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Coronavirus Has Exposed the Dysfunction of Housing in Britain

Whether it's landlords demanding rent from penniless tenants or construction magnates forcing unsafe sites to stay open, coronavirus has revealed the reality of Britain's housing game – and how it's rigged for the rich.

I recently heard someone in the football industry say the current situation has exposed the game’s finances as unsustainable and it’s time to “press the reset button.” The same should be said, with far greater urgency, about housing policy. To suspend evictions is close to blasphemy for a Tory government (and unsurprisingly, they’ve already diluted the announcement saying they would do so). But, alongside the massive economic survival package, it shows the potential of this period. When the crisis is over, we have a choice about whether to go back to normal or demand lasting changes that mean housing, at least, is better able to withstand the next one. 

A sudden economic shock has shown how unbalanced and unstable our housing system has become, particularly for the 20% of the population who are private tenants. They are typically paying 50% (or more) of their income on rent, totalling £50 billion a year. As one of them said to me last week, this has become normal. But it isn’t. In the 1950s, on average, rent only consumed 10% or less of income.

When I was a private tenant in Sheffield in the late 1980s, my rent was £20 a week. Since then, the cost of a room in the same shared house has quadrupled. And of course, today council tenants pay far less in rent than other renters. On the estate where I work, a private tenant living next door to a council tenant, in an identical home, will be paying at least twice as much in rent, with far less certainty about their housing future – and quite possibly living in overcrowded conditions that is now an even greater risk to their health. 

Coronavirus is acting as a social magnifying glass. We’re now seeing just how dependent our economies have become on property speculation and rent. According to one of the parasite companies of this industry, Savills, global real estate is valued at US$228 trillion. They say that is thirty-five times more than all the gold ever mined. Housing constitutes 75% of the total. Given this, it’s hardly surprising that big developers have been reluctant to close down their sites.

I was recently in San Francisco where some of these forces play out with the most brutal impact. One morning, I decided to try to count the number of street homeless people within a half-mile radius of where I was staying in downtown. I reached one hundred within twenty minutes and stopped. If it was a country, California would be the seventh richest on earth. So as coronavirus struck, it was the most bitter irony to hear the state governor say people should stay at home.

In the latest obscene twist, the UK government has suddenly decided it’s not OK for people to be living on the streets and ordered local councils to find them all a home immediately. We’ll see whether this has any more credibility than Theresa May’s pledge to rehouse the Grenfell survivors within weeks. But what it proves is that, as we’ve always known, there’s plenty of housing to go around. Some people are hoarding it, which is a far bigger scandal than the controversy over toilet roll.

The capitalist housing system is incapable of recognising anything other than the financial exchange value of a home. The current UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, Leilani Farha, is quite right when she says we need a “bold shift” in our thinking about housing and a “move away from housing as a place to park excess capital, to housing as a place to live in dignity, to raise families and participate in community.”

When her predecessor, Raquel Rolnik, visited the UK in 2013, we discussed how relentless attacks on council housing and the austerity agenda had stretched the social fabric of working class communities to their limits. Several commentators have made similar observations in recent days, linking our rearguard action against coronavirus to decades of underinvestment and privatisation of public services. This reached such a point that civil society itself is fractured and broken.

We can rebuild it and the response to the crisis proves it. From adversity, a new appreciation of who and what matters in society has flourished. As we always knew, street cleaners, delivery drivers and the NHS are more important than bankers and the stock exchange. We must keep that spirit alive when it’s over. A right-wing Conservative government has been compelled to adopt the type of policies normally associated with a reformist Labour one.

Imagine if we had a government that genuinely cared about looking after people and our planet all of the time, instead of intervening when big business demanded it. There hasn’t been a more critical moment since 1945 to demand the kind of future we want. Because it touches on every aspect of our lives, particularly health, housing must be at the forefront.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Over recent years, various grassroots campaigns have been doggedly developing policy demands that, if implemented, would bring fundamental change. These are distilled in the resolution passed at the Labour Party’s 2019 conference which is as good a starting point as any. It advocates more rights for private tenants, including a permanent ban on “no fault” evictions, stricter controls of corporate housing associations, action on empty homes, the end of Right-to-Buy and for 155,000 new social rented homes to be built annually for 20 years, of which at least 100,000 should be council homes, paid for with £10 billion of direct government investment – or about 3% of what the government has spent so far on the current emergency. 

But there’s a housing emergency too and it’s been around for longer than coronavirus. The Office for National Statistics estimates 726 homeless people died in 2019, a 22% increase on the year before. It seems inevitable it will rise again in 2020 and probably would have, even without the pandemic. But these tragic figures conceal the deeper nature of the housing malaise. Shelter research from 2017 suggested 1-in-5 people attribute their mental ill health to poor housing, a link that has generally been under-acknowledged. The main reason housing makes people sick is that it costs too much, including for those we’re now depending on.

In 2006, Defend Council Housing produced a pamphlet, The Case for Council Housing in 21st Century Britain. Most of the arguments stand up today. In a particularly poignant and relevant passage, the late Professor Peter Ambrose writes that nurses and other public service workers couldn’t afford housing in 97% of UK towns. He concludes “the vast majority of us live in places where nurses cannot afford to house themselves. And when you need a nurse, you need a nurse.”

Recovery from this period will be long and difficult, but housing campaigners and the wider labour movement must be ready for a fight. The ‘we’re all in this together’ stuff won’t last any longer than it took Cameron to say it in 2008. Just like then, the vultures will be waiting in the trees. When millions lost their homes through the credit crunch, Blackstone, the giant global property conglomerate, were spending $100 million a week scavenging in the wreckage, buying repossessed family homes and repackaging them for the private rental market. They and others like them will be seeing coronavirus as a commercial opportunity. 

We need homes the profiteers can’t get their hands on and people don’t lose when there’s a financial or health crisis, whether that’s personal or societal. The case for council housing has never been stronger, but we must adjust the scale of our thinking. There’s been a welcome revival of local authorities building homes again, about 14,000 in the last five years (although many have higher rents than they should).

But with the coronavirus crisis being compared with wartime, let’s use the same comparison for how we recover. It’s an oft-quoted statistic, but bears frequent repetition: between 1949 and 1952, 860,870 new homes were built in the UK, of which 82% were built through public authorities. During the four decades after the war, at least 110,000 council homes were built a year. 

With interest rates at near zero, thousands of acres of public land available and the likelihood that many people will be needing work, when this is over, we can use a new generation of high-quality, energy-efficient council housing to start building a healthier, happier and fairer society.