Housing in a pandemic: from crisis to cooperation

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Pandemics bring to the fore the fundamental problems of a society. In the UK, one of the fundamental problems is that of property ownership and the housing crisis, which underpins many of the crises people are facing in the COVID-19 pandemic. Rough sleepers cannot self-isolate; people losing their jobs are not able to pay their rent; and university students being kicked out are forced back to sometimes unstable homes, potentially carrying the virus with them. The crises flaring up with the COVID-19 pandemic do not stem from the pandemic itself, but rather from the capitalist society we live in, where something so basic as a roof over one’s head is not guaranteed. For many, this already presents an ever-deepening crisis, so any form of shock can turn it into a disaster.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that forcing a society to run according to relations of property ownership and landlordism is fundamentally compromising to that society. The UK housing crisis created by these relations means that tens of thousands of people across the UK who have been laid-off work or who cannot go to work because they are sick or immunocompromised, are now on reduced income and struggling to pay rent. They may be faced with mounting rental debt or eventual eviction from their home. Because capitalism has made housing a commodity, thousands of rough sleepers who can’t afford a home have been increasingly vulnerable to the virus. Because of the selfishness of many UK universities with huge property portfolios, students across the country have been forced to return – even across borders – to often unstable or unsafe homes, while thousands of university accommodation blocks lie empty. This pandemic, because of its context in capitalism, is creating dire consequences for those already denied housing and stable accommodation in society. But it’s not just the worst-hit who suffer; the whole society suffers too, as all these conditions mean that the virus spreads faster. If rough sleepers can’t social distance; if sick people go into work because the alternative is economic hardship; if those in key positions that keep society running can’t self-isolate on infection, then the virus spreads further in society. COVID-19 makes very clear: the whole of society is compromised by capitalism, the housing crisis, and the forms of property ownership which underpin it.

The response of the government to this crisis has been to protect the property-owning classes and landlords by granting mortgage payment suspension, compared to only a three-month delay in eviction to tenants and no suspension in rent. This isn’t a surprise. The British state has always been in favour of landlordism and property owners. Property ownership and the commodification of what should be held in common – like housing – is built into the nature of the capitalist system and is woven tightly into the fabric of the British state. 

Housing in the UK

The problem of housing seems especially pronounced in the UK where housing plays a large role in the economy and in British national identity, and where the UK housing crisis is one of the most extreme in Europe.

Housing in the UK has become a financial asset and a commodity, playing an important role in the British economy as a key selling point for investors. This financialisation of housing for the economy is part of the legacy of a ‘property-owning’ nation dreamed by Margaret Thatcher and her mass sell-off of the social housing stock. Whilst this allowed many of the working- and lower-middle classes to purchase property they might never have otherwise had, it was also part of a drive to turn housing into an asset, and has been consolidated by the refusal of successive governments to invest in social housing. The manufacturing of home ownership into British identity which went together with this process, is underpinned by older ideas of property ownership in England. The enduring strength of the British class system and the sanctity of private property in housing and land is revealed by the maxim that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle.’ The landowning and aristocratic class inspiring these values is still powerful in the UK, and their lands and properties are built into and protected by the British state, with its symbolic head being the royal family.

This fundamental role of land and property ownership in UK capitalist society, and the attendant reverence for Britain’s landowning classes in British identity, reveals the longer history of land ownership in the UK. Building up from the base of feudal land ownership, the British State and elites enclosed swathes of common land in England between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, driving people from their common ways of life, forcing them into wage labour and miserable housing conditions. Much of the British State and elite’s wealth derives from a rentier economy based on feudal economic relations, where rent is extracted from stolen lands in colonies across the British empire, Ireland, and the lands enclosed from commoners in England. This fundamental privatisation of land underlies the UK housing crisis today, which has been driven by a fivefold increase in the value of land since 1995 (ONS). Rising land prices; high rents; multiple home ownership; housing as a financial asset; gentrification; ecological destruction – these are the many consequences of the feudal property relations and forms of ownership emerging from the enclosure of the commons in the UK. These form some of the foundations of UK capitalism.  

The result is a continuous housing crisis. In the UK, housing prices have risen by an astonishing 300% since 1996. Despite one-and-a-half million homes being built since 2010, few of these homes are affordable and the proportion of council homes is tiny. This makes the dream of home-ownership unachievable for younger generations, who increasingly enter the private rented sector. The rising price of housing also increases the cost of renting for twelve million renters in the UK, who are dishing out a third of their income to pay rent to a landlord whose sole, parasitic role in society is to hold houses hostage from people who need it and make them pay for it.. The increasing unaffordability of rent is leading to more evictions and homelessness, and the lack of renter protection means landlords can rent out unsafe, unclean property for extortionate prices, and maintain abusive relations with renters. Despite hundreds of thousands empty homes and second homes, the UK has record levels of homelessness and people stuck in temporary accommodation. The housing crisis is ruining lives, and it’s ruining entire communities too. The constant urbanisation and spread of unaffordable homes is gentrifying UK cities and towns, uprooting poorer, working class communities, and driving out well-established communities of colour and migrant communities to the outskirts. Gentrification and urbanisation often go together with increased work casualisation, leaving many with a deadly concoction of high rent and low pay which is pushing people to breaking point. The UK housing crisis is marked by a plenitude of property in which to house people, but social relations that deny this basic necessity.

Land ownership, property monopolies, and landlordism – built on the enclosure of the commons – is tightly woven into the nature of UK capitalism and the British state. In this system, property rules, so we cannot rely on that system to save us. The COVID-19 pandemic makes it clear: ‘The state will not save us, only we can save ourselves.’

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Reimagining housing through crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to question and reimagine the underlying nature of society in the UK. Is it beneficial for society that homes are a commodity? Is there any real value in a home as an asset if it lies empty in a time of crisis? Should we find pride in a national identity associated with a class system and property ownership? Do landlords serve any valuable role in society or do they take away from it? Could we nurture a different relationship to property? How can we create a society where housing is guaranteed to all?

Instead of the current relations in UK society, we might want to create a society underpinned by principles such as: a stable home is a right and should be guaranteed to all without condition; a home is not a commodity to be bought and sold for profit; rent is theft and no one should exploit another human for the basic requirement of a home to live in; housing infrastructure should be owned in common by communities for the provision of residents; everyone is valuable and therefore deserves the basic necessity of housing.

Crises not only allow us to imagine the society we might want to see; it also gives us direct experience of alternative ways of organising society. Across the UK, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of mutual aid groups have emerged where communities are providing for each other through solidarity, sharing, and collective care, and people have mobilised to demand that vulnerable groups and those put out of work are protected and have all they need. These efforts show us that despite the narratives capitalism tells us about competition and scarcity, it is in human nature to care about each other and to share resources. If these relations of solidarity were the basis for society, the housing problems of the current capitalist society wouldn’t exist. These groups prove that organising along these social relations is possible and give us an idea of what a future society could look like – more than simply being means to deal with a crisis, these projects and the social relations they represent could become ends in themselves.

The type of social relations underpinning these mutual aid projects can be extended beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to ultimately challenge and displace the capitalist system. These social relations can be directed to tackle the immediate problems of housing placed on society by capitalism, and can be grown into enduring institutions as the foundations of a new society.

Take the problems of common land enclosure, property ownership and landlordlism which underpin the capitalist system in the UK. The social relations of solidarity and collectivism seen in mutual aid drives could be crystallised and made into concrete institutions by setting up housing cooperatives, community land trusts, and increasing communal forms of living. As these institutions spread, they would undo the forms of enclosure and commodification of land and housing that capitalism and the state rest upon, and reclaim the commons. If housing is managed collectively by the community, rather than owned by markets or the state, communities would be able to grant housing to all as a basic right of life.

If this seems too distant, we can find stepping stones towards this society in the renters’ unions addressing problems of the housing crisis; the radical land justice groups confronting the problem of land ownership; by expanding the already-existing housing cooperatives and community land trusts, and even democratising local councils to gain power over local land and housing matters. Many people have had no choice but to live in a more collective way and to self-organise for their own survival under the capitalist system. We can learn a lot from these communities as we work to transform society. Our coordinated actions coming out of the crisis can be part of a revolutionary movement to grow a new society altogether, eroding the foundations of capitalist society, and building a free, democratic society as we go.

We have no choice but to plan together and start to grow radical alternatives to the capitalist system. The COVID-19 pandemic, whilst devastating for so many, is a small shock compared to the future crises that capitalism will throw at us. We must be prepared for these crises with infrastructure based on relations of solidarity, democracy, and equality, and we can start building these now. Building these institutions allows us to solve the everyday problems of living in capitalist society, and means that when another crisis hits, we’ll be ready in a position to bail out the people – our friends and neighbours – instead of the banks and the landlords. If we already lived in such a society, the COVID-19 pandemic would not have had the same fallout, and it may even have never emerged.   

Then and Now: Argyle Street Housing Cooperative, Cambridge

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