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Editorial: The new pandemic will be homelessness

LAST week a young woman posted a complaint that since she left her parents’ home she had spent £45,000 on rent and now feared eviction because, under the coronavirus lockdown, she couldn’t work, had exhausted her savings and was thus was unable to pay her rent.

Multiply this personal catastrophe and, with the termination of the evictions ban, hundreds of thousands of people — singletons, couples and families — face homelessness on a scale not seen in decades.

Just under a third of homes are owned outright by the people who live in them, something over a third are occupied by people paying off a mortgage. Under one in five live in what is now termed social housing ever since successive governments sold off council housing and shifted the provision of public-financed housing towards arms-length bodies.

One in eight people live in privately rented accommodation in a system where homelessness is increasing, rough sleeping an epidemic and thousands of children are in short term, bed-and-breakfast or emergency housing without a home of their own.

Meanwhile home ownership, which for many people is a lifetime of servitude to a mortgage company, is at a three-decade low and the average home costs eight times the average earnings.

Britain has a massive housing stock but one which in some sectors is in a deplorable state and in many places is poorly insulated and inefficiently heated. It has a housing construction system in which massive corporations accumulate enormous land banks for future speculation and build speculative developments for a notional executive class while the real housing needs of millions, most especially young adults, older people, the low paid and people living in the major cities, go unaddressed.

The house occupies a special place in British political culture and ownership is fetishised in ways which people living in other developed countries find bewildering. Since Thatcher disposed of the massive collective asset that council housing represented almost the only factor influencing housing construction has been the market – with the results we can see. The poisonous features of the market economy in housing are accentuated by the lack of protections for tenants and the lack of legally enforceable responsibilities on landlords.

Labour has proposed some welcome steps to address the crisis with a 10-year plan to build a million genuinely affordable homes with the emphasis on council house building for local needs and ending the sale of publicly owned housing.

Keir Starmer won his majority on a promise to honour Labour’s radical manifesto and we should look for strong leadership on this issue in Parliament, by local councils where Labour is in control and in public campaigning.

But the immediate problem is, as Labour’s shadow housing secretary says: “The government’s policies have helped property developers, second home-owners and landlords make money from housing. But they are doing nothing to help thousands in rented accommodation, who may find themselves without anywhere to live later this year.”

This requires swift legislative action to secure tenancies and for the government to honour its pledge to repeal Section 21, the so called no-fault evictions provisions.

At root the problem is the capitalist system of land ownership. A civilised society would ensure that everyone had adequate housing, that the provision of housing would be an inalienable human right and that the ownership of a building would simply confer a right to occupy.

Where the private ownership of property stands as a barrier to the rational distribution of housing it should be tightly regulated to protect tenants’ rights.

But a socialist society would consider the accumulation of unearned fortunes based on land ownership and rent to be an abomination.

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