Monday, June 04, 2018

Review of 'Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle'

This is a really good film about the failure of the housing market in the UK to provide housing for rent at prices compatible with the levels of wages provided by the labour market. There are lots of individual stories about how the structure of that market, and the political choices taken by successive governments, have afflicted people's lives. The decisions - notably but not only the introduction of 'right to buy' which hollowed out the stock owned by local authorities - are set out and the effects illustrated.

It's mainly a tale of misery. There is some coverage of struggles by tenants to prevent their estates being demolished or sold off, but not much sign of any of these being successful. The general air is one of inevitability in the face of overwhelming power and the 'naturalness' of the market; the film is mainly asking for more social housing to be built and offered at below-market rents to offset the 'natural' working of the market.

A few things occurred to me as a I watched.

Firstly, language - the battle is half lost when those in power can define words to mean what they want them to. "Affordable" housing is a category that doesn't actually mean people on low incomes - or even middling incomes - can afford it. "Regeneration" means clearing out the present residents, demolishing the housing stock, replacing it with something denser and worse (though not suffering from years of under-mainenance) and then bringing in new tenants or owners at much higher prices. "Consultation" is a name given to a process that includes some mechanism for soliciting the opinions of others without any obligation to take any notice of those opinions. Oh, and "luxury" flats - not actually anything to do with luxury, just private and owned instead of public and rented. The space standards in these "luxury" flats, and sometimes even the construction, is worse than what they replace.

Secondly, it's very much a bottom up view - there wasn't much analysis of the mechanisms by which this is so profitable for some companies, or how the subsidies and tax breaks given to the rich and even not-so-rich (people like me) stack the market against the people in the film. Real estate is a capital asset on which many kinds of privileges are heaped - if some of those were taken away then it wouldn't be such a fabulous place to stash money, and then prices would at least slow if not decline to more affordable levels. The shortage of property is a function of the demand side of the market, because the attractiveness of the asset class and the banks' freedom to create money means that demand will always outstrip supply. Building more homes ultimately doesn't make any difference. The utter idiocy of the 'help to buy' program illustrates this.

It would have been nice if the film had talked a bit about other 'global cities' - it focuses a lot on London. In some exactly the same process has happened. Central Paris and New York are only for very rich people now; so-called 'Yuppies' gentrify Brooklyn, which used to be for poorer people, and the latter get pushed further out. I think this started in the early 1980s as the wealthy began to move back into city centres, and they did that partly because of transport. Once car ownership reached a certain level then commuting in from the suburbs became a misery, and then it was better to live in the city centres. That's why the 'inner-cities' (an expression we don't hear so much any more) became so desirable, when they had recently been a by-word for poverty. A few cities (notably Berlin and Barcelona) have had some success in standing against this and maintaining social diversity in their centres - and rent control has been central to this. Rent control also helps to make the ownership of property less attractive, so it's a good thing on that score too.

The current property market acts as a mechanism for the distribution of wealth from poor to rich. Even if the clock were wound back to the 1970s and the state started funding the construction of social housing for rent at truly affordable levels, there would still be a transfer of wealth from renters to owners in every generation. It's worth noting that in some places (Singapore comes to mind) the state builds homes for sale on a low-interest mortgage. Perhaps we need to think about a mechanism - better than right to buy - that ensures that the transfer is stopped and perhaps even reversed.

Finally, it's probably worth saying that there's a relationship with the labour market and wage levels, and precarity, that doesn't get addressed much. The big social rented estates served a population that was mainly in work, in secure jobs. People in precarious jobs - zero-hours contracts and the like - can't afford a deposit either for rent or for buying, and won't be taken on by either landlords or lenders.

Watched at a showing organised by Stroud Against the Cuts at Lansdown Hall in Hall. Thanks for that - look how much it's set me thinking.

No comments: