The Struggle for Shelter: Class Conflict and Public Housing in Britain

By Matthews, David | Monthly Review, September 2017 | Go to article overview

The Struggle for Shelter: Class Conflict and Public Housing in Britain


Matthews, David, Monthly Review


In his 1872 polemic The Housing Question, Frederick Engels articulated with sharp insight the crisis of housing then facing German society. Rapid industrialization and urbanization had driven the German proletariat into overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions, becoming victims of burgeoning property values and spiraling rents. Accompanied by an upsurge in the value of land, properties were demolished, including workers' accommodations, for use for more profitable purposes. The result was a desperate shortage of decent housing available to the working class.1

Nearly a century and a half later, Britain is today afflicted by a similar scarcity of affordable housing. Home ownership is a more distant prospect for the working class than it has been for decades, especially for younger generations, for whom it is now often only an aspirational dream. By 2014, only 9 percent of UK residents aged sixteen to twentyfour owned their own home, along with 35.4 percent of those aged twenty-five to thirty-four-a decline from 36.1 percent and 66.5 percent, respectively, since 1991. Except for those aged sixty-five and above, the last two decades have witnessed a steep fall in homeownership across all age groups.2 A major factor in this shift has been the soaring value of housing, which has gradually displaced the working class from the property market. Save for a few years in the depth of the 2007-09 crisis, the gap between wages and house prices in Britain has steadily widened. In 1996, the average UK property cost little more than twice the average annual salary; by mid-2016 it cost five times the average.3

Labelled "Generation Rent" by the British media, a growing proportion of the population is thus turning to private rental housing. After declining during the 1980s, as more people purchased their own properties, rented housing units began to proliferate in the 1990s. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, their absolute number had doubled.4 For the first time in nearly a century, homeownership in Britain has declined as a proportion of the housing stock.5 The rental housing market offers little refuge from the prohibitive costs of ownership, however: with private rents increasing due to demand, in 2015 rates of eviction were the highest on record.6

The prevailing explanation for this worsening crisis has been the sheer insufficient supply of homes to meet rapidly growing demand. Yet while undoubtedly exacerbating the issue, as Engels firmly argued in relation to Germany, this cannot be considered the primary cause of the housing crisis. There already existed in Germany enough suitable dwellings to alleviate any shortage-if they were utilized rationally, which for Engels involved confiscating them from their wealthy proprietors to house the homeless and desperate members of the working class. The paucity of working-class accommodation, Engels argued, had little to do with a lack of housing stock, but was instead firmly rooted in the operation of capitalism itself, and the exploitation upon which the system hinged. The housing crisis, he argued, was one of "the numerous smaller, secondary evils which result from the present-day capitalist mode of production."7

Most housing under capitalism is planned, built, and sold by the private sector, under the same social relations of production and exploitation as any other commodity. For its producers, such housing is merely one mode of capital accumulation among many. The value of housing, as determined by the costs of labor, raw materials, land, location, and the availability of finance, is so great that most people are unable to purchase it in one complete transaction. Consequently, they are compelled to acquire a housing unit without outright ownership, either through rent paid to a landlord or mortgage payments to a financial lender.8 A significant and growing minority are unable to enter into this relationship at all, however, lacking sufficient resources to pay market rents, fulfil mortgage obligations, or save enough capital for a deposit. …

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