Why Can’t We House Everybody?

Ian Townson, a Lambeth housing activist, traces the contours of a housing crisis made worse by Tory policy

AT THE last election, all the mainstream parties issued their usual shopping list of measures to deal with the chronic housing crisis. The one thing they all lacked was a strategic plan for it.

Having relied for 30 to 40 years on a mix of market forces and so-called Public Private Partnerships to determine the supply of “affordable” accommodation, the result has been a miserable failure. House prices and rents have gone through the roof and are no longer affordable for ordinary working people.

In London, for example, the average house price was £172,000 in 2001, and £439,000 in 2014. A two bedroom flat in Brixton would cost £500,000. A one bedroom flat rental in Brixton’s Rushcroft Road costs £1,603 a month, and a four bedroom flat £3,098 a month.

The crisis has been exacerbated by repeated recessions in the construction industry and a shortage of skilled workers, which have crippled the pace of house building. Local authorities are prevented from building council housing, choking off the supply of affordable housing to workers on low incomes, while the “right to buy” scheme has further depleted the social housing stock without the promised like for like replacements.

And the ability of homeless people to house themselves by squatting empty buildings was restricted even further by Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary in the last coalition government.

In the absence of controls landlords charge exorbitant rents, squeezing workers’ incomes and imposing insecure “probationary” tenancies while ripping off housing benefit claimants. And with housing rights and benefits for under-25s under threat, there is a serious threat of increased homelessness, while thousands of properties are left empty.

The pernicious bedroom tax has imposed intolerable burdens on tenants forced either to take in “strangers” or to move, despite there being no properties for them to move into.

David Cameron’s pathetic response is to make things worse by extending “right to buy” to include housing association properties as well as council housing, while indulging in short-term gimmicks.

His attempt to turn “generation rent” into “generation buy” consists of getting private developers to offer a 20 per cent discount to first time buyers. But with house prices rocketing, you would have to be earning at least £55,000 a year to afford Cameron’s discount scheme, with that figure rising to £77,000 in London!

Cameron’s ideological commitment to the private sector leaves house building in the hands of construction companies for whom “affordable” housing simply is not profitable. In Lambeth, the target set by the council for a miserable 40 per cent social housing build by property developers was revised down by Keybridge House’s developers to a derisory 2.4 per cent.

Some companies have even made it a selling point to their more credit-worthy, status-conscious clientele that they will not be burdened by the presence of social or affordable housing tenants in their new builds.

We should demand a massive expansion of a publicly owned housing sector under workers’ democratic control, allocated according to need. Tenants’ cooperatives should be created to run estates.

The existing housing stock should be renovated to make it energy efficient. Rent controls should be reintroduced, as well as security of tenure for life, with genuinely affordable housing and protection against eviction for those trapped by debts and high mortgages.

We need to abolish the bedroom tax and stop mass evictions and social cleansing. To combat homelessness, we should reverse cuts in emergency accommodation for the homeless, preserve housing rights and benefits for the under-25s, and legalise squatting of empty properties.

And how to pay for all this? The answer is simple: raising corporation tax, enacting a tax on financial transactions, and making the rich pay their taxes by cracking down on tax avoidance and tax evasion. And last but not least, by getting rid of the Trident nuclear war machine.