Our new issue is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

The Attack on Public Housing

Public housing should embody a promise: free housing for all, free of segregation. Reserving it only for the poorest undermines that promise.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan visit the Churchill Gardens Estate in Westminster on April 19, 2018 in London, England. The visit was following the launch of the Labour party's Social Housing review and Green Paper consultation which sets out their ambition to build one million affordable homes over a ten year period, including the biggest council house-building program for over 30 years. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

The spirit of Christmas is alive and well in the British media: on Christmas Eve, the left-leaning tabloid the Mirror published a story slamming the Labour member of Parliament Kate Osamor for living in social housing despite earning £77,000. Osamor tweeted in response, “On Christmas eve, I will always remember that nearly 30 years ago I was a homeless single mum who secured a tenancy to my home. Everyone deserves a home for life. I remain proud, not ashamed, to be in social housing.” The Edmonton MP shares the home with her son, who worked for Osamor and was a Labour councilor until he resigned following a drug conviction earlier this year, which led to his mother’s resignation as a shadow minister after an altercation with a news reporter for the Sunday Times.

The Mirror’s argument, and that picked up by the right and center, follows the familiar line that social housing should only ever be reserved for the very poorest: any change in circumstances for the better should necessitate eviction and tenants should be forced into the private sector. The late Bob Crow, then leader of the RMT transport workers’ union, came under regular attacks for refusing to move out of the council home he lived in and stated categorically he had no moral duty to do so. Crow was right: public housing was designed to build mixed communities and replace the appalling private-sector housing that plagued Britain in the twentieth century. Slum housing throughout the United Kingdom was so poor that in both world wars, army officials were horrified at the state of conscripted soldiers’ health.

The establishment of the National Health Service (NHS) and the mass construction of millions of council homes were two of the most immediate concerns of postwar Britain: Nye Bevan, the Labour minister for both health and housing, saw the two commitments as essential to addressing rampant inequality in a country scarred by a cumulative decade of fighting. But while the NHS has maintained free at the point of use, social housing has been torn asunder, first by Margaret Thatcher’s government, then through inaction by New Labour, and now by a renewed attack by the Conservatives.

In 1980, Thatcher introduced the Right to Buy — a cheap ploy to boost the Tories at the polls. The biggest correlation between demographics and voting patterns was home ownership: Tories owned their homes, Labour voters rented, and social renters were even more likely to vote Labour. The policy, then, allowed social renters to buy their home from their local council at a sharp discount of a third off, getting a mortgage as you would with any private home.

The proceeds were to be earmarked to build replacement homes on a like-for-like basis; this target was never met, and currently around eleven homes are sold for every one that is built as a replacement. When Right to Buy began, one in three people lived in council housing, now only one in six do. And around 40 percent of private renters live in a former council home that was sold under the scheme and is now rented privately by a landlord. Councils across the UK are forced to rent back many of their own properties in desperation at their lack of funding and power to build.

It’s this desperation that leads critics of figures like Osamor and Crow to call for households earning above average wages to vacate council homes, but the criticism is entirely wrongheaded: ghettoizing social housing leads to a greater misunderstanding of the housing crisis, who lives in social housing, and why. Social housing should not be treated as a temporary triage for families in extreme crisis, but an opportunity for stability and no different to any other home.

Housing should be a human right, and the right to long-term stability in your tenure should be defended at all costs. Osamor and Crow were able to build lives for their families because of the stability embedded in council housing, and have defended the system to the hilt, not for their own benefit, but out of a political, philosophical, and personal understanding of how much better housing works when it is focused on what families need rather than the pursuit of profit.

The attacks on Osamor, who is black, are undeniably racial but also carry the unpleasant subtext that people who live in social housing should not be MPs. Parliament is still broadly unrepresentative of British society: there are still far more men than women, the number of black and Asian MPs is still shockingly low, and the class make-up of practically every legislative body throughout the United Kingdom skews heavily middle class, with the number of MPs educated at Oxford and Cambridge an embarrassment. Hounding an MP for daring to remain in the council home she has dwelt in for thirty years highlights how few MPs come from more ordinary backgrounds.

Crow and Osamor were right to defend their living situations and to call for more people to be given secure tenures that help people escape the exorbitant rents that private landlords extract from tenants. Individual actions will do little to solve the housing crisis; but defending social housing as a political good, and arguing that housing should be a human right that offers the best start in life, rather than yet another source of private profit, is essential. People attack this position because it upsets the status quo — because it forces the public discourse to acknowledge that our housing system is rigged, and tenants need both more rights and a second national house-building program.