Why is there a housing crisis? How can there be a housing shortage with so many houses left empty and unused? Why, with stockpiles of bricks, cement, timber, and roofing-tiles are houses not being built in sufficient quantity? Why, after centuries of progress in construction and building technology and the passing of masses of housing legislation by successive governments do poor dwellings continue to be built and unhealthy, uninhabitable older buildings still stand?
It is important to understand — and this is equally true for housing as it is for the distribution of wealth generally — that progress is relative and must, as Marx argued, be judged in the light of the resources and wealth of a society at any one time:
“A house may be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are equally small it satisfies all social demands for a dwelling. But if a palace arises besides the little house, the little house shrinks into a hut. The little house now shows that its owner has only very slight or no demands to make; and however high it may shoot up in the course of civilisation, if the neighbouring palace grows to an equal or even greater extent, the dweller in the relatively small house will feel more and more uncomfortable, dissatisfied and cramped within its four walls.” (Wage Labour and Capital)
But the housing market is so irrational and unplanned that even those who own and control the industry cannot now make a profit without the state helping them out. Subsidies, tax-relief and other forms of government inducements are all intended to make the housing market profitable enough for capitalists to invest in. At the general election the Conservatives said they would give more money to housing associations and strengthen the council tenant’s “right” to buy. The Alliance said that they would retain the tenant’s “right” to buy and increase the amount of money housing Associations receive “by seeking to attract private finance”. Labour said that it would immediately increase by half the total housing investment programme for local authorities and promised a national action programme to repair, improve or replace run-down estates. But the electorate has heard these types of promises for decades: each successive government has said that it would solve the housing crisis. In 1933, the Minister of Health, Sir Hilton Young, thought “five years” sufficient. A similar view was taken in 1954 by the then Minister of Housing. Harold Macmillan. In 1971 it was to take the Conservative government ten years to get rid of all the slums.
Engels, writing in the nineteenth century, wrote of the housing crisis in these terms:
“The so-called housing shortage which plays such a great role in the press nowadays, does not consist in the fact that the working-class generally lives in bad, overcrowded and unhealthy dwelling. This shortage is not something peculiar to the present, it is not even one of the sufferings peculiar to the modern proletariat in contradistinction to all earlier oppressed classes. On the contrary all oppressed classes in all periods suffered rather uniformly from it. To put an end to this housing shortage there is only one means: to abolish altogether the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class . . . The housing shortage from which the working class suffers today is one of the many evils which result from present-day capitalist production.”
The problem remains the same today as it did for Engels. Yet, what has the injection of state finance into the housing market meant for the standards of the working class generally? For those living in council housing it has meant inhuman and insensitive high-rise units or other forms of high-density housing which have caused condensation, excessive heating-bills, violence, suicide and misery. For those members of the working-class forced to take out mortgages the situation is little better. Much of today’s private sector housing is built at extremely high densities, often on poor land.
These houses are built neither to alleviate the very real problem of housing shortage nor to transform their “owners” into quasi-capitalists. They are built solely in order that the speculator and the house builder can squeeze the last penny-worth of profit out of a small site. Some rooms are so small as to be unusable for the routines of nuclear family life and bare fences box in tight, private patches of earth with little or no aspect.
Furthermore, due to the economic recession even the minimum of repairs can no longer be afforded. Paint flakes off badly fitted doors and windows, condensation and damp occur and noise transmission is universal. Thus the 1981 report of the English House Conditions Survey showed that there were 18.1 million homes in England but that 1.1 million were unfit to live in, another million lacked basic amenities, a million required repairs of more than £7,000 each and another 2.9 million needed repairs worth more than £2,500. The report went on to show that the total number of dwellings in serious disrepair increased by about 22 per cent between 1976 and 1981.
Recently, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities said that there were serious structural defects in 1.5 million council homes that would cost about £10 billion to repair. In building terms this means that a third of the entire public sector housing could start to deteriorate quickly during the next decade.
In contrast, the Observer magazine recently published an article on how the capitalist class were housed. Their main example was a Georgian house near Reading which was on the market for £2,000,000. It was, according to the estate agents, a little more than 35 minutes from Harrods with the additional advantage of being surrounded by 110 acres of its own land. A Mr Ramsey, of agents Kinnold, Franke and Rutely explained that capitalists like to see everything they control and control everything they can see. The owners have a gate-keeper to shut the gates behind them, eight bedrooms and nine bathrooms — obviously a result of Thatcher’s Victorian dictum that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. The house contains a “Complex” comprising the obligatory sauna and whirlpool bath, child’s playroom, a billiard’s room, a disco, and a tropically heated 40 foot swimming pool.
The working-class should not delude themselves in thinking that there is anything basically different between rented and mortgaged accommodation for the quality and quantity of both types are, in the end, determined by the very same market. Both depend on the conditions under which those with money, land and materials are prepared to lend, invest or build in the housing market. Those with capital to invest do not mind whether it is used to build council houses or houses in the private sector; they participate in the housing market to make a profit. The market determines what is available and at what price — which means that the capitalist class gets the housing they want and profits come before the housing needs of the community.