The housing crisis and fighting back

Submitted by Matthew on 6 December, 2017 - 12:44 Author: Rosalind Robson and Gemma Short
Housing crisis

Britain has a housing crisis. According to Shelter more than 300,000 people — the equivalent to one in every 200 — are homeless or living in inadequate homes. According to official figures 1.3 million people are on a local authority waiting list for housing. By 2020, 25% of people will be renters, rather than home owners. Londoners now spend 40% of their income on rent, and increasing.

In 2016, 100 people a day were evicted from their rented homes, partly as a consequence of private-rented tenancies being made less secure. According to the government 28% of these rented homes can be considered “non-decent”. The government recognises there is a housing crisis. Unfortunately three recent governmental policy interventions — the November budget, this year's Housing White Paper and the recent Greater London Authority Strategic Plan for London — will do little or nothing to solve the crisis.

These interventions all make the mistake of assuming the housing crisis can be solved by adjusting the housing market.

New targets for building homes — the government now says it wants 300,000 new homes to be built in England per year — are not primarily about meeting critical housing needs or building homes that people can afford to live in. Although the figure is close to what is estimated to be needed, it is derived from what is assumed will “balance” the market and bring house prices and rents into line with wages. Indeed the government White Paper is called “Fixing our broken housing market”.

Hence all planning of the massive building programme (if it can be achieved) will be based on a mix of “housing products”, homes to buy and homes to rent. Of the homes to rent, some will be “affordable”. “Affordable” has become the most cynically over-used and mis-used word in housing. “Affordable” almost never means genuine social housing with rents substantially below market rents. Many affordable housing projects simply put money into the pockets of developers and housing associations and the better-off. For instance the government’s budget brought in an exemption on Stamp Duty for first-time buyers. But this is going to benefit people who were likely to become homeowners anyway!

Central to both the White Paper and Sadiq Khan’s Strategic Plan is the idea that local authorities should be able to more easily dish out planning permission. It is argued that this will enable building to proceed more swiftly. Most likely in London, big developers will build more high rises around tube and rail stations, housing which is little more than storage units for overworked humans. Moreover, a potential problem with speeding up planning permission is that there is even less local accounability over so-called regeneration projects, for instance less time and ability for local residents to oppose compulsory purchase orders — a mechanism that was used to shift thousands of council tenants from north Southwark as the local authority green-lighted the demolition of council homes and sold off land to property developers.

That the Tories have been forced to change their narrative on home ownership is interesting. Home ownership may remain “the dream”, but as building housing for rent has become an urgent necessity, especially in areas that are needed for jobs (especially in south east England) attention has focused on rent poverty. The government’s Affordable Homes Programme will now not only include “help to buy” but some discounted rental property projects. This will not tackle the problem of rent poverty, as discounted rents are typically 80% of market rent — a very high level, especially in London. Otherwise, again, the government is relying on increasing housing supply to fix the problem of unaffordable rents.

The idea of a market fix underpins the GLA’s — now a Labour authority — plan for London. Beyond running transport and some other infrastructure, the GLA's role is more to co-ordinate and systematise planning across London. Its housing plans follow the line of providing “mixed housing products” of rented and buyable homes. Kahn has said that in return for getting swift planning permission, property developers should ensure 50% of all new developments are based on “affordables”. The devil is in the details.

This is no radical proposal. Of those “affordables”, a 30 per cent minimum should have the London Affordable Rent. Currently that is 80% of the market rent. Kahn has only vaguely said he would like that percentage to be lower. A further 30 per cent minimum of the affordables should be Shared Ownership or the London Living Rent, a scheme that is also linked to eventual ownership. The rest of the affordables, Khan has said, should be based on need, but this is assumed to be at the London Affordable Rent level. Where is London’s council housing programme?

Although it is now marginally easier for councils to be home builders, very little is going on or even being talked about. Moreover, none of these so-called new affordable schemes are affordable! At least not to households below the £60,000 annual income bracket. We need to remember that in London, one in every 59 people is homeless. Of the top 50 local authority homelessness “hotspots”, 18 are in Greater London. Newham, where one in 27 residents is homeless, is the borough which saw the biggest regeneration project in living memory (the Olympics), and it is the worst hit.

Labour has said it will build 100,000 social homes a year (i.e. typically homes to rent at 50% of market rents) when in government . It is far from clear that these social homes will be through housing developments that are exclusively social housing rather than "mixed housing product" schemes. Labour needs to have an exclusively council housing programme, based on the needs of all areas across the UK, and not just the south-east of England. It should back off from “Help to Buy” schemes which simply put money into the pockets of big developers. Labour's other commitments to introduce controls on rent rises should be strengthened.

The way to fix rent poverty is to introduce a rent cap for both private and public housing, fixed at median earnings. That needs to be backed up by life-long tenancies and other rights for tenants.

Labour members fight council’s demolition plan

“There’s lots of opportunities in that area”, “but obstacles too ...”, “it’s currently mainly a working class area, the high street is dominated by a big Morrisons, Costa, B&M home stores”.

The conversation of a group of property developers I can overhear as I’m sat in a public cafe writing this article. Previous to moving on to discuss the possibilities to line their pockets through bulldozing another community, they had been discussing the toppling of the councillors who were the architects, and their supporters, of the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV) — the £2bn sell-off and “regeneration” of council property in Haringey, north London.

The HDV was not in the 2014 council election manifesto, both CLPs and MPs oppose it, but Labour members and large demonstrations of affected residents and their supporters have been ignored, and treated with contempt by councillors. Residents have found out about demolition plans from planning papers or the press, rather than being told by the council.

The proposed HDV described the process of moving residents out of their long-term homes as “decanting”. Residents have no guarantee of a home to return to. The councillors’ behaviour was bound to catch up with them. The left across the borough is well organised, with the left in Hornsey and Wood Green have recently won the vast majority of GC delegates and officer positions, but this does not fully explain the scale of what has happened in the councillor selections in Haringey.

Many shortlisting and selection meetings have had over 100 members turn up to vote. The democratic process in the Labour Party has resulted in what was once a 30-19 pro-HDV council Labour group, becoming, at the time of writing, a 41-7 anti-HDV group of Labour council candidates, with some results still to come in.

“Aggressive purge” of “centrist councillors” screamed the front page of the Times, accompanied by other sensationalist nonsense in the Standard and other newspapers. Luke Akehurst, of Labour First, amongst others, has been agitating for the NEC to “suspend the selections and impose all candidates”.

Many incumbent councillors chose to withdraw from the selection process after suffering the apparent “indignity” of being “triggered” — i.e. not automatically made the candidate again, only given the automatic right to be on the shortlist and stand on their merits against other candidates in a vote of party members. For all the press and “twitterati” commentary of “Momentum taking over the council”, or “the first Corbynista council in Britain”, the reality is less simple. The dividing line was the HDV.

Although your position on the HDV has largely come to represent left and right, the anti-HDV majority is politically broad. And whilst Momentum sent out emails urging people to select councillors that will “represent the views of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership”, actually what councillors would do beyond opposing the HDV was barely discussed. This is now a priority for the left to discuss — what should the manifesto say, what positions should the councillors have on other cuts and privatisations?

Turning over the pro-HDV majority of the contemptuous Haringey Labour group is a big victory, and the result of a long and consistent campaign by the StopHDV campaign over the last year. Though the victory over the HDV is not assured, Alan Strickland, cabinet member for housing, regeneration and planning who stood down after he was not automatically reselected, vowed to keep “building on the foundations” of the plan over the next few months, and on “securing the long-term partnership that will deliver on behalf of Haringey’s residents for generations to come”. Despite opposition from residents, Labour members, both of the borough’s Labour MPs, and now the majority of councillors who may be elected in May 2018, it is possible the council will push on with setting up the joint-venture before the council elections bring in the new councillors.

An ongoing court case against the HDV will delay the signing of legal papers to set up the HDV long enough, but if not, the current council will try to prevent the new Labour group with a fait accompli. end

Private renters get organised

Richard Driver spoke to Acorn, who have been organising private renters’ unions.

Can you tell me some of the history of your campaign? How did Acorn start?

Our roots are in Acorn's fifty year history of organising low income folks to fight for economic and social justice. The organisation was originally founded in Arkansas, USA, by benefit claimant mums, and over forty years has organised 500,000 members across the USA, building direct action community, and trade, unions.

That organisation was destroyed by right-wing attacks in 2010 (though ex-chapters continue playing important roles in Fight for $15, Indivisible and more). In 2004, Acorn began supporting similar groups around the world, and in 2014 a small group of British union and direct action organisers began organising here. The idea was to organise large sections of the low-income population who are not well represented in existing unions. Acorn UK was launched in Bristol by 100 private renters in May 2014, voting to fight for decent, secure affordable homes.

Today we number 1000 members and 15000 supporters in eight branches across England (and our sister organisation Living Rent Tenant's Union in Scotland is also Acorn affiliated).

What do Acorn members do?

Acorn members are engaged in local grassroots organising, training organisers and building our democratic membership and leadership structures across our cities, and in our neighbourhoods and campuses etc. We run direct action fights at local, city and national level. This ranges from organising members to defend themselves when faced with eviction, unsafe homes, deposit theft etc, to mobilising nationally (for example last year we held a day of action, successfully persuading Santander bank to stop demanding their buy to let mortgage holders raise tenants’ rent).

How do you relate to other housing campaigns and the wider labour movement? Why is a campaign like Acorn necessary?

We absolutely consider ourselves a component of a much wider organising and mobilising initiatives for justice and want to ally with others to be more than the sum of our parts. The main difference is that our orientation is about organising low-income people into a mass, democratic, direct-action union structure that can build their power on any and all the intersecting issues that affect us, so we put the question of "who" before the question of "what".

The housing crisis is such a huge aspect of inequality, and one of the most brutal symptoms of it, that it's natural our work so far has been housing focussed, but it can't be separated from welfare (Universal Credit delays causing evictions for example — something we will fight), the low-pay/casual economy, so-called "austerity" (there's nothing "austere" about handing public wealth over to the rich!).

Low-income people, increasingly unrepresented in trade unions, or even shut out of real work altogether, need a flexible, direct action-orientated mass organisation, to build power on all these issues, so our focus is on organising, but in campaign terms that can mean building our own but it can also mean supporting others, networking and building solidarity between groups and joining wider movements.

Politically, Acorn is independent and not affiliated to any political party or programme. That's important to us, so that anyone who finds themselves agreeing with what we are doing can feel comfortable getting involved. That doesn't mean we don't engage in politics and we will push politicians and candidates hard in various ways! We do feel part of the wider union movement, and work closely with trade unions. We're extremely grateful to the CWU for hosting our main office in Bristol, and to other unions for encouraging their members to get involved and for affiliating and making donations.

What does Acorn advocate as a solution to the housing crisis and how does it organise for that goal?

That's a hard question, because fundamentally we're talking about inequality and an economy that simply doesn't work for the majority. But there are short and mid-term solutions we're fighting hard for such as rent control, longer tenancies and an end to Section 21 "no reason evictions”, a national licensing and registration scheme for landlords, an end to the right to buy and a mass social house building programme.

Of course, grassroots solutions like community housebuilding and housing coops are important too. But also, we need movement on decent jobs, pay rises, and a real welfare programme etc.

How can people support Acorn?

Please join and get involved. Become a member at. If there's a branch locally we'll train you and get you involved.

Otherwise, if you're serious about organising where you are, we'll help, and if you're in a trade union or similar group, donations and affiliations let our organisers keep paying rent!

• Acorn

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