Sunday, 4 July 2010

Organisation to defend housing is vital as the state wages its class war

Cuts in housing benefit could put 200,000 people at risk of homelessness, according to the National Housing Federation (NHF).

The cuts "could leave a large proportion of the UK's 4.7m housing benefit claimants with a 50% cut in disposable income - with many using Jobseeker's Allowance to cover the shortfall in rent." This means "thousands of people being unable to meet the cost of other necessities, such as food and energy" and "up to 202,000 would be at risk of losing their home altogether."

On top of this, the NHF is warning that "radical changes to the planning system combined with threatened funding cuts could see the number of social homes built this year slump by 65%, to just 20,390."

With a "record 4.5m people on waiting lists in England" and "around 2.6m people ... living in overcrowded accommodation," this leaves many people vulnerable and makes a mockery of government claims that the system would be more "fair."

But, as the Third Estate points out, it is not only the government who are to blame;
There is a reason that renting homes for people on benefits can cost so much. If you have dealt with landlords or letting agents any time recently you will have become used to a notice emblazoned on virtually every website and shopfront: “no DSS”. In other words we won’t rent to the unemployed. It such circumstances it is obvious that the small number of letting agents who are willing to deal with these apparent untouchables will be able to charge what they like.

It is in fact a disgrace that years after the worst forms of housing discrimination started to be tackled, this kind of crap is still allowed, and for no good reason. Renting to somebody on benefits is in fact less risky – because the money comes straight from the DSS. And moreover the idea that everybody on benefits shares certain unesirable characteristics is – not least in the present climate – obvious rubbish. The unemployed now acccount for 2.5 million people. Considered against the fact that there are only 500,000 vacancies in the economy, it is patently obvious that unemployement is for many people an inevitable reality.

Given the coalition aim to bring down benefit bills, and given the moronic Iain Duncan Smith’s professed concern for the most vulnerable in society, then they really ought to do something about this. I wouldn’t hold your breath.
It takes a particularly blind eye to see this as anything less than a system built to serve the rich at the expense of the poor.

With landlords driving up rents as the government slashes payouts, the NHF's homelessness predictions look more ominous. And the level of overcrowding and underinvestment in social housing is nothing short of callous.

The question, then, is how ordinary people fight back against such an inherently unfair system?

As with all struggles, the key is organisation. There needs to be a concerted campaign against both the attacks on welfare and the economic conditions that drive poverty and unemployment for profit.

One form this organisation should take is tenants' and community associations, formed at a grassroots level to defend the interests of ordinary people against the state and the landlords.

On Infoshop, Dan Jakopovich explains the strength of tenant power;
Far from being completely reliant on the authorities and dependent on administrative inertia, tenants have a coercive weapon – the power to withhold their rents. Tenant organising is largely about bringing round the understanding of that power in tenants’s minds (by organising public meetings, counselling tenants on their legal rights, distributing propaganda etc.), and the need for tenant cooperation in order to be able to exercise that inherent power. A tenant organiser was right when he stated that organising “involves delegitimizing the established authorities, creating new cooperative social relationships among the tenants, and hopefully creating a basis for a new legitimate authority, the tenants’ association.”

The 50,000-person rent strike in New York City from 1963-64 is an example of the potential connected to this “irreverend” approach. The strike brought lower rents and the enforcement of building codes, and there was a lower incidence of rental increase in buildings that participated in the strike. “Half the buildings in a study by Michael Lipsky won rent reductions of over 50% during the strike.” Moreover, those in rent strike “enjoyed greater access to city housing maintenance agencies…rent strike tenants appeared without appointments and were ushered into offices of the highest agency officials, and agency personnel took quick action and ordered immediate inspections to beat the predictable inquiries from reporters.”

In addition to and above sympathetic lawyers, academics etc., labour unions should also be considered as potentially crucial allies in the housing struggles. “British rent strikes enjoy a history of successful coalition with trade unions, which often staged sympathy strikes in their workplaces. During World War I, crucial munition workers in Glasgow walked off the job in support of a massive 1915 rent strike against rent increases. This formidable coalition forced the government, which worried about a possible shortage of ammunition and internal unrest during the war, to pass the first Rent Restriction Act (…).”

While tenants must perceive concrete improvement in their lives from the activities taken, it is important that other fronts of the wider social struggle aren’t ignored:

“We see our stand as part of a fundamental struggle among classes in our society, not as an isolated fight… the housing problem can never be solved by itself; in the final analysis it depends on the distribution of wealth in society.”
Historically, such action runs parallel to labour struggles. We are, thankfully, past the days when our bosses were our landlords, and standing up for ourselves meant unemployment and homelessness in a single blow.

But both threats still hang over our heads, albeit separately. As long as private property exists, we need to fight back. This doesn't alter if our landlord is the local council and our rent paid by the state.

Modern tenant struggles across the world, from Seattle to Warsaw, via Glasgow and perhaps the most extreme case in South Africa, show us how we can do that. The point is to follow that example and rally people together in defence of one of our most basic needs - housing.