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Working Class Housing and Capitalism

The fact that the working class occupy cramped, ill-designed and utilitarian housing, if they can get any at all, will be no surprise to Socialists. Like many other commodities, even when newly built housing for workers is meagre, cramped and close to slum conditions; this is as true now as when Engels wrote of the Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 and later in his pamphlet THE HOUSING QUESTION.

The fact is that workers suffer from many types of poverty, and housing is an obvious example. As a class, it is poverty which drives us onto the labour market, renting ourselves out for wages which are rarely much more than just about what is needed to keep our families alive from payday to payday. Such wages may be enough just to pay for the rent of a room or a flat or maybe a poky, terraced, 2.5 bed-room cottage.

But even in the halcyon years after the Second World War, it was a tough struggle to save enough for a £500 deposit to get a mortgage from a building society, with a never-ending commitment to pay the instalments. Even then, this 'home ownership' dream could be a nightmare: with joblessness and unemployment, such workers could then be repossessed, and then join their fellows on the council housing waiting list - back to Square One.

Poverty and insecurity are defining features of the working class, just as much now as 100 or 200 years ago.

The Bartlett School of Planning has carried out the first UK nationwide audit of new housing schemes since 2007. The conclusion of the report attacked the standard of design it investigated.

UCL's Bartlett School of Planning examined 140 housing developments built in England since 2007 and concluded that 74 per cent of them should have either been rejected outright by planning authorities or only allowed to proceed with 'significant improvements' to their

The Architectural Journal commented:

"A common flaw is low-density developments unconnected to surrounding areas and lacking amenities, such as shops, green spaces or public transport links. The report says that many rely on car dependency, with driving necessary to get anywhere useful, and little provision for cyclists or pedestrians.

The research showed that individual house builders were able to produce both high-quality and low-quality schemes - the affluence of the location was the biggest determinant of quality, with less well-off areas 10 times more likely to get badly designed housing
".

But isn't the problem here that private house builders' primary aim is to make profit? Persimmon was behind several of the developments audited in the Bartlett Report such as Plymouth's Palmerston Heights, previously criticised for its design shortcomings in the OBSERVER. Here are the views of some of the wretched occupants of Palmerston Heights.

The closeness of the homes makes housing association tenant Ashlie Austin, 24, feel uncomfortable. "Everything is so squeezed in, so close together," she said. She gestured down her hallway towards a window overlooking the rows below: "You can see them in their bathroom. I don't like it and it must be hard for them."

"Almost every house has young families in, but there is literally nothing here for kids at the moment," said Denning, 23, ... "They have to play on the road. Sometimes we move all the cars, so they at least have somewhere to run around."
(OBSERVER 19 January 2020)

Significantly some of the worst 'slums of the future- have been and are being built for the so-called housing associations, which took over local councils' housing estates and responsibility for housing families on council waiting lists. Such housing associations, originally charities, are now powerful and profitable land and property development businesses. As 'slumlords', an American word often used to describe the President's son-in-law, housing associations are among the worst you could experience in their cheap, jerry-built housing and callous treatment of their unfortunate tenants.

Like the OBSERVER, the Bartlett Report says nothing about the profit motive, and totally ignores why capitalism and the wages system prevents workers from getting the housing they need. The wages system rations what workers can and cannot buy, which includes housing, forcing many to live with family and friends, and in some cases on the street.

Persimmon's shareholders won't be complaining; last year it made record profits of £1.09 billion. There is pressure to build more working class housing but it will always be mean and second best. Not so the luxury apartments along the River Thames or the gated "Executive Houses" advertised in the TIMES and TELEGRAPH newspapers. That is the luxury which comes with owning and controlling the means of production and distribution.

A common excuse given for the ever-shrinking size of workers' living space is the high cost of land, even before any foundations are laid. Once the houses are built, that high initial price has to be recovered, and all along the line there are businesses looking for profits. The 'lead developer' will have employed many other firms, and they in turn will have sub-contracted other firms - and all of these will be waiting to take their cut. But the development starts with the purchase of land, and building development companies all hold sizeable land banks. These are held till the market makes it most profitable to embark on development - in short, there is hoarding and speculation on a vast and cynical scale. As a result, development of working-class housing is overpriced, and all too many workers find themselves priced out of the market - and even when in work may become homeless.

The Bartlett Report is a reformist report which does not understand the social system in which it was written. It calls for reforms not revolution. However housing reforms have been acted for over a hundred years and the problems associated with working class housing remain.

The ARCHITECTURAL JOURNAL asked its readers who was primarily to blame for the poor quality of new housing over the past 13 years: architects, volume house builders, local councils or the government.

What you were not allowed to vote on in the poll was capitalism as the cause of poor housing design and construction.

Architects have to work within the cost parameters set out by the developers. Volume house developers are there to maximise the investments of their share-holders. Local councils have to work within a library of planning legislation and central government-imposed bureaucracy. An extension to a house built 100mm too great has a planning notice served on the occupier while a developer's planning consultants run rings around local authority planners. Cash-strapped Local Authorities are also dependent upon the Community infrastructure Levy and 106 agreements. As for central government it has to serve the interest of the volume housing developers. And housing reforms and regulations come and go, often with catastrophic consequences such as the fire at Grenfell Tower.

Under capitalism millions of workers do not have a say in how their houses are built, where they are located and the criteria used to build them. They are just locked out of the construction process. Occasionally some workers build their own homes but it is rare. In most cases the designers of houses never meet the final occupants. There is no discussion of their needs. Houses are built with little or no flexibility to expand to meet changing family needs. More and more young children are raised in cramped unsuitable congested conditions, more and more kids have nowhere private to do school homework in peace, and more young adults are now stuck, unable to leave home.

Under capitalism workers get working class housing. And working class housing changes but so does the housing enjoyed by the capitalist class. As Marx noted:

A house may be large or small; as long as the neighbouring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut. The little house now makes it clear that its inmate has no social position at all to maintain, or but a very insignificant one; and however high it may shoot up in the course of civilization, if the neighbouring palace rises in equal or even in greater measure, the occupant of the relatively little house will always find himself more uncomfortable, more dissatisfied, more cramped within his four walls.
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/ch06.htm

Housing in socialism

What of housing design in socialism? How will socialists plan houses and the infrastructure in which housing will take place?

Socialism will have to solve the problem of poor housing as it exists throughout the world. Good housing will have to be built as quickly as possible where the needs are located often linked to sanitation, electricity, communication, drinking water, health care and education. If the Chinese government can attempt to build a hospital in the city of Wuhan in six days in order to treat patients suspected of contracting the coronavirus, then a socialist society would have construction techniques, workers and materials ready to rapidly solve the global housing crisis currently caused by capitalism.

Once socialism solves the problems of poverty caused by capitalism then a more considered approach to housing can be entertained. How do people in a socialist society want to live? How will houses adapt to new ways of living? How will a socialist society determine how houses are constructed and what they will look like? These are question for the future. The question now is how to persuade our class that as their needs will never be met under capitalism we need to take democratic and political action as socialists to construct a future where we can design and build housing such that we are not forced to see our neighbour's bathrooms and where our children can play safely, living in housing that meets their needs.

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