No place like home
A review of Glyn Robbins, There’s No Place, The American Housing Crisis and What It Means For The UK, published by Red Roof, £10, 230pp.
WRITTEN BEFORE THE GRENFELL TOWER inferno and the hurricane hit Texas, this book helps us understand why such events are so disastrous for working class, largely non-white communities. Robbins visited and studied public housing in eight US cities. Though very different, there is a common theme in these cities – the destruction of public housing, rising rents and the dispersal of residents. Events such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans speed up this process (Robbins interviews residents still waiting to get their water back on ten years afterwards), with property developers moving in hoping for vast profits.
Common to both the US and Britain is the turn from housing being seen as a right to it being an investment and a source of profit. The amount of public housing is being massively reduced, pushing people into more and more expensive homes (whether bought or privately rented), with rents for the non-market housing left rising disproportionately. Cities become transformed into places only the wealthier can afford to live in through gentrification and social cleansing.
The dismantling of the UK welfare state by Tory and Labour governments has seen a transformation in the fortunes of council housing - "the proportion of council tenants has fallen from 30% of households in 1979 to 8% in 2015".
Robbins explains how this has gone together with an ideological attack on council housing as being only for the very poor and dispossessed, with a suggestion that only those who have failed live there, whereas private home ownership is seen as the mark of being successful.
Much of the book reports actual or potential evictions, demolitions and the breaking up of communities. However resistance to these processes is at the heart of the book. While many of the activists he quotes have had awful experiences of poverty, racism and state indifference, they have also won some inspiring victories. Robbins is able to show how communities can be at the heart of fighting for their futures if they get organised.
But state policy needs changing too. It is not enough to resist evictions or privatisations on a case by case basis, we must also build movements that can win a more rational housing policy, and Robbins points out that both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn reflect this. This book shows why Labour’s housing policy is so important.
There is much to inspire and anger in this short book. In showing how bad things in the US are, Robbins also shows how good things can be with some great examples of how different forms of public housing have worked, and why. But he also sets us all a task - unless we stop the destruction of public housing, the future of housing is bleak indeed, both here and in the US.