Just like at the time that Engels wrote The Housing Question in 1872, there is an acknowledged housing crisis in the UK today. Also, just like then, it’s mainly acknowledged as a crisis because it’s got so bad that even middle class people are being affected by it too.
Just like the instability that capitalism causes in industry with its cycles of boom and bust, housing conditions seem to peak and trough. In better times, people have relatively secure tenure, minimum standards are enforced and their housing is affordable. In worse times, people are constantly being uprooted and displaced by forces they have no control over, conditions deteriorate and housing costs take away an increasing proportion of their incomes.
What’s changed since then?
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1872. In that era in England, the vast majority of people rented their homes from private landlords. The 20th century saw big changes in housing tenure for the working population. From 1919, councils were required to provide some form of social housing, partly due to the number of soldiers returning from the first world war and needing to have somewhere to live. After the second world war, again with the return of the soldiers and the fact that some city centres had been badly damaged by bombing, there was an intense housing crisis which resulted in a mass squatting movement and people putting up their own unregulated housing developments in some places (Heslop 2015). A huge council house building programme, combined with finishing most of the inter-war job of slum clearances, meant that more social housing was being put up than private right up until the late 50s. During the rest of the 20th century the proportion of people privately renting fell continuously, and the proportions of people living in social housing or owning their homes steadily rose, peaking at roughly 30% in 1981 and around 70% in 1997 respectively. Since then, private rented housing has made a rapid come back. The number of people occupying homes with private Assured Shorthold Tenancies has doubled in the last 10 years and currently stands at about 20%.
This swing back towards the private rented sector has come along with all the problems associated with it from past times: overcrowding; homes failing to meet minimum decent standards; abuse and threats from landlords; and a lack of security. Assured Shorthold Tenancies are the result of 30 years of deregulation for landlords making it much easier to evict and to put rents up at the landlord’s will (Shelter 2014).
Clearing up the terms
A simple but worthwhile task is to clear up some of the terms we use for housing. If we are going to be able to talk about things in a coherent way we need to be confident with the terms we’re using:
- Privately rented housing – Housing rented from an individual landlord or a for-profit business.
- Slum – An area of poor quality private rented accommodation. It doesn’t need to have open sewers and it might not even look obviously bad from the streets outside but it’s a slum. Slums can be licensed like many houses of multiple occupation (BBC 2015) or unregulated accommodation such as Beds in Sheds (BBC 2014).
- Shanty town – A shanty town is different from a slum in that the occupants have constructed it for themselves. In the UK these are usually ‘tent cities’ on wasteland or around the edges of towns where there is an acute housing shortage (Manchester Evening News 2016).
- Social housing – Social housing is housing that is usually better quality, bigger, cheaper and more secure for tenants than privately rented housing. It includes housing associations (which can be run as anything from tenants’ mutuals to organisations that are barely distinguishable from a for-profit housing developer), council housing and also a patchwork of others such as housing co-operatives and community land trusts. Even some alms houses still remain.
Most of the best-known campaigns, groups and protests have been centred on London and the South East and have sprung up in just the last few years, although similar activity is bubbling up all over the country. There have been four primary forms that the housing struggle has taken:
- A struggle to hold on to social housing which is slowly but steadily being lost to redevelopment and being sold off under the ‘right to buy’ (e.g. Focus E15, Sweets Way Resists, the campaign to save the Aylesbury estate in South London).
- The fight against gentrification and the breaking up and displacing of working class communities (e.g. Class War’s campaign against the poor doors, the ‘Reclaim Brixton’ event)
- The emerging struggle against the worst of the new private landlords (e.g. eviction resistance which happens on a case by case basis, usually specifically focused on the most obviously unfair landlords, and London Coalition Against Poverty’s ‘direct action casework’).
- The fight for better treatment of those people who become homeless (the group ‘Streets Kitchen’ are an example of a group providing practical help and solidarity to those on the streets but also combining this with political and social activism).
What is going on?
Housing has become a commodity like any other in the sense that it is produced by labourers and sold by the developer at a profit. That happened a long time ago. But the money to be made out of housing doesn’t stop there and so the forces that shape our housing conditions don’t stop there either. Three things that are notable about the current trends in housing:
Firstly, despite the fact that 91% of private landlords only have one or two properties (Homelet 2015), these landlords are in a monopoly situation. We know that the law of value is the centre of gravity which prices of commodities revolve around but rental costs for housing are not directly related to value. Housing is essential, house prices are beyond a growing number of working class people’s reach and there is a recognised shortage of housing. All these three factors combine to put landlords in a position where they can charge rents at the highest level that the market will bear. They are not competing against each other for tenants. Instead, tenants are being forced to compete against each other for the chance to have somewhere to live.
Secondly, whilst gentrification is often talked about in terms of its effects on particular neighbourhoods, the process of gentrification is gradually pushing low paid and unemployed workers out of London and the South East entirely. A new benefit cap has recently came in which will put families with more than two children and who are on benefits on a road to eviction across the South East and all high rent areas. There will be no choice but for them to be rehoused somewhere cheaper. This is worsening the economic segregation between more skilled workers, who will be less vulnerable to technological unemployment and stay in the big cities where higher wages can be found, and less skilled workers who will be forced away.
Thirdly, it’s worth noting that the primary reason for the destruction of social housing in London and other places facing the same issues is that it represents an opportunity cost to developers. This process is a reflection of the way that, centuries ago, peasants were removed from their homes and their fields to make way for sheep which offered a greater return on investment. It is likely to create sparks which can turn into riots and other efforts at resistance, but it also mirrors enclosure in the sense that it’s happening bit by bit, not all at once, making it difficult to put up a united front of resistance to it.
What is special about the housing struggle?
The housing situation of the working class is sometimes treated as just another unpleasant symptom of the capitalist system. In some ways it’s fair enough: poor housing is a symptom, private landlords and speculators don’t fundamentally drive the capitalist economy – only commodity production can do that. But the struggle for better housing and towards a housing revolution has an important and special place. Why?
- Primitive accumulation was necessary for the formation of capitalism, both in terms of concentrating enough capital in the hands of the bourgeoisie for them to begin to invest in industry and also to create a class of landless workers with nothing to sell but their labour (Marx 1867). The condition of workers as dispossessed individuals with nothing to sell but their labour must also be maintained for capitalism to function properly. Housing costs are a big factor in forcing people to work longer hours and, over longer years, owning housing and land potentially could give people another source of income other than wages which might weaken the position of capitalists.
- Even at the peak of “home-ownership” in the UK, most people still owed huge mortgages, so for all intents and purposes the banks owned their homes and they were being milked for interest rather than rent, making little difference in practice. We’ve never really been in a position where a majority of workers have been owner occupiers without mortgages, and where we’ve come closest it’s been a temporary phenomenon owing to the fact that capital was expanding so rapidly after the second world war. All this has left us with is a stratum of the population inheriting these homes and becoming landlords for the next generation.
- In a situation where an increasing number of workers are also private tenants, we have to refer back to the fact that landlords are in a monopoly position. Any gains that we make at work will be taken away from us at home. If wages rise, rents will rise with them.
Private tenants are mostly being exploited by a petty bourgeoisie landlord class at the moment, but for the same reasons that industrial capitalists swallow each other up, capital in housing will amass into fewer hands. As the private rented sector increases in size we are also beginning to see some government regulation coming in that will professionalise this sector. Government regulations will be much more likely to force the smaller landlords out of business and again concentrate housing into the hands of bigger landlords. This will make tenants’ collective bargaining easier. Right now you could have a road full of privately rented homes and everyone with a different landlord. While conditions may be bad for everyone and rents are going up beyond what they can pay, it’s harder to organise effective resistance. With bigger corporate landlords, tenants’ unions will be able to organise rent strikes, more planned and systematic eviction resistance and other techniques for keeping the prices down and remaining in their homes against the forces of gentrification. Eventually these will be in a position to seize housing en-masse.
As more and more workers are becoming private tenants there is a growing need for workplace unions to also represent their members as tenants as well as workers. As mentioned above, any gains made at work can be taken away at home for private tenants. Only when the workplace struggle and the housing struggle are linked will we be able to avoid this. Whilst the private rented sector is still in its wild west, petty bourgeois, cowboy landlord stage with lots of little landlords along with wildly varying conditions, the best a tenants’ union will be able to do is to appoint housing advisors who are able to represent tenants in court against illegal evictions, illegal rent rises and dealing with unhygienic/unsafe unsuitable property at a time when council inspectors are finding themselves completely overwhelmed and unable to carry out the task of requiring landlords to keep properties at minimum standards effectively. They could also ensure that members get whatever statutory duty that they are owed by their local authority if a tenant does become homeless – again, this is at a time when councils have been shown to be avoiding their duties when people don’t know their rights.
Homelessness is on the rise sharply. Many towns and cities are seeing the erection of tent cities. Some are already engaged in struggles against their sites being cleared and being moved on. If this increase continues, the homeless poor in the developed world will need to look to movements such as ‘Abahlai baseMjondolo’ in South Africa and Brazil’s ‘Landless Workers Movement’ for tactics and strategy going forwards in terms of access to land and the chance to shelter themselves.