Private ‘property’: two opposed meanings in relation to housing:
Even Communards feel angry when they find that someone in the household has been wearing their clothes, or sleeping in their bed, feeling a ripple of the possessive rage of children about which toys are theirs. We all need some things that are definitely our own. This ’property’ is quite a different sense from that which is used in the phrase ‘property developer.’
Every person needs to have a home as a basic requirement for a healthy life, as acknowledged in the title of Labour 2017 election manifesto’s Housing section – “Secure Homes for All.” We need secure shelter for the changing group of people we belong to that chooses to live together or that we are born into, and within that space we need flexible zones that we both make our own and share. This ‘home’ is a sense of ‘property’ that is simply achieved by the secure occupation of a sufficient space. We do not need to fully own it as property in the second sense, and we can love and enjoy it even when we know that others have more.
Anna Minton is a journalist who has written a clear and readable account in her book, ‘Big Capital’ (Penguin, 2017) of the housing crisis in London. She makes it clear that the housing crisis is not just about not enough houses being built. Some 50,000 properties in London are owned by overseas companies, nearly all based in the web of tax havens, of which the spider at the centre is the City of London itself, and much of this buying is for the laundering of corruptly gained assets. This influx of global capital has a huge impact on London rents and house prices, and completely breaks the connection between the two types of ‘property’.
There are not many oligarchs or Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals yet where I live, in Hackney, but there are plenty of people with inherited wealth, very well paid jobs or both who have been as it were displaced from living in Kensington or Hampstead, and who are now changing the population mix and diversity of ethnicity and class. The Council stays just about afloat financially due to the increased economic activity and Council Tax receipts, and can keep the appearance of the streets and public spaces in order, but the social environment deteriorates as the relentless domination of the poorer communities, takes its toll as they lose their homes, their shops and their markets. Thanks to the combination of the Right to Buy with a prohibition on Councils’ building to replace homes lost, Councils are now unable to fulfil their obligations to homeless families except by forcing them to move to really poor overcrowded properties many miles away. Meanwhile the homeless in those outer boroughs are forced to move to yet more impoverished and jobless areas of the country. This social cleansing is being accelerated by plans to further reduce public housing by demolishing Council estates across London, even if they have architectural merit and low crime rates, in order for developers to cash in on building homes for sale, with as few as they can get away with being designated as ‘affordable’ – which still means far higher rents, so people cannot afford to come back even if they have been promised that option. London is a prime site of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ – savings whittled away in rents and mortgages, a process that becomes altogether more vicious when there is the inevitable next crash in house prices. In the context of falling wages and the growth of insecure employment, most people simply can no longer afford to live here, including such essential workers as teachers, junior doctors, nurses, street cleaners or fire fighters.
“Secure Homes for All”:
In the light of this intense London property confrontation, and the immense waste and suffering that are caused when untrammelled rights of property-as-asset are asserted, Labour’s specific housing pledges in its 2017 Manifesto look weak:
It said Labour will –
provide more support for hostels and supported housing for the homeless;
build 100,000 ‘affordable’ or Housing Association homes during the next parliament.
extend the Tory Help to Buy scheme (that inflates house prices).
ensure that local first time buyers can offer for new homes before overseas buyers.
ground rents in leasehold properties will be restricted,
private sector rents will be controlled to match inflation, with tenancies made for 3 year periods, and with letting fees banned.
Councils will be freed to build homes and to borrow to do so, and the bedroom tax will be scrapped, as will the right to buy until councils are in a position to replace each one sold.
Improving Labour Housing policy:
This is redolent of good intentions towards the less well-off and the homeless, but also of a refusal to subvert any of the supposed right to use private property for unearned income. ‘For the Many – Preparing Labour for Power’, OR books, 2017, edited by Mike Phipps, makes just this point in its housing chapter written by Stuart Hodkinson, a geographer at the University of Leeds. His additional recommendations to meet the radical ambition of secure homes for all are substantial and many:
1) A right to sell (to the Council) for owners who are not coping with payments or maintenance
2) 5 year private tenancies with automatic renewals and no no-fault evictions.
3) ‘Affordable’ to be linked to incomes not market price.
4) Housing benefit to correspond to actual rents
5) Reinstate right of homeless to a secure tenancy.
6). Make out of borough placements illegal.
7) Central government subsidy for Council house building.
8) Scrap all Council Estate regeneration schemes.
9) Restore financial regulation of Housing Associations
10). Communal tenant ownership of estates.
11) Abolish the Right to Buy
12) Compulsory Council tax premium on empty homes
13) Decriminalise squatting
14) Funding for Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations.
15) Create a National Housing Fitness and Safety inspectorate with direct access from users, funded by fines.
“The Right to the City”, what does it mean?
In her conclusions to her book, Anna Minton calls for the control of private landlords, and an end to the speculative model of housebuilding by big contractors, using Community Land Trusts, Self-build housing, and Council house building that is protected from the market: these proposals also seem disappointing in relation to the enormity of the problem for London that she identifies. She invokes a concept invented in the 1960s by the radical French marxist Henri Lefebvre, that the inhabitants of the space of a city could exercise a communal Right to the City. For Lefebvre, the city is a product of a particular mode of production of space, dependent on always contested social practices: this is an aspect of his view, (which both fed off and contributed to the 1968 revolt), that it is not just in the workplace that struggle takes place but in everyday life. Minton is sketchy about what the Right to the City means, though she does describe some great examples of resistance, such as the Focus E15 campaign in Newham. Meanwhile whilst Council housing deteriorates or is burned down, the marginalised are pushed right out of the city, and less dominated sectors of inhabitants are forced to move further out and into more overcrowding, depending on their means. In this intra-urban migration there are innumerable individual experiences of powerlessness and defeat, and the Right to the City is trodden underfoot.
Occupiers have rights that have to be won, owners have far too many, which have to be taken:
No political party manifesto can make a social movement, and Labour’s assertion that every inhabitant, including the most oppressed and dominated, should have a secure home is a good start, if it can be turned into a demand, supported by active mobilisations. The collective Right to the City is individuals’ or families’ or communities’ rights as occupiers of space. The way forward for a vibrant, thriving city is to make demands that put users’ of spaces rights above those of owners . Those who are allowed to take some of the land of the city (which never has value in itself but only as part of the fabric of what we, the occupiers, collectively provide) for private use should pay for the cost of this loss through a continuing community land contribution. Rents should be controlled so they cover only the real costs of maintaining houses, adjusted for inflation, and their community land contributions, maybe plus state borrowing costs of the capital used, with security of occupiers equal to that of owner-occupiers, and with no right of the owner to make any additional income. Occupiers should have the right to modify and improve their home if they want to, and employ people to do repairs at the owners’ expense. Meanwhile, home owners have to pay as now for their own house maintenance, and should also have to pay a community land contribution and when they sell, they should be expected to get back only the capital they put into the house, any other gains being subject to substantial taxation, to pay for more council homes. We should be aiming to make tenancy have hassle-free, inheritance-free equivalence to owner-occupier rights, rather than allowing it to be a plight that means you are merely disposable prey to extraction by rentiers. Those who want to use their wealth to make more wealth have plenty of other options, and they must be made to leave people’s homes out of their plans.
How can we own the city?
The 2017 election slogan, “Secure Homes for all”, as a manifesto pledge, seemed popular. In the situation now where those with wealth need increasingly to see it grow not through production of commodities but through extraction based on ownership, the pledge cannot be realised without a confrontation with that ownership. Stuart Hodkinson’s proposals to beef up the specifics of a future manifesto seem to be pushing in the right direction, but they will not make it into a future manifesto unless there is a surge of action and campaigning which needs to be strong enough to counter the wealth and media access of the likes, for example, of the developers and estate agents who sponsored Sadiq Khan’s bid to become Mayor of London. We need democratic action within Labour, such as the campaign to get Haringey to pull back from its massive social cleansing and loss of social housing plans, which begins to look as if it may succeed. We need, as George Monbiot puts it, to reinvent local government through practice, by experiencing collective control of public spaces, without which our private spaces, our homes, have no true value. if we are to give hope to the millions of Londoners in insecure tenancies, or in unsafe buildings, or being rendered impoverished by excessive rents, and if we are to give the oligarchs and the speculators, the developers or the private landlords any concern at all, then we must do more to actively ‘own’ public space whilst articulating and demanding rights for occupiers of properties within that space… participatory budgeting, street parties, festivals, all sorts of local communal initiatives to improve lives, acting collectively. The ‘public luxury’ which the Paris Commune sought to establish is a demand, perhaps, but it is essentially a practice, one which we can start to do. “Ownership” rights have never been total, we already have leaseholds, compulsory purchases, and planning laws., they can be challenged and reduced through collective struggle. Asserting the rights of occupiers, as in Catalonia with mobilisations to stop evictions (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH)), involves actions that are focussed on supporting the stigmatised and demoralised victims of the housing crisis, whether those who have bought but cannot pay their mortgages, private renters subjected to excess rents and foul, damp or unsafe conditions, or social housing occupiers being evicted. After Grenfell and what we know of the tenants’ warnings about what was to come that fell on deaf ears, Londoners and Labour should be raising the demand for the rights and empowerment of all occupiers of property, which must mean a reduction of the powers of owners.