The Right to Housing Is an Election Issue
Part 1 – A Public Housing System Is a Requisite of a Modern Society
An important issue in the coming general election is the right to housing, to which all parties are having to respond. The price of housing has been frequently making the headlines recently, with prices reaching absurd levels in some areas. In Oxford, for example, average house prices have now surpassed 16 times average salaries according to research earlier this year by Prof Danny Dorling of Oxford University. Rents are similarly high. This makes for a massively inefficient situation, with some 45,000 commuters per day travelling to the city for work, according to figures published in The Guardian. Even in the cheapest cities, houses are around six times local earnings.
Soaring prices are an issue particularly for young workers, who make up the bulk of first-time buyers. Many in high-price areas are abandoning the idea of buying and are instead renting, often shared with a number of others, and often on a temporary basis, which is a real block on young people finding the stability they need to build a life and family. Furthermore, combined with the ongoing economic crisis, high house prices and rents have resulted in rising homelessness and growing waiting lists for council houses.
Out of this situation have come calls for more social housing and affordable housing (defined as 80% of the market rate). In general, it is claimed that there is a shortage of housing, with high prices a result of increased demand with reduced supply. Missing from this is any discussion of the monopolisation of the housing market and the results of actions by big property investors and developers, mortgage lenders and the financial oligarchy as a whole, with its demand for ever-higher prices, and deliberate policy decisions by governments acting in these interests, especially over the past 35 years.
Housing is important for any economy, any social system. Housing is a basic necessity for the population, just as health care, education, and social rights. The work and materials required for building and maintenance also forms an important sector of industry. For contemporary capitalism in particular, property is a key asset, where rising prices and rents provide a safe investment foraccumulated wealth, as well as an opportunity for big scores. The resulting growth and inevitable bursting of housing bubbles is an ever-present threat to the economy; we need only recall that mortgage-lending was a big factor in the present crisis.
Meanwhile, the real issue for the ordinary population is the need for a decent quality of housing. The people’s need for security and stability, particularly later in life, requires them also to enter into the property market in the present conditions. This is an additional pressure on the price of housing, and creates contradictions within the population as to who benefits from higher prices and who suffers at any particular time.
What is required is a modern system of public housing, in line with a modern definition of a human standard of living, learning the lessons of the past, as a basic right. At the same time, the right to a standard of life from birth to death needs to be recognised through a pension system that removes the reliance on individual investments. A modern system of housing would itself be a factor in developing the economy, part of changing the direction of the economy to a pro-social direction. It would provide work and help rebalance the economy through the development of industry, removing its dependence on house prices, and provide an impetus towards lifting the economy out of its current quagmire in that new direction.
A look at the history of public housing in Britain reveals how it developed between the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century, to its heyday in the welfare state era following the Second World War. The history also shows how it was abandoned, particularly in the Thatcher era with the dismantling of the welfare state arrangements and the launching of the anti-social offensive, and how it went into crisis, with council housing becoming run down. Council housing estates have become the new urban slums in some cases, areas of deprivation and poverty. Both the history and the experience of the present reveal the need for an alternative.
This alternative is a modern public housing system, so that public housing is brought to the levels required by society and can become the new norm. This is in opposition to the ongoing monopolisation of the housing system, which is creating havoc in the economy and with people’s lives.
(To be continued: Part 2, A brief history of public housing; Part 3, An investigation into the monopolisation of the housing market by big property developers and investors.)