By Adam Peggs
For decades, housing has been central to an intertwined crisis of living standards and rising economic inequality in this country.
The roots of this crisis can be traced back to the financialisation of housing since the 1970s and the reforms unleashed by the Thatcher government, sharply reducing the stock of council housing, the removal of key protections for renters and paving the way for Buy to Let landlordism.
The results of these changes to housing in this country are particularly troubling.
Research from Benham and Reeves has concluded that in England tenants now pay an average of around 45% of their take-home pay on rental costs – an increase of about 60%.
In recent years, we have seen housing costs for working class people surging at the fastest rate in Western Europe, with inequalities in housing costs dramatically widening.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, for low-income families with children, housing costs have risen four times as fast as for middle-income families.
The growth of the private rental sector, along with the decline in council housing and other social rented accommodation, has been key to this problem. The number of new homes built for social-rent has declined by around 80% since the late 2000s.
Most research indicates that in terms of substandard housing, the problem is worst in the private rental sector. A third of homes in the private rental sector fail to meet the Decent Homes Standard and a variety of problems around basic standards and safety are even more common.
Most ethnic minority groups are more likely to face housing deprivation than white British households. Since the onset of the pandemic, we have seen the shocking impact this can have on public health.
As Shelter note, one in two hundred people are homeless and with evictions resuming, levels of homelessness are only likely to get higher. It is estimated that over 70,000 households have been made homeless as a consequence of the pandemic and there is disturbing evidence of deaths among homeless people rising by one third.
The need for affordable, secure and good quality housing couldn’t be clearer.
Why council housing?
The housing crisis in this country is now deeper and more profound than at any time in several decades.
This week in Scotland, we have seen welcome announcements on affordable house-building – crucially with a pledge that 70% of such homes will be at social-rent levels. Yet proposals for more council housing are conspicuously absent from these pledges.
In Wales, where the Labour government has built a substantial number of affordable homes in recent years, only an extremely small proportion of these have been council homes.
It is worth restating why much of the left, certainly including yours truly, has focused on demanding the construction of council housing and how this compares to housing co-ops – housing owned by a democratic organisation of the residents.
On some parts of the left, housing co-ops are all the fashion. And while they do offer some substantial benefits, I am going to argue that a mass council housing programme should remain the primary focus of those on the left.
While this is not an argument against housing co-ops per se – right now we are seeing important and positive initiatives – it is an argument for maintaining the centrality of council housing to the left’s housing strategy – as well as crucially for the democratisation of council housing.
Public Housing and Cooperative Housing
At present, council housing offers the most secure and affordable form of tenure, alongside better protections and quality than much of the private rental sector.
In council housing, people can live protected from eviction and would be guaranteed with a tenancy for life, though recent governments have sought to roll this right back.
In terms of rent, council rents are typically much cheaper than the private rental sector, but also considerably cheaper than the category of ‘affordable’ rents and social-rents from Housing Associations. This even comes after substantial real-terms increases in council rents since the 2000s.
Housing co-operatives certainly exist as low-cost alternatives to the private rental sector. Some, such as Sanford Housing Co-Op, are notably cheaper than even in council housing. Others can be closer to full market prices, though the co-operative structures offer flexibility and accountability unlikely to be found elsewhere.
It is also common for this to come with responsibilities in terms of the running of the co-op, which for those in full-time work can be a drain – even if the democratic rights which come with these responsibilities are valuable.
Two of the principal issues with co-operatives are over inclusion and levels of security. As Lucy Alpine’s examination of housing co-ops in Vice notes, housing co-ops can be much more exclusive than council housing, with families barred from the two London co-ops profiled in the piece (‘If you have a baby, you are expected to leave”) due to lack of facilities for children. The residents are typically university-educated and comparatively socially homogenous. Those who need a genuinely affordable tenancy the most are generally not very well represented.
Housing co-ops also tend to be less secure than council and Housing Association properties. Long-term security can depend on the form of housing co-op and the type of tenancy. Bringing levels of security up to that of council housing, or most Housing Association properties, would require legislative changes.
Nonetheless, by allowing residents to manage their own affairs, housing co-ops do offer significant benefits. Crucially, these benefits including democratic rights not normally found with council and Housing Association properties. As I’ve suggested before, democratising council housing is key to pushing back against the tendency for social housing to be paternalistic.
Council housing, which is locally publicly owned housing, offers benefits that may not be available under a scenario in which housing co-ops were built en masse. Allocating homes based on need and the greater levels of security are among these.
Perhaps more significantly, so is the fact that council housing is democratically owned by society, rather than just by the membership of the co-op. Tthis applies whether the co-op consists of a single house, block, neighbourhood or a network of housing developments. Just as Tom Gann has referred to “socialism in one company”, we need to think about the same limitations of democracy confined to one housing co-op.
Democratising control of council housing, homes built for society as a whole and to socially determined standards appears to be the better route forward. It is this that should allow for an inclusive and collective form of democracy to thrive.
The housing crisis in this country is more one of unaffordability and insecurity than of a straightforward shortage of supply – hence the country has a high level of homes per head of the population.
There is an array of genuinely affordable forms of housing which could address this crisis, including council homes, Housing Association homes, community land trusts and housing co-ops. But it is council homes, with democracy for tenants, which appear to offer the best route forward.
Iwan Docherty notes in Tribune, “With the Tories in power for the foreseeable future, council housing may be some way off.” This is true for a council housing programme of the scale needed.
However, it seems to me that there will be as many opportunities in the next three years for local initiatives to build more council housing – as Salford’s Mayor has quite recently demonstrated – as there will be for new housing co-ops. Promoting both where opportunities arise can help to mitigate the damage wrought by the housing crisis. But it is council housing in particular that can help those on low incomes stuck on waiting lists.
For that reason, local initiatives to build more council housing, as we are seeing with varying degrees of success in places including Salford, Haringey and Hackney are vital. Far more areas could benefit from this but without central government funding this will not be on the scale needed to address the size of the waiting list and current levels of homelessness (in themselves just basic targets).
Council house-building is not necessarily a silver bullet. As long as there are people stuck in the private rental sector, remedial measures like introducing open-ended tenancies and proper rent controls will be necessary. The questions of land reform and of how we tax housing equitably cannot be ignored. And we need to reverse the financialisation of land and housing.
We need a housing programme which prioritises genuine security and affordability and puts social needs ahead of private interests. Though I am open-minded about the case for public funding for building housing co-operatives (or the creation of community-land trusts), it is council housing which must form the backbone of any solution to the housing crisis.
Adam Peggs is a writer and activist based in Hackney, London.
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