Socialist Worker

Michael Rosen: There's no place like home

The housing crisis is caused by government policies that put the rights of the rich to get richer above the needs of tenants, writes Michael Rosen

Issue No. 2055

In a small block of flats a group of old people are becoming increasingly anxious. For years, they had been unable to get the council to do essential repairs and services. Then, seemingly out of the blue, came a solution – a housing association stacked with cash could take over the block, and all the jobs that needed doing would be done.

All it needed was a vote in favour of the change. So the old people voted to have the housing association take over.

The block is nothing to write home about, but it happens to be in an area where property prices are going through the ceiling. So the old building is suddenly worth millions of pounds.

The housing association has a plan: get the old people out of the block, then, either pull the block down and build something bigger or upgrade what's there.

Either way, use the space and rent it out to wealthy professionals. The old people can be put somewhere else.

So now the old people start to have concerns. Where will this new block be?

Then there's the plan for the warden. At present they've got a live-in warden who can be contacted any time in an emergency.

The idea is that there'll be a mobile warden who will service several blocks. If you fall over, or get into difficulty, then you ring the mobile warden and he or she will drive over to see you.

It's possible that the warden will be seeing someone else at another block while you're lying on the floor of your bathroom.

But the warden will come and see you. Eventually.

Pressure on the spaces that poor people live in is being exerted all over the world. It may look very different in the different situations but the basic process is the same.

So millions of people in the world find that they can't feed themselves in the countryside, often because they've had to switch from growing things they can eat to growing things for cash, and yet the cash is too little to live off.

People head for the cities where there is quite literally nowhere for them to live.

Meanwhile in the big cities of the West, where government policy has stoked the housing market, and capitalism is having a feeding frenzy on the back of a property boom, something less visible is going on.

Because living space is becoming more and more expensive, it's being divided up for those with little or no money into smaller and smaller parcels.

Meanwhile, everyone below a certain level of income is ending up in spaces that are being shared by more people.

Young, poor and not-so-well-off people are living with their parents for much longer.

People setting up on their own for the first time are having to do it in groups – nothing wrong with that per se – but it's in spaces that are often too small to make living easy.

Old people, like the ones I've mentioned, are being squeezed or moved around and their services cut.

The Thatcher-Blair 'revolution' enabled tenants in council flats and houses to buy.

In one stroke, they slashed poor people's living standards.

It enabled one generation of people to make a bit of money from the spaces that philanthropists and socialists had struggled for a hundred years or more to provide in perpetuity for millions of people on low income, while cutting off the availability of such living space to all the following generations.

One way of looking at this is to simply say, 'Oh well, it's the market. There's nothing you can do. If you controlled or rationed housing, the price of property would collapse and capitalism would collapse with it.'

To this we can say firstly that the council house sell-off was an act of the government, not of the 'free' market.

It's a perfect example of how governments use their power to assist and pump-prime the market to the ultimate benefit of those who own and control property, and for the ultimate squeeze on the living standards and conditions of those who don't.

A Labour government worth its salt could and should have reversed the policy on council house sell-offs. At the same time it should have instructed local councils to use the millions of empty buildings they either owned or controlled and to requisition derelict factory space for affordable housing too.

Instead, much of this has been sold off (including old school premises) so that rich landlords can get richer.

One of the reasons why this country had such a massive publicly owned housing stock is that after the Second World War resistance over housing reached a peak.

A wave of rent strikes and occupations of unused government property helped force the Labour government into a surge of council house building.

Now what would happen if the old people in the block just refused to leave?


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Tue 12 Jun 2007, 19:56 BST
Issue No. 2055
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