1970s >> 1971 >> no-800-april-1971

Is Housing a Right?

I have in front of me an expensively produced broadsheet from Shelter which is designed to push the special place of housing among the problems that face society under capitalism. But any notion that Shelter understands the first thing about the social system which produces our present housing conditions is rather hard to come by. In the first place is housing a “right” at all?

In this country, for example we have a few rights, some tenuous, some fairly solid. We have a right to say what we like if we can find someone to listen; to print what we like if we can find the cash; to vote; to put up candidates to oppose the government and other parties. We can tell these are rights because we use them.

To say we have a right to housing, however, is clearly tampering with the language. We know we have a right to vote because nobody stops us doing so. But housing? Three million families live in slums or near-slums says Shelter. It does not seem very likely that they have a “right” to enjoy first-class housing and prefer to condemn themselves and their children to slum conditions.

The fact is, of course, that there is no more right to good housing under capitalism than to good food, or good clothes or good holidays or good anything else. All good things are available under capitalism but not as of right. They are there for those who have the money to pay for them.

It is perhaps natural that the housing problem should always seem to generate more emotion than the countless other problems of our present social set-up. One cannot live a decent life without a decent home. But before looking a little further into housing, it is necessary to dispose of the silly notion of single issue groups like Shelter that housing is by definition in a class by itself and that anyone would prefer to live on bread and water in Buckingham Palace than on caviar and chips in Notting Hill.

It ain’t necessarily so. And anyway, it is obvious that as things are, the people who have the best houses are by a capitalist law of nature the ones who have the best everything else as well. They are the owning class for whom there is no housing problem; there is no shortage of delectable houses in the property columns of the posh papers. So it would seem to be fairly obvious that the class division of society has something to do with the matter.

But you wouldn’t think so from reading Shelter’s stuff. Quite the contrary. “Our researches show that bad housing and overcrowding is the root cause of nearly all our social problems.” Is it really? I should have thought that bad housing was one of our social problems itself. It is not a cause but an effect.

It is a perennial mystery how reformers have been busy solving the housing problem for so many generations and yet each succeeding generation needs to solve it afresh. It is as though they were conditioned by the gods, like Sisyphus, to go on and on with a task which will never end. At least he used to get the stone near the top before he had the mortification of having to start all over again.

The housing reformers have never had a glimpse of their summit. The housing problem is as old as capitalism (or rather as old as property society — but only for the non-propertied). It is universal. If it were a “right” surely some workers somewhere would exercise it. They don’t seem to do so in advanced spots like the capitals of rich countries.

Slums are an even bigger scandal in Washington than in London. As for “backward” places like Calcutta (where there is any amount of opulence among the capitalists of the “socialist” Mrs. Gandhi’s India), imagination boggles. But what about Western Germany? All one hears from there is the story of the wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle, the envy of the capitalist world. Harold Wilson told us that we must wait for our salvation till “we have got the economy right”, till the precious balance of payments is secure (as though anything is ever secure under the anarchic system of capitalism).

They can’t tell that one to the German workers, can they! It is in fact their “success” in creating a huge surplus of exports which has been the cause of the very surplus of imports which has upset the applecart here. And I must confess that as I had heard nothing about housing conditions from Germany I had assumed this place may have been an exception to the rule. And after all, the RAF had done them the favour of bombing the place flat so they would not have the same legacy of housing which had been crumbling for a hundred years and more.

But no. Two homes in three are reported as having no bathrooms of their own. Nearly two million families have no lavatory of their own. An old lady who won the pools (a million marks, nearly £200,000) could only say how happy she was to look forward to her own bathroom for her last years. I hear that a prize of another million marks is being offered for the correct answer to the question: Which class in Germany is the one without the lavatories? It could be the answer is the same one as here and India (and Russia where the rulers have their country houses and their Black Sea villas).

When are the workers going to claim their real right: to the resources of the entire world? Which will then be applied to the one task: making a decent life for human beings and not to such delights as going to the moon (which, in view of the conditions of most people on earth, is nothing short of an obscenity). It happens that I have met a few people who have taken up their alleged rights. Squatters who have occupied slum-clearance houses in Hackney.

They actually have the idea that it is wrong to allow houses to lie empty while people are without homes. And they even say nasty things about “our so-called socialist council in Hackney”. But of course they were a long way from understanding that occupying a few derelict houses (while they are allowed to get away with it) is not the answer to the housing problem. Any more than the efforts of people like Shelter.

Isn’t it time that more people got down to the idea of changing society to one where homes and food and clothes and everything else are made not for profit but for people?

L. E. Weidberg