Thursday, December 17, 2009

Full House (2009)

Book Review from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sarah Glynn, ed: Where the Other Half Lives: Lower Income Housing in a Neoliberal World. Pluto Press

Social housing (also known by various other names, especially council housing) has generally been aimed at workers on below-average incomes, though its extent has varied from country to country. This book studies the effects on social housing of the implementation of ‘neoliberal’ policies, which involve the partial dismantling of the welfare state and of Keynesian government initiatives. Its particular strength is its coverage of developments in a number of countries.
In the UK the 1890 Housing Act made it easier for local authorities to build and manage houses, though these were still expected to make a profit. A further act of 1919 allowed for government subsidies but was seen as a temporary measure in the immediate post-war period. It was not until the mid-twenties that a major programme of building council houses began. Social housing has generally been regarded as subordinate to the private sector, and as too expensive for the very poorest, who were forced into privately-rented slums. Housing associations may have started as self-help organisations, but are now just part of the whole housing industry.

Social housing has been more widespread in Scotland than in England, and once housed over half the population. Stock transfers and demolitions, however, have drastically reduced this figure. A chapter on the recent situation in Dundee notes that only one-fifth of houses there are currently council-owned, there is a backlog of over six thousand homes, and only two hundred new council homes are built each year.

The proportion of home ownership in France is considerably lower than in Britain. In 2008, more than one million French people were classed as homeless and over two million as poorly housed, with six million at risk of losing their homes for one reason or another. As might be expected, the US has never had more than a marginal role for social housing. Under neoliberalism, even this has been scaled back, with houses demolished and tenants given vouchers that can be accepted by private landlords, but inevitably private rents are driven up and people are forced to live further out in cities.
Of course there have been various forms of resistance, such as rent strikes and the tent cities set up in Paris and other French towns. Sadly, these can do little to alter the fact that under capitalism, whatever the role of social housing and the state, decent and secure housing is unavailable to large numbers of workers. Neither Keynesian nor neoliberal policies can deliver good-quality affordable homes. And a lot of council housing is shoddy and badly-designed.

In our review copy one batch of pages was bound upside-down. Possibly an unintended comment on the topsy-turvy priorities of housing under capitalism.
Paul Bennett

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