations and thousands of new council houses built, photo Dave Sinclair

Socialist-led Liverpool city council's struggle in 1983-87 led to mass demonstrations and thousands of new council houses built, photo Dave Sinclair   (Click to enlarge)

Among other things Liverpool City Council demolished nearly 5,000 slum homes, built 4,800 good quality houses and bungalows, refurbished 7,400 houses and flats, and at one time had 16,000 employed on council projects including these building works. At the time Militant was part of the Labour Party. It would be hard to imagine a Labour council taking a similar stand today!

Miliband's Labour Party is trying to run the general election campaign on a pledge to tackle the 'cost of living crisis', including housing. But what they're promising is minimal, to say the least.

They say that by the end of the next parliament in 2020 200,000 homes a year will be built in Britain. They plan "up to" an extra 30,000 council houses between now and then. These figures are not enough for what's actually needed or anywhere near soon enough.

They say there will be a new formula to stop excessive rental increases - possibly linked to average rent rises - but the average is too high! Despite Labour leaders being very keen to stress that this won't be actual rent control, the plans have been attacked by the Tories as 'Venezuelan-style rent controls'.

In Venezuela rents are set by the Ministry of Housing, at 3-5% of the total value of the property, with landlords who own more homes able to charge proportionally less. Volunteers from tenants and civil society groups have oversight on the valuation process. This is by no means perfect and as the Socialist has pointed out before, without mass, democratic workers' organisations playing an active role in organising society, government schemes will always be limited. However, it's clear that this is a long way from the minimal proposals being made by the Labour Party!

Half-hearted

If instead of his half-hearted pledges, Ed Miliband made the call now for all councils to begin the kind of policies outlined above - introducing rent controls, building council homes, making sure housing benefit covers rent, etc - and promised to back them up when Labour is in power, he could win a Labour victory in May. But he wouldn't dare to take this path.

Working class people have to rely on themselves to fight for a solution to the housing crisis. A number of local campaigns have sprung up over the last year or so.

Perhaps most notably, the Focus E15 campaign has highlighted the case of young single mothers in the east London borough of Newham who were evicted from a homeless hostel because of funding cuts by the local Labour council. Through protests, occupations and stunts, they have exposed the madness of the social cleansing taking place, particularly in the capital.

This type of action needs to be replicated hundreds of times around the country, with occupations, protests and defence against eviction. We also have to link up and expand these local campaigns to become a national, political, working class movement for decent housing for all. What won improvements in the past was politicians feeling the hot breath of mass movements on the backs of their necks.

Trade unions

Some have mistakenly suggested that these impressive and vital community campaigns are replacing 'traditional' workers' methods of struggle such as strikes and other workplace organisation. But the two shouldn't be, and never have been, separate.

These campaigns should be backed up by the weight of the organised workers' movement. There are seven million workers in trade unions. That gives those organisations huge potential political and organising power. This shouldn't just mean passing motions in support of campaigns or even giving money. Unions should mobilise their members to protests, pass policy along the lines of what has been outlined here, produce material and publicise campaigns, organise educational and political meetings, and come to the defence of their members when they face housing crisis themselves.

In Scotland there was a mass campaign against the bedroom tax, organising in the estates and through big demonstrations. It forced the Scottish government to act and now bedroom tax is dead in Scotland - that shows the power that ordinary people can have when they get organised.

New party

But there has to be another side as well. Who's going to be arguing in support of such a movement in parliament and town halls around the country? Labour councils up and down the country are implementing the bedroom tax and other benefit cuts, evicting people, selling public land to be developed into luxury apartments and so on.

We don't just want to be making demands of right-wing, Eton-educated politicians who've never had to worry about rent in their lives. Workers, young people, unemployed people and housing activists should stand for election on these types of demands.

The Socialist Party is part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) which allows people to do just that. TUSC stands for rent control and for building council housing, against the bedroom tax and all cuts to benefits, jobs and services.

TUSC is a first step to a new mass party for working class people. A party like that could put forward an entirely different way of organising society - a socialist way. How many homes could be financed if we nationalised the banks and biggest corporations and used those resources to plan a society that could satisfy the needs of all? With a society democratically run by the millions, for the millions, we could genuinely eradicate homelessness and poverty.

If we build both of those arms - mass struggle and a political voice, anger over the housing crisis can not only force big improvements in the housing situation but also play a role in leading to movements that change society completely to ensure that future generations never again have to worry about something as simple as a roof over their heads.

The Socialist demands:

■ Rent control now! Democratic rent councils to decide fair levels in each area

■ A mass programme of council house building and renovation to meet demand

■ Hands off our homes! Bring all housing association stock and housing services back in-house

■ Living housing benefits that reflect the real cost of renting

■ Councils should use their compulsory purchase powers on long term empty properties and use them as council housing

■ A new mass workers' party to fight for affordable housing for all. Stand working class candidates in May's general and local elections to fight for these policies

■ Nationalise the banks and biggest corporations. For a democratic socialist society that puts the needs of the majority, including decent, affordable housing, before the profits of the tiny minority

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In The Socialist 26 November 2014:


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Way to go, Watford!


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