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The Continuing Housing Crisis

We are told by the media and by pressure groups such as Shelter that there is a “Housing crisis” which demands government action. These groups believe that the right government policy on housing provision will eradicate the problem. They are wrong.

The “Housing crisis” is not new. The statute book is full of housing reforms enacted to solve the “housing crisis”; late 19th century slum clearance and Municipal Housing, the Liberal government’s 1919 Housing and Town Planning act on Rent restrictions followed by the Labour Government’s 1965 Rent Act (both an unmitigated failure), the 1961 Parker- Morris minimum space standards which were repealed by the Thatcher government because they were too expensive; the post -1945 Council House building boom which has seen many of these estates raised to the ground because they were badly built or unliveable, Building Regulations so complex that it has created a micro-industry of consultants in order for builders to comply with; planning acts, government white and green papers, political initiatives, council housing acts and so on right up to the present day.

There is so much regulation that it often takes longer to obtain all the necessary consents for a housing development than it does to build the houses. And many of the houses are still sub-standard, prone to faults and complaints from users that they are not fit for purpose.

The cause of inadequate working class housing, either in the public or private sector and the inability of workers to get the housing they need derives from the fact that the capitalist class own the means of production and distribution including land. The capitalists do not produce housing to meet human need but for profit. For the capitalist class this is not a problem; they get their bespoke luxury houses because of the wealth they have at their disposal.

Yet there is another contradictory feature about capitalism as a profit driven system and that is in the speculative nature of housing for profit. Developers even when they have the ability to build working class housing whether for “first time buyers” or the “Young executives” are quite content not to build but to speculate. So it comes as no surprise to learn that Property developers are sitting on more than 300000 plots with planning permission but have no intention of building houses despite a severe housing need throughout the country. They pass on schemes with planning permission to other developers or wait to the price of housing to increase (DAILY TELEGRAPH 14th September 2011)

Socialists point to the continuing housing crisis as an example of the failure of reforms and the inability of capitalism to meet the needs of all society. And part of the problem is the reformers themselves. They believe capitalism can be reformed to provide decent housing for everyone. As part of their futile reformist programme Shelter highlight the failure of capitalism’s politicians and governments but are unable to do anything about these problems. A social reformer under capitalism is a job for life. Here are a few of Shelter’s facts and figures:

* More than two million people find their rent or mortgage a constant struggle or are falling behind with payments.
* Against a background of mounting debt across the country, huge numbers of homeowners are having their homes repossessed, because they are no longer able to keep up with their mortgage repayments.
* Second home ownership is pricing local people out of many rural areas.
* Over 1.7 million households are currently waiting for social housing.
* Some homeless households - many with dependent children - wait for years in temporary accommodation.
* Families renting privately on low incomes have to put up with poor living conditions and little security.
* The number of new households is increasing faster than the number of house builds.
* And at the sharpest end, many hundreds of people sleep rough on the streets every night, cold and fearing for their safety

And Shelter also gives the housing crisis in numbers

* 1.4 million children in England live in bad housing.
* In 2008/09, 654,000 households in England were overcrowded.
* In 2009 the number of repossessions rose to 48,000 from 25,900 in 2007, and it is predicted that repossessions will remain high in the coming years.
* 7.4 million homes in England fail to meet the Government's Decent Homes Standard.
* The UK is now more polarized by housing wealth than at any time since the 19th century.
* In 2009/10, more than 62,000 households were found to be homeless by local authorities.
* At the end of September 2010, 49,000 households were living in temporary accommodation arranged by local authorities. Just over 38,000 of these households had dependent children.
http://england.shelter.org.uk/campaigns/why_we_campaign/the_housing_crisis

And the housing problem highlights the on-going failure of the Labour Party. Despite the last Labour government promising to end the housing crisis and eradicate child poverty both still persist.

Of course, the capitalist class get the best housing. The homes of the rich and wealthy are constantly highlighted on property porn web sites and television programmes. Apparently the most expensive flat in the world, at £6,000 per square feet sits atop the 82 other apartments at the famous Number One Hyde Park address. Apparently guarded by the SAS, with special features such a panic rooms, bulletproof windows, iris scanners and even a secret tunnel to the nearby Mandarin Hotel, the apartment is the biggest of all the luxury flats in the One Hyde Park. The building boasts communal spas, squash courts and even wine tasting rooms while this apartment has 24-hour room service despite the floor to ceiling refrigerators. A snip at $200 million. Workers will of course provide the security, clean the rooms, wash the laundry, open the front door, park the car, pour the wine, cook the food, make the bed, draw the curtains, maintain the building but what they will not do is live there.
http://www.bornrich.com/entry/top-10-most-expensive-homes-from-around-the-world/

The Conservative Party have long offered the working class the illusion that they can begin the property ladder to end up at One Hyde part. Aspirational politics they call it. It is just fantasy capitalism. Most workers in their 20’s and 30’s cannot afford the deposit for a mortgage and those that do are helped out by relatives. Many young families are forced to live with parents. Converting a garage to a bedroom for a son or daughter is becoming as lucrative for architects as it is to turn them into a space for an elderly relative. A garage is a space for a car not a human being.

Conservative property owning democracy and “Right to Buy” were designed to get working class votes away from the Labour Party and in the ideological belief that workers living in mortgaged houses were less likely to take part in the class struggle than those living in local authority rented accommodation. Of course the Labour party thought it would get votes from its Municipal Housing programmes which it pursued as a policy after the Second World War. The Labour Party’s Council Housing policy had nothing to do with Socialism; it was not “Socialist” Housing and like its Rent Acts was an unmitigated disaster.

Not as though idealistic architects did not try to create working class houses fit to live in. Take as an example Park Hill Estate in Sheffield: As factories and workshops attracted industrial workers to Sheffield in the 19th century, row upon row of ‘back-to-backs’ sprang up, deteriorating into slum dwellings by the 1920s. Park Hill ‘streets in the sky’, originally built to great international acclaim in the 1960s, suffered dilapidation and decline during the 1980s. They have now been largely restored and are populated with “professional” workers at an asking price starting at £90,000 per flat nowhere near the means of the poorly paid and unemployed who used to live there. This writer, when visiting Park Hill estate in the late 1970’s was told not to say he was an architect so as not to unleash the fury of the residents who had to live there. The housing estate is now listed.

Engels was writing about the Housing question in the late 19th century. His remarks are as valid today as when he first wrote them:

As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly to hope for an isolated solution of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of the workers. The solution lies in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the appropriation of all the means of life and labour by the working class itself (THE HOUSING QUESTION 1872)
http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/housing-question/index.htm

Capitalism is the cause of the social problems that affect the working class today. As Engels’s pointed out over 140 years ago there is no “Housing crisis”. There is no reason why sufficient good houses are built to meet the housing needs of all society. The raw resources exist and so do the factories and the building materials. The builders, architects, transport drivers, structural engineers and other involved in the construction of houses also exist.

What, then, prevents good houses being built and people’s housing needs being met? The simple fact is that there is not a market for well-built houses meeting people’s needs since most workers cannot afford such housing. And workers will never have their housing needs met under capitalism because of the restrictions imposed by the wages system. The so-called “Housing crisis” is nothing more than an aspect of the poverty problem of the working class caused by private ownership of the means of production and distribution.

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