The MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explains how in a socialist society, decent housing would be seen as a right, not a commodity.

HOUSING today, especially in Britain, emphasises the contradiction between the basic need of the many for somewhere to live and the unnatural bloated wealth of the few. Homes have become a key part of our commodified economy.

Big business is reliant on the housing market for growth, millions of people live in inadequate, insecure and, for some, dangerous homes and nearly 5,000 people sleep rough every night on our streets. Meanwhile those with “capital” buy property as an investment device or tax dodge and often leave it empty.

Some of the council estates built after World War I as well as after World War II were superior not just to the slums they replaced but also to much speculative “working-class” housing built more recently, though then, as now, residents are distanced from engagement in the process of construction and design.

Rooms are often too small and construction can be shoddy, sometimes lethal.

Construction is often more to do with the ease of production, at the lowest cost and yielding the highest profits, than with the needs of people.

Design is frequently more about appearance than practical living or community functioning, let alone green concerns.

Many estates are alienated from the natural world by the casual disregard for wildlife and green space, where the sun sets, the prevailing winds.

Every new brownfield site becomes a vehicle for speculation. Urban sprawl is offset against the isolation of rural communities. Housing estates often lack vital community provision except a pub, if you’re lucky, and an off-licence where the kids hang out.

Humans are alienated from their homes, from society and from each other.

Humans are alienated from their homes, from society and from each other.

We become alienated from other people when private estates demand walls against social housing, when mixed estates have “poor doors” or when architects plan roads so that some housing is in cul-de-sacs and others become rat runs.

We become alienated from ourselves if we are wealthy and demand fortified boundaries, lights, alarms and a no-man’s land between ourselves and others.

In 1845, in his The Condition of the Working Class in England Friedrich Engels drew attention to the appalling living conditions for workers that accompanied the mid-century boom in industrial capitalism.

A decade or so later the same problems had spread to towns in Germany and elsewhere in Europe and in 1872 Engels published the first of a series of articles, entitled The Housing Question.

He argued that an ongoing crisis in housing was inherent in capitalism and that “it is not that the solution of the housing question simultaneously solves the social question but that only by the solution of the social question, that is, by the abolition of the capitalist mode of production, is the solution of the housing question made possible.”

He attacked those who put the blame for bad housing on workers themselves, who saw the solution as individual “self-help” if workers could be persuaded to save for a home.

In particular Engels rejected the “British” model of building societies and private development as a solution to the problem of inadequate housing.

He argued that buying houses on credit through mortgages was relevant only to those who already enjoyed financial security.

These building societies are not workers' societies, nor is it their main aim to provide workers with their own houses.

“On the contrary, we shall see that this happens only very exceptionally.”

Using the example of the Birkbeck — one of the biggest building societies at the time — he argued that the bigger societies in particular may be “sometimes formed under political or philanthropic pretexts, but in the end their chief aim is always to provide a more profitable mortgage investment for the savings of the petty bourgeoisie, at a good rate of interest and the prospect of dividends from speculation in real estate.

The subsequent history of housing in Britain would seem to bear Engels’s predictions out. Building societies were one of the main agencies promoting the sprawl of the suburbs — the Birkbeck alone had some 35 estates in London — but the problem of homelessness and poor housing is still with us.

In a socialist society, decent housing would be seen as a right.

In a socialist society, decent housing would be seen as a right. The home would be less of a commodity. We would see unused big houses subdivided sensitively into decent flats, with a range of bedroom options from one to many.

Rents would be controlled, set at a suitable recognised proportion of income and ensuring adherence to rights and responsibilities on both sides.

Buying a home would be within a regulated market and local authority housing provision would be reinvigorated.

Released from the constraints of profit, housing could become the basis for a revival of local communities in democratically managed living spaces, including the popular management of communal local services such as creches, a local lending library, community hall and sports centre. We could easily begin to imagine a less commodified society.

We could easily begin to imagine a less commodified society.

Even within capitalism progress is possible. Labour’s manifesto commitment involves provision of over a million new homes, including at least 100,000 council and housing association homes a year for genuinely affordable rent or sale.

While brownfield sites would be prioritised, urban green space would be safeguarded and could be expanded, the Green Belt protected and a new generation of “new towns” would avoid urban sprawl.

Building standards for new-build and retro-fitting of insulation and other energy-efficient steps would help reduce energy bills, reduce preventable winter deaths and contribute to climate change targets.

Local and national public-sector direct labour construction bodies could challenge the building companies and property speculators’ monopoly control of housing, along with their obscene profits and fat-cat pay. All would be part of a “joined-up industrial and skills strategy” to ensure a more vibrant construction sector with a skilled workforce and rights at work.

Local plans would address the need for older people’s housing, “starter homes” for first-time buyers and the need for community facilities. Leaseholder protection would include regulation of “ground rents” and other charges. And rent controls and secure tenancies would make the rented sector more about provision of decent homes then maximising profit.

Some of these proposals are contained in the Labour Party’s green paper Housing For the Many Not the Few, Labour’s updated long-term plan for a level of new affordable housebuilding proposes to link this to local income and scrap market-based approaches.

“Right to buy” and enforced sales of social housing will end. The system will be transformed with a new duty to deliver affordable homes and an English sovereign land trust would make more land available more cheaply, ending a “viability” loophole that lets developers dodge their contribution to more affordable homes.

Implementing these policies would be a major challenge for a future Labour government and would be bitterly resisted by the representatives of capital.

In the meantime it is clear that, as Engels said, more than a century-and-a-half ago, unregulated capitalism is incapable of solving the housing crisis.

Taken from the Morning Star, the only socialist daily newspaper