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Editorial: The failure to provide housing security for all is no accident – it’s deliberate

THE most dangerous place to live in Britain — if you don’t wake up in time — is a rubbish bin.

It is a national scandal when this seems a better option than sleeping on the streets.

Crisis, the national charity for homeless people, estimates that in normal times there are over 12,000 people sleeping in cars, on night buses, in sheds, makeshift shelters and tents.

These are not normal times, and it is revealing that this issue only appeared urgent to government when the lockdown to tackle the coronavirus infection became a necessity.

Now, it appears, we must anticipate a hurricane of homelessness as an escalation in the number of evictions threatens when the present crisis begins to wind down.

If the housing problem were limited to emergency housing for street sleepers, then the remedy would be relatively easy. But this is just the tip of a deep-seated failure by both New Labour and Tory-Lib Dem governments to tackle a deeper structural housing problem.

The failure to provide housing security to everyone on these islands is not an error of policy or an accident of history. It is the product of both the system of land ownership and of the worship of the market.

When, in the immediate postwar period, political realities made it necessary for the Tories to match Labour in meeting housing need, a massive council-housebuilding programme ensued. 

Even when the Tories were elected in 1951 on a minority vote, they undertook to build 300,000 council houses. Living in a council house was the new normal and it was only by 2011 that more people were living in privately owned houses.

The clue to this change lies in the right-to-buy policy that saw millions of publicly owned council homes become commodities to be bought and sold.

The bizarre consequence is that now local authorities are housing homeless families by renting, at public expense, from commercial landlords who have bought up the houses that councils once owned.

The private ownership of the land, despite being sanctified by tradition and law, has its origins in the systematic theft of our common property, and a comprehensive solution to the housing question is impossible without asserting the rights of society as a whole over the property rights of individuals.

For individual families to pay a reasonable rent to live in a socially owned house is one thing. Even at relatively low rents, such a house generates enough rental income to recover its construction costs within a generation and then become a constant stream of capital available to build new houses.

For millions to be be forced to pay exorbitant rents to private landlords whose property gains in nominal value precisely because of the housing shortage — and the operations of our highly financialised economy — is a scandal. Landlords whose living is gained by renting out their property are, in fact, not so much providing housing as being housed themselves by their tenants.

Soon enough the increase in homelessness will become a big problem for this government, and we can have little confidence that, left to itself, it will solve it.

Freezing rents and guaranteeing housing security is an urgent class question with no satisfactory solution within the constraints of conventional thinking.

Unless Labour gives voice to the millions of private renters facing rent rises as landlords try to recover lost rents; the thousands who face eviction when they cannot pay; the homeowners unable to meet their mortgage payments; and the newly unemployed who will not find affordable accommodation; it will miss the chance to renew its place as the party of the many rather than the few.

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