Bernie Sanders, Sadiq Khan and the pitfalls of housing platitudes
AT THE FINAL RALLY of his momentous tilt at the US presidency, Bernie Sanders proclaimed, ‘we need to build millions of affordable homes and invest in public housing’. His audience, in a car park in southeast Washington DC, roared approval, as did the 12 million other Americans who voted for a candidate promising real change.
In the rest of his speech, Sanders recited a catalogue of US social injustice, alongside a radical reforming programme. His manifesto for a $15 an hour minimum wage, guaranteed health care and reducing student debt has resonated across a country sick of politics of, by and for corporations and billionaires. For the purpose of winning elections - which Sanders did in 23 states, albeit within the limited framework of the primaries - and shifting the political discourse, which he undoubtedly has, such policy sound-bites work.
The extent to which they will move the probable candidacy/presidency of Hillary Clinton to the left remains to be seen. It’s significant that Sanders has, at least, raised housing as a national campaign issue. But despite the US having an enormous housing crisis, it’s unlikely the establishment politics of Clinton and the Democratic Party will allow any genuine challenge to the real estate industry that perpetuates it (and is also one of the most powerful lobbying and campaign finance groups).
Moreover, on both sides of the Atlantic, the use of vague, feel-good slogans about housing allow too much scope for words unmatched by deeds. Like Sanders, Sadiq Khan traded heavily on a folksy, personal appeal in a London mayoral campaign where ‘fairness’ in general and ‘affordable housing’ in particular featured prominently.
Comparisons with Bernie Sanders are invidious not least because, unlike Sanders, Khan has no history of doing anything other than talk about housing! The new Mayor of London’s housing platform, as set-out in detailed policy documents, could make a significant difference, if implemented. But his dad could have driven a bus through the gaps in them.
Despite making great play of being brought up on a council estate, Khan has shown very little commitment to preserving those benefits for others. Scores of council estates around London are currently under threat of a wrecking-ball that is often operated by Labour councils. While his statement opposing future demolitions is welcome, he has neither said nor done anything about the ones that are already happening.
Khan would make a significant contribution to his pledge to ‘fix the housing crisis’ if he called for an immediate moratorium on the kind of estate ‘regeneration’ programmes that always lead to displacement, privatisation and a net loss of genuinely affordable homes.
Khan is similarly half-hearted in his stance on private renting. Before his election it was easy to appeal to London’s 2.7 million private renters paying an average 60% of their income on rent for often sub-standard, insecure housing with promises of a ‘Living Rent’. After the election, the Mayor has signalled a reluctance to seriously challenge the grip of private landlords.
Again, the policy rhetoric is good, but on 21 May the BBC reported that Khan no longer supported rent controls in the capital. There’s a strong element of sophistry in all this, including Khan’s headline pledge that 50% of new homes will be ‘genuinely affordable to rent or buy’.
Mayor Ken Livingstone made a similar pledge and missed it by a mile. Khan has made no unequivocal commitment to build the council homes he credits with improving his life. Instead his policies are couched in the depressingly familiar language of ‘building alliances’ with ‘developers, home-builders, investors and businesses’, precisely the mistake Livingstone made.
Khan has the power, land and money at his disposal for a city-wide programme of council house building. The most telling indication of the reality of Mayor Khan’s housing policy has been his abject failure to use his position to seriously challenge the government’s ruinous Housing and Planning Act. While tenants, trade unionists and some local councillors fight tirelessly against legislation that will have disastrous consequences for the city he represents, Khan has stayed silent on the side lines. An opportunity exists for him to change that by supporting the call for an all-council summit on joint action to resist the Act in October.
Unlike Bernie Sanders, Sadiq Khan has a lasting opportunity to use his office for developing a progressive alternative to neo-liberal, market-driven housing policies that go beyond platitudes. He must not waste it.