Under capitalism the housing problem has been a constant feature of
working-class life. Although consecutive British governments have enacted numerous reforms, overcrowding. shortages, slum-living and homelessness persist. The present government’s 1980 Housing Act sought to broaden the scope of home-ownership by allowing council tenants the “right to buy” local authority-owned housing, in the belief that a shift of tenure offered the best solution. So what have been the results so far?
There is a popular image of owner-occupiers as a privileged minority enjoying a number of advantages denied to tenants of rented accommodation, such as freedom of choice, independence, security of tenure, high-quality housing and asset growth. In addition, the financial carrot of tax subsidies such as mortgage interest relief helped make owner-occupation a seemingly attractive proposition.
The remarkable growth of the owner-occupied sector — from 54.7 per cent in 1983 to 60.2 per cent in 1985 and a projected 67.9 per cent in 1991 — seemed to justify the Conservatives’ policy on council house sales, which was popular with the electorate. Political pundits have in fact pinpointed the 1980 Act as a major factor in the Conservatives’ electoral successes in recent years and Labour traditionally the party of council housing has taken note of this and reversed its policy.
Despite its apparent popularity, however, the growth of owner-occupation has not been accompanied by an easing of workers housing problems. In fact for many working-class households owner-occupation has created more problems than it has solved. Entry into the owner-occupied sector is no guarantee against squalor and the responsibilities of maintenance and repair, coupled with the pressures of regular mortgage repayments. place an enormous burden on those dependent exclusively on wages and salaries for the upkeep of their house. In this context security of tenure is an illusion and the threat of eviction and homelessness is ever present.
Contrary to popular belief, most owner-occupiers do not actually own their houses. Their right of tenure is secured only through loans which they have to repay with interest to the lending institution — usually a building society but increasingly since the 1980 Act to local authorities. The title deeds to the property are held by the lending authority until the mortgage has been fully repaid, which means that over the life-time of the mortgage — which can be as long as 30 years the owner-occupier’s status is akin to that of a tenant but also bearing all the responsibilities of repair and maintenance.
If owner-occupiers get too much into arrears the loan-making body can apply for a court order to gain possession of the property. A recent report in the National Westminster Bank Quarterly Review shows that as owner-occupation grows so too does the problem of mortgage arrears and repossession. It points out that “although increasing numbers of people are entering owner-occupation. increasing numbers are being forced out” (August 1985). The 1980 edition of Judicial Statistics showed that there were 27,105 mortgage possession actions in County Courts in England and Wales. By 1983 this figure had reached 43,274, an increase of 61 per cent. This nevertheless tends to underestimate the problem of mortgage default because most of those in arrears do not figure in possession actions. Many people resolve the problem in other ways: some borrow money to pay off the arrears (even though this only delays the date of court action); others sell their house to meet their debts and either move down market or into rented accommodation, while some simply hand over the key of the property to the mortgagees.
Those forced to give up their houses either voluntarily or as a result of a court order often face difficulties in securing other accommodation. A move to cheaper housing invariably means a move to a poorer area, with all the repercussions that may have for changing jobs (if this is possible) and schools and severing family and social connections. The move to rented accommodation is not, however, as easy as it appears. As the local authority housing stock dwindles the chances of ex-owner-occupiers being rehoused are slim — a problem which is aggravated by the rules many local authorities have which effectively exclude owner-occupiers from access to council houses and place them in low priority categories for rehousing. And as for the privately rented sector, this has shrunk so much that offers of accommodation are exceedingly rare or far too expensive for those priced out of owner-occupation.
So what are the causes of mortgage difficulty? Building societies grant mortgages on the basis of the size and stability of household income, and for members of the working class this means the wage or salary derived from the sale of their mental and physical energies to the capitalist class. The conditions of capitalist production determine both the amount and the availability of workers’ incomes — if the capitalist class isn’t trying to cut workers’ wages to the absolute minimum in order to maximise profits then it is making workers unemployed to minimise losses. Ether way workers cannot win, a fact mirrored in the insecurity of their position as owner-occupiers.
The Building Society Fact Book (1985) attributes the upsurge in arrears and possessions to the sharp increase in unemployment and the consequent fall in wages and salaries. Two major reports — the National Consumer’s Behind with the Mortgage and the Building Societies Associations Mortgage Repayments Difficulties — show that owner-occupation becomes unsustainable for those households which suffer an unexpected and long-term cut in earnings. This can be brought about by factors other than unemployment, such as sickness, pregnancy. industrial disputes, marital breakdown and death.
It follows, therefore, that owner-occupiers who want to maintain their homes and stave off the bailiffs must not get sick, pregnant, go on strike, get a divorce, be made redundant or die — a tall order for any member of the working class. In the circumstances of rising unemployment the pressure on owner-occupiers is enormous, but for low wage earners it is especially acute. Workers on low wages are highly vulnerable to sharp increases in housing costs or any reduction in their income, and even the slightest rise in mortgage rates can cause severe problems.
To encourage as many households as possible to take up owner-occupation, the government has also wielded the axe to council house expenditure programmes. This has meant that council house rents have risen sharply over the past few years while tax subsidies to owner-occupiers and various other incentive schemes (shared ownership, homesteading, mortgage guarantees and council house sales with large discounts on market values) have helped to cheapen the cost of house purchase. Given the choice between slum or near slum council housing and the seemingly lucrative financial incentives of house-buying, it is hardly surprising that opinion surveys indicate a huge demand for owner-occupation.
In recent years the concept of home-ownership has been sold to workers so relentlessly that the shabby reality of owner-occupation has been submerged beneath a barrage of misinformation. Workers should not accept the well-worn fallacy that there is something fundamentally different between rented and mortgage accommodation — that council housing is somehow “socialist” and owner-occupation “capitalist”. The provision of both is determined by the conditions under which those who own the means of producing houses, the land, building materials and capital, can realise a profit. These people do not care whether their capital is used to produce council houses for rent or houses for sale in the private sector. Their goal is profit and nothing else.
Under capitalism the housing market determines both the quality and quantity of accommodation within the price range of the working class. Consequently, there is very little difference in house standards between owner-occupied housing and council accommodation — in fact, owner-occupiers are marginally worse off than council tenants in this sense. The recently published Duke of Edinburgh Inquiry into British Housing reveals that the state of repair of the average owner-occupied sector has fallen below that of the average council house. The former has, on average, a higher percentage of dwellings which are officially classified as unfit (4.7 per cent); lacking basic amenities such as an inside toilet (3.3 per cent); and requiring repairs of £7.000 or more (5.3 per cent) and £2,500 or more (21.3 per cent). Many workers simply cannot afford to carry out the maintenance and repairs required on their homes, a situation which has been exacerbated by the recent cuts in home-improvement grants. In some cases workers are sent on an endless trip to nowhere for what is basically a slum house; or worse still, making mortgage repayments on a house that has been demolished as a result of structural faults or subsidence. Their homes may have been lost or fallen into an uninhabitable state but their mortgages remain the same.
In the nineteenth century Engels made the following remarks about the housing problem:
As long as a capitalist mode of production continues to exist it is folly to hope for an isolated settlement of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the lot of workers. The solution lies in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the appropriation of all the means of subsistence and instruments of labour by the working class itself(The Housing Question)
During Engels’ time very few members of the working class could be described as owner-occupiers: the majority lived in rented accommodation. At present owner-occupation is the major form of house-tenure in Britain but the problems to which Engels was referring in The Housing Question are still with us. Homelessness rose by 6 per cent last year and the government is at present carrying out a full national survey which, experts believe, will reveal the true extent of the housing “crisis”.
As long as profit takes precedence over human need the problem of housing will remain as an ineradicable feature of working-class life. The solution, therefore, lies in the abolition of capitalism nothing more, nothing less.