Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Why housing needs to be on the direct action agenda

In today's Guardian, George Monbiot has a piece wherein he offers a unique solution to the present housing crisis: "a better distribution of the housing we've built already." There is a validity to this argument, despite the squeals from the right, but he has chosen the wrong target.

Monbiot's focus in his piece is on homeowners in "under-occupied" houses;
Between 2003 and 2008 (the latest available figures), there was a 45% increase in the number of under-occupied homes in England. The definition of under-occupied varies, but it usually means that households have at least two bedrooms more than they require. This category now accounts for over half the homes in which single people live, and almost a quarter of those used by larger households. Nearly 8m homes – 37% of the total housing stock – are officially under-occupied.

The only occasions on which you'll hear politicians talk about this is when they're referring to public housing. Many local authorities are trying to encourage their tenants to move into smaller homes. But public and social housing account for only 11% of the problem. The government reports that the rise in under-occupation "is entirely due to a large increase within the owner-occupied sector". Nearly half of England's private homeowners are now knocking around in more space than they need.

While most houses are privately owned, the total housing stock is a common resource. Either we ensure that it is used wisely and fairly, or we allow its distribution to become the starkest expression of inequality. The UK appears to have chosen the second option. We have allowed the market, and the market alone, to decide who gets what – which means that families in desperate need of bigger homes are crammed together in squalid conditions, while those who have more space than they know what to do with face neither economic nor social pressure to downsize.
To incentivise such "downsizing," he proposes "a big tax penalty for under-occupation," which hopefully "prompts them either to take in a lodger or to move into a smaller home in a lower tax band."

At the same time, he wishes "to see an expansion of the Homeshare scheme." This means that "instead of paying rent, lodgers ... help elderly homeowners with shopping, cleaning, cooking, gardening or driving." The result is that it "helps older people to stay in their own homes and lead an independent life, gives them companionship and security and relieves some of the pressure on social services and carers" as well as "provid[ing] homes for people who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford them."

Now, the first point comes with pitfalls - not least that many people who live alone will be working class pensioners who can ill afford a "big tax penalty" will suffer it as readily as the rich. Then, of course, there is the problem of getting such an idea through a parliament that serves the ruling class.
The second point is actually fairly sensible. Though it will by no means suffice in terms of solving any housing crisis, it will provide precisely the benefits that he lays out for both parties. And, as such a thing would be voluntary, it certainly doesn't fit Ed West's hysteria-mongering headline: "Force the well-off to take a lodger. New year, new fascist-egalitarian proposal from the Guardian."

But, as I say, this will not solve any broader housing crisis. Not without a much greater degree of compulsion - and, aside from the astronomical costs of such a thing, such a thing would be immoral.

I don't, of course, have any respect whatsoever for the "right" of private property. However, as an anarcho-syndicalist I make the distinction between property and possession and would never advocate forcibly ejecting somebody from a home that they occupy and use.

Which, of course, brings us onto the far more pertinent question - what about the myriad of unoccupied buildings around the country? According to the Empty Homes Agency, in 2008 there were 840,000 empty homes in Britain, and National Land Use figures show that disused commercial properties in England could be used to create a further 420,000 homes. With estimates of 65,000 homeless households in the first quarter of 2010, then we see that homelessness really does boil down to under-occupation.

Thus, the answer is not to "take the fight to wealth owners with spare rooms," but to challenge the property system which leaves ordinary people in overcrowded homes or on the streets whilst a few with capital can own and take rent from buildings which they neither occupy nor use.

One example of this in Liverpool, where developers want to demolish Toxteth's Welsh Streets. A campaign has arisen in opposition to this, mainly due to the fact that Ringo Starr once lived in one of the houses. However, the more pressing concern is that - as ever - the needs of real people to have a roof over their heads takes a back seat to private profit.

The 11 streets of Victorian terraced houses were built by Welsh workers to house local dockers and their families. The area was also infamous for its radical political tradition.

Lack of central heating and persistent rising damp have driven the most recent residents out, but preservationists argue that modern restoration methods can make the homes habitable again. This is obviously an idea that the property developers don’t want to see gain traction, as simply restoring the houses would not justify massive asking prices.

While residents were offered just over £60,000 for their homes, the properties that will replace them will have a reported starting price tag of more than £120,000.

When developers and local authorities use modern jargon such as regeneration and housing market renewal, what they really mean is cleansing communities of their working-class character and making a shed load of money in the process.
This will not change through the legislature. Local councils and central government have been complicit in handing over money and property to developers as a "housing crisis" developed for the working class. If we want to challenge that, the only way to do so is through direct action.

There already exists squatters movements across the country. They need to be supported and built upon, the connection to the housing crisis, the government's austerity measures, and the broader class war made explicit. For this is something which doesn't just affect those living on the streets now - it affects those who face cuts in housing benefits, those already struggling to stay afloat who will see costs rise as wages stagnate, and those who will be forced from their homes with compulsory purchase orders in the name of "community regeneration."

Real community regeneration comes from the people who live in those communities. This means rebuilding the spirit of working class solidarity and mutual aid, as we defend our streets and refuse to hand our homes over to the forces of capital. As a comrade once said to me: squat the lot!