Against the background of the UK Housing and Planning Act, the US experience of deregulated, market-driven, privatised housing policy provides a stark warning to this country.
US public housing, an approximate equivalent to UK council housing, has never been part of the mainstream. With its origins in the 1930s New Deal, it was only ever allowed to augment the private sector – never challenge it. Although there remain significant concentrations of public housing in US cities, the pejorative image of housing projects has provided political cover for under-investment and marginalisation, to the point where public housing is deemed the housing of last resort.
Now the US government, like that in the UK, is using various devices to effectively privatise what remains of public housing, leading to wholesale demolition and displacement, the destruction of communities and the replacement of genuinely affordable homes with mixed-income housing, to which few of the original residents return.
Last week, the national organisation that represents 2.1 million lower-income Americans living in rented housing assisted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) held its annual conference in Washington DC. Members of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants shared experiences of their struggle against rapacious corporate landlords and government cuts, with workshops on topics such as how proposals to cut the US budget threaten to displace millions from their homes.
Demand for public housing vastly outstrips supply, and access is strictly controlled by means testing and regular tenancy reviews, precisely the intentions of the UK Housing Act. Low-income Americans excluded from public housing are thrown into a byzantine system of scarce alternative subsidised housing, most of which entail enormous public subsidies to private landlords, but with the constant threat of disrepair, harassment and eviction.
Residents at Museum Square in the centre of the nation’s capital are fighting to save their homes. The largely Chinese community is being removed so a private owner can replace 300 homes for people on low incomes with 800 luxury condos. The owner has enjoyed 30 years of government-funded rent subsidy, but now says the building has “run its course of usefulness”. The US has a housing crisis on a scale so far unimaginable here. Homelessness is only the most visible feature of a brutal housing policy. The idolatry of home ownership, subsidised by $76bn (£52bn) of tax-breaks a year, drives a speculative property investment mania. The similarities and threat to the UK differ only in scale.
Avoiding another economic crash has been part of the crusade for change by Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ housing policy is over-reliant on generalisations and a default to establishment political machinery. But addressing the housing crisis has played a significant part in persuading 12 million people to back his candidacy.
In both the US and UK, housing inequality is increasingly the main focus of class struggle and people are demanding real change. In the UK this means campaigning against the Housing and Planning Act. In both countries it means direct government investment in decent, secure, affordable, environmentally sustainable homes for all.
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