Sunday, June 15, 2008

My house, Our home.

Guest post by Dave S.

On the one hand, there are just too many houses. We've had to put up with a booming decade of TV egging us on to buy and to let and to become rich beyond belief, but big capital has gone one further than that distant acquaintance of a distant acquaintance who packed in his job to do up old flats. They've been on a building spree, throwing themselves into mill conversions and futuristic towers that have all come onto the market at the same time. And so, flooding the market after a decade of pushing up prices, they can't sell them. In Manchester and Birmingham it's the same story, one of those crises of over-production that make capitalism so absurd. Now, says the editor of Building magazine, "what they tend to do is to get to a stage and make the buildings watertight so they don't deteriorate" and cut their losses there.

One the other hand, there are just not enough houses. George Monbiot reckons we need another three million, based on research from Shelter and from testimony like this:

Wendy Castle moved into her flat in the Trellick Tower in west London when her eldest child was a baby. He?s now 16, and she has three others between 13 and 2. But her flat has only two bedrooms. She sleeps in one of them with her two youngest children. The room is completely filled by beds. On one side they are jammed against the window, which no longer shuts properly. On the other they are pressed against the heater, which can?t be used because of the fire risk. Her two oldest boys share an even smaller room.

The lack of "affordable" housing was one of the main issues in the London mayoral election, and it's also one of New Labour's principle motives for immigrant-bashing. Margaret Hodge MP earned the censure of even the Tory press last year for asserting "the legitimate sense of entitlement felt by the indigenous family" over the needs of spongeing immigrants. This, in the heartland of "no Dogs, no Blacks, no Irish", in a target constituency of the BNP neo-Nazis, who are surprising no-one by doing quite well out of the housing crisis despite hating council homes and their tenants.

Behind the familiar tidal-wave-of-immigrants scapegoat lurks a familiar enough culprit for the dilapidation of council housing. Just as private companies are being more and more closely "involved" with health and education, so too are large scale stock transfers moving social housing into the private sector. The associations taking over our council houses - such as New Charter where I grew up, and Eastlands where I'm living now - tend to be ostensibly not-for-profit, at least for now, but this changes nothing when they operate in a market driven by profitability. They still have to give a return on investments - a profit for the banks - and accordingly run their homes just like a private landlord: lowering standards, increasing rents, evicting undesirables.

However, this goes beyond the standard neoliberal pillaging of the public sector. Shelter identifies the right-to-buy as a major driver of the housing crisis, and for all that they've been out of the news since the 1980s we should definitely take these small scale stock transfers as seriously as the large, for their political ramifications go way beyond. People remember Margaret Thatcher's annihilation of the unions as a political force - and are right to be encouraged by recent signs of a recovery from this attack - but just as important in her arsenal against a working class politic was the right to buy.

We are mostly right to deride the word "aspirational" as media code for "middle class", but this misses a crucial nuance. To be an aspirational voter is to be an individualist, a lonely robot, a Willie or Linda Loman mortgaging themselves out to better build up their own little place in the world, and reshaping the working class (well, a section thereof) into this image was an important part of Thatcher's mission. The formulation that "any man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure" didn't just serve as an excuse to sell off public transport, it served to stigmatize the use of collective facilities and gear up our aspiration towards a private mode of transport. Likewise, when each put in charge of our own little corner, we are much less inclined towards collective struggle.

That being determines consciousness is a cliché of the far left, but the Thatcherite right understood it at least as well as we did, and were better equipped to act upon it, changing our economic situation to undermine our politics. The home-owning consciousness starts with a reluctance to strike lest we endanger our mortgage payments, and ends with the dismissal of our collective interests, with the feeling that "we are all middle class now". We were not, of course, suddenly middle class - most of us still had a relationship with the means of production far less ambiguous than this implies, and a lower income too - but a significant minority of us were nonetheless being taught by our mortgages how to aspire. And it was this, as much as the destruction of the NUM, that set back the workers' movement for a generation.

This whole process, however, depends on the market as a reliable manager of housing. Which, as is surely being proved beyond all doubt by current events, it is not. The current economic crisis was not caused by the housing markets, but it has manifested itself here more than anywhere else. Waves of credit-fuelled speculation push the price up so that no-one can afford to buy a house, and then the bubble bursts so that no-one can afford to sell a house. And so do we enter the phase of creative destruction, in which capitalism crushes the very aspirations that its political representatives had put so much effort into cultivating.

Where once they were ushered into the housing market with welcoming arms and "generous" subsidies, people are now being chased out by mortgage foreclosures. The alarming increase in home reposessions is far from the whole story.; the trade fairs and seminars that promoted getting rich quick out of buying to let have now switched their focus towards the sell-and-rent-back market. Hark! Ye property investors, desperate mortgage-holders will sell their homes to you at a massive discount to avoid the repo men, and then pay you rent for the privelege of staying there (and don't worry, you can always evict them after a year if someone else seems more profitable). Others still are going for IVAs and the like, which can sometimes help but which also add another layor of creditors seeking a profit at the debtors' expense.

Mightn't these homeowners prefer to be bailed out by an accountable, public body that would put tenants before profits? Mightn't the construction companies struggling to sell their accumulated inventories have difficulty arguing against a massive compulsory purchase order from the government, on behalf of those eternally waiting for a council house? Mightn't we question too the second and third homes of those in the "plutonomy sector"? Mightn't there be a case, in short, for nationalising a huge swathe of the nation's housing stock? There's certainly an environmental case - the market is never going to meet even the government's tame targets for sustainable homes, let alone deliver the kind of efficiency drive that peak oil and climate change demand - but I think that the political case might strike a chord at the moment too.

The campaign to defend council housing is a very good start, but this might be the time to get us through the housing crisis and to reunite ourselves against the divisions that Thatcher and her successors have sown among us; the time, in other words, to demand council housing.