England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Fighting back against the housing crisis

On Saturday many towns and cities saw protest actions by the housing and tenants rights campaigning organisation Acorn. The Tory government has extended the ban on evictions for 1 month however this delay has not removed the threat of evictions. It will be vital for tenants to get organised to fight against evictions. The potential power of the trade union movement and working class communities should be brought into this fight and Socialist Alternative will be making the case for this. Working class people should not pay for this capitalist economic crisis!

We carry below an article, slightly updated for publication, from Issue 8 (June 2020) of Socialist Alternative on the housing crisis and how to fight it. If you agree with us, we urge you to join Socialist Alternative!

The housing crisis and how to fight it

The Coronavirus pandemic has pushed Britain’s housing crisis squarely into focus, with the government now being forced to make concessions such as providing funding for rough sleepers to stay in hotels and temporary accommodation. Yet this temporary measure – the funding for which will inevitably end – is barely a sticking plaster on a much deeper and widespread crisis.

Government data for 2017-2018 showed that there were 4.5 million households living in private rented accommodation, while Shelter reported last September that 60% of families in rented accommodation were just one paycheque away from losing their homes. The quality of a lot of these homes, owned by dodgy landlords, is often dire. In March, The Guardian ran an article highlighting the fact that over 2 million over-55s lived in dangerous homes, with treatment for illnesses and accidents caused by this costing the NHS £1.4bn per year.

Housing as a commodity

The danger of letting landlords and developers get away with using housing as a commodity, purely to gain profit and so cutting costs to maintain it, was shown to all with the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower. And even now, there has been very little progress on government pledges to remove dangerous cladding from tower blocks.

The growing number of workers being forced onto benefits in order to get by – for example, those who do not get sick pay or those who have been recently dismissed – means that there will be a huge increase in the amount of people at risk of eviction due to being unable to pay the rent. Even the Financial Times (27/05/20) carried an article headlined ‘Outbreak leaves private tenants exposed’, describing how ultimately ineffectual the Tories’ pledges to protect renters from evictions would be. As the Financial Times points out, judges have no discretion to stop landlords trying to regain their properties from tenants because of rent arrears. Landlords would also still be able to issue a Section 21 notice, which would formally be for the end of tenancy instead of arrears. Although the Tories will extend the ban on evictions for another two months (now for one more month, until September – editors), this is not a lasting solution.

Given all this, it is disappointing that Labour’s policy is to give tenants two years to pay back any rent arrears, while Shadow Housing Minister Thangam Debbonaire claims that a ‘cancel the rent’ policy would be “un-Labour” and “really regressive.” And while calling for a temporary ban on evictions is welcome, it would not go far enough either in protecting tenants or tackling the exploitative social relationship between landlord and tenant.

In the 1872 pamphlet The Housing Question by Frederick Engels, the relationship between the landlord and tenant is described as “an ordinary commodity transaction”; yet the tenant is cheated when “compelled to pay for the dwelling above its value.” How true is this even today, when data shows that the average tenant spends about 47% of their monthly income on the rent, with an average UK rental amount of £959. People in London will pay almost 85% of their monthly income on rent. With the massively depleted stock of social housing, and the impossibility of many young people to get onto the ‘property ladder’, private renting is the only option for many working-class people.

It is not only with rental properties that there are serious problems, however. Last year, the Tories replaced Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) payments with a loan. SMI was paid to people claiming benefits to help with the cost of their mortgage; yet around 75% of claimants refused to take on this extra debt, while those who did had to cut back on essentials like food and heating.

The potential to organise

An important step forward for working-class people would be the strengthening of tenants’ unions, which would collectively fight against evictions and even organise rent strikes. In Berlin, where 85% of the people rent their homes, a five-year rent freeze was won by the collective action of tenants. And in the USA, there was massive support for the 2020 rent strike on May 1st. Rent strikes here, drawing in workers and other trade unions, would be a powerful tactic.

Tenants’ unions show the potential for people to organise, fight, and win in struggles over housing; and these unions must be militant, member-led and fully democratic. It is crucial that they keep their independence, especially financially, from the state – so they are never at the mercy of being brought down by cuts to funding.

These unions can also use tactics of direct action, such as anti-eviction protests outside a home, as well as picketing and occupying letting associations or landlords’ offices. These tactics, like the rent strikes, must be linked to workers’ and trade union struggles, with a clear platform of socialist demands.

The need for affordable housing

One of the most important demands must be a massive programme of building affordable, social housing for people. Over the last 12 months, the number of homes in this category -rose by only 0.4%. And the amount of homes in England which were social and affordable actually fell from 20% in 2001 to 17% last year! Despite comments about renting a property being a “lifestyle choice”, the reality is that there is no other option for huge numbers of people. The lack of social housing also means that landlords will be incentivised to hike the price of rent and be more selective of ‘good’ tenants to take on. The disgusting ‘No DSS’ notices in housing adverts continues, while problems with Universal Credit payments meant that before Covid, increasing numbers of people were being evicted and made homeless.

There is also the need to fight for safe, high quality housing for all people. The Grenfell Tower fire was a horrific tragedy, yet it was only one of various examples of the same thing having happened previously. When David Cameron promised to cut regulations in the property development sector, he meant allowing costs to be slashed and safety to be sidestepped altogether in the name of profit.

These demands have to be linked to the need for the socialist transformation of society, with the public ownership and control of all housing. There is no place for the exploitative, profit-driven system under which even housing is a commodity, ripping off working-class people. There is no place for capitalism.

What we fight for

  • For a massive expansion of genuinely affordable social housing
  • For militant and democratic tenants’ unions to fight all evictions
  • Organise rent strikes to defeat dodgy landlords
  • An end to discriminatory housing practices
  • Scrap Universal Credit and replace it with a welfare system based on real need

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