What does the left not get about housing?

This question has been rattling round my brain for years, but has got louder while I’ve been here.  There are, as ever, exceptions and generalisations in what follows.  But overall, the organised left, including within trade unions, socialist, revolutionary and labourist/social democratic parties, appears unable to fully recognise the scale of housing misery for working class people, or do much about it. 

It’s a paradox.  The underlying force of all oppositional politics is that things that are bad today, can be better tomorrow.  Yet even during a pandemic that has housing inequality (and racism) running right through it, the left is failing to articulate or mobilise around a vision for housing no longer being a matter of life or death.

The current graphic example here is the Biden administration’s $3.5 trillion human infrastructure bill (if you want to see what that looks like in black and white, amazing link here), which includes up to $332 for housing and an unprecedented $80 billion for public housing.  Yes, there are huge caveats to attach on how that money might actually be spent, but that’s a fight for another day.  The point now is that it may not happen at all!  One particularly venal politician is saying “what’s the urgency?”

Perhaps, as an outsider, I’m over-reacting.  But seeing the plight of so many people in NYC (not to mention the rest of the nation), the thought that they could be denied a significant, if moderate, expansion of more affordable healthcare, childcare, education and housing is very frustrating.

The British Welfare State didn’t happen as a “big bang” event in 1945.  It came from decades of struggle and demands and wouldn’t have happened without pressure from the organised working class that out-powered the vested interests who wanted to keep things as they were.  There’s a close policy parallel with the US today, but no sign of a popular national movement to make sure Biden’s Big Bill passes.  Even the brilliantly organised and energetic tenant movement isn’t really getting stuck-in to demand the investment happens and with the malevolent influence of some shameless politicians, worrying about the mid-term elections next year, it could easily not.

Sadly, the inaction of the left and labour movement reflects a failure to seriously engage with the subject.  Many possible reasons for this, ranging from a sense that it’s “too complicated”, to a gap in personal experience.  I once heard an anecdote of a national UK trade union leader being oblivious to housing issues, until his own daughter was faced with homelessness, at which point the union made a (short-lived) commitment to housing campaigns. During three months of close contact with NYC housing campaigns, I have yet to see a single manifestation of organised trade union support.    

In another part of the left, it sometimes feels as though housing is sidelined because it’s seen as subordinate to the bigger revolutionary task.  That was Engels’ position too, so maybe that’s unsurprising.  But that was probably a mistake in the 1870s; it’s certainly one now.  I spoke at a meeting here recently and someone came up to me afterwards, introduced himself as a Trotskyist (that’s a first!) and went on to say that he’d come to understand housing as a classic “transitional demand”.

Exactly!  Noone I know who’s involved with housing campaigns thinks improving housing will solve society’s many ills.  Most of them don’t think those problems can be solved under capitalism.  But what they do see is how difficult it is to have a good life, if you don’t have a good home. 

That said, there’s a direct line to be drawn between housing and a host of other social issues – mental and physical health, education, transport, crime, racism and of course, the economy and the environment.  But still housing is often reduced to a niche subject on the left.  On the eve of the Labour Party conference, where I would normally be outside lobbying and leafleting, it’s no surprise to see housing barely registering as a political priority. 

Likewise, predictable that Keir Starmer only uses the word “housing” five times in his 11,859 about the future of the Labour Party – and then only in the most facile terms.  

Even if you’re only interested in votes and political office, ignoring housing makes no sense.  There’s a huge pent-up constituency of people suffering because of our broken housing system, not least the millions of households pushed into private renting because there’s no alternative. 

Things aren’t much better here, with the DSA largely failing to get the point and even the more radical housing campaigns often missing the wood for the trees, or the potential for significant reforms, like the NHS, to shift national consciousness.   

The left needs to reformulate its attitude to housing and see tenants as the 21st century incarnation of the 19th century industrial proletariat, with the potential power to change the world. 

Marching for their future (Manhattan, 31st August 2021)

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