Monday, 4 January 2016

First-world Slums, Shanty towns, Council Estates and Self-help Housing - An Illustrated Anarchist Guide

A little guide to what housing looks like for the first world poor and how anarchists might interpret it (the third world would have to be treated entirely separately). I'm using the word 'poor' because I'm not talking about all first world workers, the middle class and more stably employed workers are still mostly protected from all this. 


A bedroom in a HMO. 
A slum is an area with a concentration of poor quality privately rented accommodation. No one cares about their house or their street very much, in fact doing anything to make the area nicer could make the rents go up, so they stay shit forever. An example of a first-world slum is Blackpool in the UK. 

Blackpool is a medium sized town but it contains over 4000 Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs), these are usually substandard accommodation where the landlord converts every room in a house into a bedroom except for a bathroom and a kitchen and rents them all out separately. They are a significant feature of British slums in the 21st century. 

Facts about Blackpool
The outside of a HMO - well camofauged
  • Landlords are receiving their rent money directly from the state on behalf of around 25% of residents, many of whom are long term sick or disabled. The standard of accommodation is kept as low as possible in order to ensure a profit. 
  • GDP per capita is about £12,000 a year putting it in the lowest 1/4 of all OECD regions. 
  • Life expectancy for boys at birth is only 67.5 years in the centre.
The kitchen
Many people primarily use the word slum as if it was synonymous with 'shanty-town' meaning the ring of shacks that surround many third world cities (and are beginning to pop up in some first world cities). I would argue that despite the fact that the third world has many examples of much worse housing situations than Blackpool there are better words to describe those than the word 'slum'. Most of what people call 'shanty-towns' are not ruled by slum landlords extracting rents from the occupants. 

Blackpool is a regulated slum, it's pretty much legal and above board. An example of an unregulated slum (again from the UK) is the sheds with beds phenomenon in the South East and London. If anything these are even shitter. They are usually used to house immigrants, many of whom resort to this kind of accommodation because it's hidden and beyond the reach of officialdom and they still have to pay exploitative rents to a landlord. 

Shanty town

Yes, there are shanty towns here in the first world too. Shanty towns are self-built but remain of poor quality because residents know they have no tenure and are liable to be kicked out at any moment. They may start life as a tent city for homeless people or a camp for migrant workers. 

A tent city is often one of the first stages of a shanty town (USA)
If tent cities are left alone long enough they may develop into more permanent structures like this one in Paris. 
If the authorities agree to leave them alone permanently they can transition into self-help housing like Dignity Village (USA)
Or they get bulldozed like this one in Madrid did. 
...or repeatedly bulldozed and rebuilt like The Jungle in Calais (France). 
Despite some rather stark examples here shanty towns are uncommon in the first world. The reason for this is that the state usually provides some kind of social housing for the majority of the working class meaning only those on the fringes have to help themselves. It is also harder to get away with building a shanty town in places where the poor are a minority and the state is powerful. Evictions are common. As the housing crisis grows we will see more and it will be important for homeless people in the first world to learn from the strategy and experiences of the third world poor in carving out a space for themselves. 

The Transition to true 'Self Help Housing'

In the third world large numbers of poor people have transitioned shanty towns into pleasant housing, usually from self-help arising from the occupiers themselves and the local community. This can only happen when they are organised and prepared for the struggle for recognition. 

This process has not been confined only to the third world. After the Second World War when much of London has been destroyed by bombing whole communities had no choice but to move out into the Essex plot-lands and improved the shacks and sheds until they were like little suburban bungalows. The state could not house them and was not prepared to evict those who were helping themselves at a time of intense housing crisis. 


You can read more about this if you manage to get your hands on Colin Ward's book 'Arcadia for All' - (not an easy task, it's out of print and the few copies that are around are expensive). 

Social housing

Unlike self-help housing that starts insufficient and improves over time, social housing provided by the state is produced as a finished product and gradually decays. The reason for this is again, lack of security of tenure and also lack of dweller control. The economic exploitation through rent is less intense than a true slum although residents of older decaying housing whose rent payments continue to rise (like everyone's) may find themselves feeling similarly pissed off and hopeless when they see their rent contributing to the building of nice new social housing elsewhere (this criticism is admittedly getting less and less relevant as less and less new social housing is built). 

May not look super appealing now but it was better than this...
Tenements - same era

The problem is that it becomes this, gets knocked down and the residents scattered. Still shit.

In conclusion. 

The state can't and probably doesn't really want to solve our problems. As the post WW2 consensus on European social democracies comes to an end the relatively privileged position of first world workers is falling apart, social housing is over. It doesn't mean it's time to accept the new normal and put up with being homeless or ripped off by a slumlord, it does mean that it may be time to start fighting the fight for decent housing third-world style.

We will need to see residents' take overs of their social housing estates, mass squatting, attempts at self-help housing, rent strikes and more. We will have to re-appropriate our own homes and communities and the struggle is just getting started.

The People's Show Home, Sweets Way London - (Now destroyed by bailiffs).
See you all in the streets.

(All images are stolen - which I think means it's safe to say that I recognise that they are not my own work). 

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