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What right to housing?

Every week we are treated to the latest front-page-filling concern for the paid scribblers of the capitalist class. The current crisis is concern over the spiralling cost of housing. In recent weeks, we have had announcements by banks, such as the National Westminster, that they intend to withhold mortgages on houses in certain post-codes (mostly in London), for fear of a burst in the house-price bubble. Simultaneously, on 7 February, we were treated to a round of reports about the average house price exceeding £100,000 in Britain. At the root of all this is the continuing inability of the market system to provide for even this most basic need of a human being, a place to live.

Over the last century, the structures of home ownership in Britain changed dramatically, from a situation where most people rented their home (with an average of 4 people per household), to a situation where the majority of homes are privately owned by their occupiers, with the famous 2.4 people per household. As the population of the UK grew by some 50 percent in that century the number of houses tripled. Since the 1970s the numbers in rented accommodation has steadily fallen, and now represent only 8 million out of 25 million households. Over that century, we saw numerous initiatives from rents controls, to council houses and housing associations to try and ensure proper provision of housing, none of which worked over the long run.

In the aftermath of the Thatcher regime, housing has been left almost exclusively to the open market, with councils at best being able to cut deals with developers to build “social housing” in exchange for planning permission on lucrative projects. Between 1988 and 1996 production of new houses fell yearly (especially compared with the simultaneous clearance of slum housing stock). In 1988 a net gain to the housing stock of 234,500 houses was made, compared to net gain of only 178,000 in 1996. This fall can be seen more clearly in the general reduction in output (in terms of raw materials for houses) of building products over the same period, with bricks being the best example, falling from 4,654,000 tonnes in 1989 to 2,939,000 tonnes in 1999.

Much of this malaise will be due to the falling investment by the state. In 1988 the state (central and local governments) spent a total of £5,273 million on housing expenditure, this plummeted to £2,825 million in 1999. Some of that fall was achieved by transferring housing stock from the public to the private sector in 1999. As has been noted in the columns of this journal before, the state is currently in the processes of divesting itself of as much capital as possible, hoping to transfer it into the private sector where it can be both valorised for profit, and used in a capitalistically more “efficient” manner. This has obviously, though, had some knock-on in terms of building of new houses.

This is particularly so with regards to being unable to manage the demand thrown up by the uneven nature of the market system. Given that workers must migrate to where they can find work, in some areas, such as London, the cost of houses is much higher than in areas of low employment, such as Hull. As the labour time that goes into their building and maintenance will be about the same, the difference is the price of the land on which they are built. What this illustrates is the difference between the cost of the house itself and the cost of the land it is on.

Land monopolists
In an agricultural economy, the rental value of the land would be derived from the differences in the quality of the soil. That is, land which could produce more, say, grain per hectare per hour of labour would give up a higher rental value than the least productive land (that is, land which could be exploited only for the given rate of profit in the economy). This remains partially true of land for industrial use. In the big cities, such as London, however, there is not the remotest chance of returning the land to agricultural use, and so it becomes human geography that provides land an income, from firms wanting office space, or volumes of people (with particular disposable wealth to hand) wanting housing.

Rent is derived not from any inherent feature or use of the soil, but solely through the titular owners' parasitic capacity to prevent capital from being invested in an area without them being given a share of the surplus value generated (usually any in excess of the average rate of profit prevalent in the economy). This capacity is derived solely through their possessing property rights legally enforced upon others. The price of land itself, not being a product of labour, is calculated by taking the income it can generate and projecting it as a rate of return on capital over a number of years (so land that, say, generates £1 million rent per annum at a rate of 10 percent would have a nominal value of £10 million).

This is, in part, recognised in the national accounts, in that the “subsoil value” of land is now listed alongside computer software patents and electromagnetic spectrum rights as “non tangible fixed assets”. It is not the quality of these “things” that creates their rental/asset value, but merely proprietorship over them.

Pressure on wages
In recent years – as part of the “property owning democracy” gimmick – government policies have tended to encourage workers to buy houses and use them as a form of savings and investment to try to climb the property ladder. This increases the number of housing transactions (as some people speculate), and also means that the government is locked into policies which must attempt to ensure the continuing appreciation house prices (or which at least prevent negative equity).

According to the Office of National Statistics, in 1998 the average person was paying 17 percent of their gross income on housing costs. Obviously, that is a percentage of wildly differing incomes, so the top 10 percent of incomes would be paying £120.80 per week on housing, whilst the lowest would be paying £19.80. Even then these figures are somewhat deceptive, since many of the lower income households were only meeting their full housing cost of an average of £59.40 per week through housing benefit (which is tapered to achieve the 17 percent cost).

This means that any increase in demand for housing due to labour migration, or other events outside a general rise in wages, will increase the share of wages needing to go into housing, and thus create upwards wage pressure. An example of this is the current plan to raise the London weighting on salaries from £2500 to over £4000. This effectively means a potential transfer of wealth from productive capitalists to landholding ones (as well as some of the financial intermediaries involved). Given that the workers could press for higher wages (thus cutting profit rates), to off-set these rises in housing costs, unlike employers landowners have no direct interest in holding such costs down. Since the employers need their workers – and during periods of growth, more and more workers - they have to surrender this indirect tribute to the landowners.

This is why capital was once willing to accept rent and housing market controls to prevent the landowners taking its profit. Hence why, now, the state pays a portion of rent to smooth out the proportion of wages spent on housing. Given, though, the size of the housing benefit budget, and the notorious capacity of landlords and tenants to make “fraudulent” claims, the state is under pressure to curb even that mechanism for taming housing costs.

What all this means is that the anarchy of capitalist production – with its self-seeking economic agents, periods of boom and slump, its uneven migratory population pressures – creates a clear contradiction between profit seeking and providing for human needs. In a world in which everyone could be easily housed, even in a country like Britain we find millions leaving in what even the government classifies as housing unfit for human habitation and actual homelessness on the streets, while nearly everyone has financial worries over satisfying this basic human need.