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The country’s “divisions” over Brexit have been discussed to death as a signifier of two distinct and opposed cultures, but there is one issue above all others that is the most reliable indicator of political allegiances: housing. Though home ownership has been declining, it remains the condition of the majority of people in England. Whether you own or rent your home is a surer indication of voting preferences than your age: a tenant in their 60s is no more likely to vote Conservative than one in their 30s.
The pandemic has made inequalities between owners and renters even clearer. It’s now well known that working-class people from ethnic minorities have been the worst affected by coronavirus – a fact that is closely related to housing. Harpreet Aujla, a planning caseworker at Southwark Law Centre, says a “greater proportion” of black and minority-ethnic residents in the south London borough are living in “temporary accommodation and insecure accommodation”, where there’s a higher likelihood of catching the virus and a lower possibility of making a good recovery.
Early in the pandemic, the government appeared to be carrying out at least one of housing activists’ demands. In spring 2020, rough sleeping suddenly became rare. Evictions were banned. At the time, this felt like a genie being let out of a bottle. As Beth Redmond, an organiser for the Greater Manchester Tenants Union, said, this proved that “ending homelessness is not as impossible as politicians say it is”.
Yet it was actually among renters where the most obvious inequalities were exposed. While the government put a temporary freeze on evictions (which is now back in place until January), there was no system of guarantees to match the government-backed deferral of mortgage repayments for homeowners. During the first national lockdown, many young activists were disenchanted by Labour’s newly appointed shadow housing minister Thangam Debbonaire’s refusal to support a “cancel the rent” policy. Isaac Hopkins, an organiser at the Bristol Transformed festival – which Debbonaire spoke at in early March – says it was “incredibly disappointing” to see an MP who has previously been seen to be aligned with tenants unions to “just immediately fail renters when the going got tough”.
Much attention has been paid to “culture war” battles within Labour over Black Lives Matter, the overseas operations and “Spycops” bills, and the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn, while the new leadership is allegedly still standing on a leftwing economic programme. But the divisions within the party seem to be as much about housing, on which it appears to have shirked its commitment to this programme, as anything else. Redmond, for instance, left the Labour party not long after its shift on renters. Its proposed policy of long-term repayments of rent not paid during the pandemic showed a “total lack of understanding about how debt quickly forces itself upon the lives of the working class”, she said. Since then, a lot of energy had been put instead “into renters unions by those who now feel let down by [Labour’s] new leadership – this can only be a good thing”.
Lockdown has been felt very differently by tenants compared with homeowners: as a continued state of anxiety rather than a cushioned limbo. One of the most dramatic examples of this has been in student housing – now dominated by large specialised developers. The image that marked the beginning of the second wave was new students being quarantined for weeks in halls of residence, putting notes in their windows to protest their treatment. Students at universities including Warwick and Glasgow are running rent strikes – with organisers at the University of Bristol reportedly signing up more than 1,000 students in university halls.
We have long known what to do about a crisis of housing affordability: have local authorities build housing at social rents. The pandemic hit at a time when council housing had started to have a modest revival, including in Bristol, where several councillors are members of Acorn renters union. It’s possible that a mixture of council housing programmes, co-operatives and councillor support for tenants’ organisations could presage a future for the Labour left among those who rent their homes.
Southwark has one of London’s largest council housing programme in progress, but it is moving slowly. Leo Pollak, its cabinet member for housing, tells me there has been a shift from Theresa May’s relative encouragement of council housing to a more confrontational approach under Boris Johnson and his planning minister, Robert Jenrick. It’s clear that rather than continuing the one-nation Toryism May promised (though honoured largely in the breach), the new regime has switched straight back to attacking local authorities and loosening any democratic oversight of the planning system.
The city of Manchester, which has had one of the biggest property booms in the UK, has not returned to council building, unlike Bristol and many London councils. As Isaac Rose, an organiser at Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA) points out, only 16 affordable units were planned among the 3,200 apartments that were given planning permission in 2018-19 – a striking failure for a city facing the biggest housing affordability crisis in the north. But over the Irwell in Salford, where the Labour left controls the council under mayor Paul Dennett, there has been a resurgence in council housing, with the first new examples in what was originally a private scheme, Riverbank View, by developers Keepmoat. Rose argues that this shows the difference when “the left (is) wielding power” in town halls – but it’s still not quite the return to the ambitious scale and quality of the best 20th-century council housing.
The standard developer’s product too often still means small houses with poor, car-centred public spaces. What has been especially obvious during the pandemic is the enormous importance of attractive, enjoyable public spaces to the mental and physical health of those without private gardens. Southwark, for instance, recently set up a “great estates” programme to celebrate the spaces and layouts of the borough’s council housing.
The potential for housing centred around public spaces, both inside and outside, can be seen in England’s small stock of co-operative housing. Leeds’ longstanding Lilac co-op was built around a communal space with trees, a pond, allotments, a “common house” and cafe. Geographer Paul Chatterton, a resident of the co-operative, tells me its residents have faired better during the pandemic because of these shared spaces. Rather than people working from home being forced to use their flats as garrets, residents have used these common spaces in the lockdown.
Moreover, the close-knit community infrastructure means it is much easier to provide care for elderly people who are shielding – many residents do communal shopping, cook meals and run errands for those self-isolating, Chatterton says. In the current circumstances the benefits offered by housing co-ops are open only to a lucky few. But combined with the actions of renters unions and councils returning to building, we can glimpse the outline here of a better future city, where a housing system based on speculation and profit is replaced with one built for human needs.
More than anything else, the pandemic has shown us important things about what people need, and what is politically possible. We know now that what people need from housing isn’t period features or rising property values but security, public green space, a garden or a balcony. We also now know what a government can do. It can end rough sleeping in a fortnight. It can guarantee people’s mortgages. It can ban evictions. But within that, we’ve seen how renters have still fallen through the cracks of the system. Now they know what can be achieved, renters may not be inclined to accept what they’ve got.
• Owen Hatherley is an author and the culture editor of Tribune
Source: The Guardian
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