Thoughts Under Lock-down: a Socialist Housing Policy

By Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin is a socialist living in Broadmeadows, Melbourne.

The current pandemic has shown there is a direct link between public health and the question of housing. In particular, the outbreaks of COVID-19 has exposed the poor quality and risks associated with high density public housing. It’s feared that cases of COVID-19 will continue to spread in the tower blocks of inner north Melbourne suburbs and in other areas.

The increase of COVID-19 rates is directly related to where and how people live. It has hit the poorest the hardest. Overcrowding, homelessness, low housing affordability and financial hardship have exacerbated the spread of disease. Those in the lowest 40% of income in Australia spend more than 30% of their household income on rent and it is in these households that COVID-19 has spread the most.

Housing and financial factors are issues directly relating to public health. The tower blocks in the north of Melbourne are a case in point. With many shared facilities, they are extremely vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases. It is simply unbelievable to think that the government didn’t know these places would likely become hotspots.

When the virus broke out, the federal government’s Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly called the towers “vertical cruise ships”. They were further demonised by the mainstream media. The outbreak of the virus has exposed the fact that public housing is poorly built, poorly maintained and overcrowded.

Public housing in Melbourne’s inner suburbs

For years public housing has been de-funded by neo-liberal governments, both Labor and Liberal; and its residents considered a burden on society. The neo-liberal view of the world places these people as victims of problems they’ve made for themselves. The Murdoch press have successfully wedged successive Labor governments on the issue of public housing and Labor have shown no inclination to defend the rights of those who depend on it.

The long-term outlook for those who need public housing is grim and it won’t improve unless there is a political voice that champions their interests. If the legacy of public housing is not protected then the direct consequence will be the advent of slums on the outskirts of every major city in this country.

Melbourne could very well become a city like Chicago with areas that are considered ‘the bad part of town’, where unemployment and homelessness are very visible. It is well on the path to become a city that is ethnically and economically segregated.

It wasn’t always this way. A central plank of early Labor party policy was to construct public housing – and it was popular. The humble “garden suburb” of Daceyville in Sydney is testament to the success of the first public housing scheme in Sydney. Built by the first Labor government in NSW in 1912 it became one of many that was protected by the green-bans imposed by the Builders Labourers Federation in the 1970’s, so its heritage remains largely intact.

Sydney back in the early twentieth century was ruled by slumlords. Inner city housing was overcrowded, narrow, poorly lit, poorly serviced and had poor sanitation. It was not cheap- the poorest sections of the working class were held to ransom for the privilege of having a roof over their heads.

The Colonial Secretary, John Rolland Daceyville, when announcing the first public housing scheme, stated: “The day is past, when free Australians were content to be herded together in terraces of mere dog-boxes. In some suburbs they are compelled to herd together like flies . . . the time has come when we should create a Garden City and provide houses of an up-to-date character at the lowest possible rental”. For the Labor party, public housing was considered the pride of social achievement; the mark of a fairer and more forward thinking society.

Daceyville plan

We have turned a full circle on the question of public housing since then. Today the poorest of the poor are once again herded into “mere dog-boxes” and the only thing on the mainstream political agenda is how to police them.

Although the first housing scheme was not as extensive as originally planned, the hundreds of cottages that were provided had basic amenities, gardens and verandas – in many respects they were much better than the cramped tower blocks of today’s public housing. Public housing was viewed positively by the working class, forming part of a vision for greater social justice.

It was part of a wider vision of social justice drawing on ideas from the British garden city movement – planned, self-contained communities surrounded by green areas. This was to provide opportunities for urban farming. The intent was to provide for a more balanced life, but in times of upheaval and crisis, urban farming can provide food security and reduce our dependence on processed food. The value of urban farming is demonstrated on a daily basis in developing countries. Where food supply is under threat, urban farming has become vital to providing a healthy diet. For example in Hanoi, Vietnam, 80 per cent of fresh vegetables and 40 per cent of eggs are produced by urban and peri-urban agriculture.

Rooftop gardens, Hanoi

A Legacy of Class Struggle

By the mid-1930s, demands for more public housing were championed by the labour movement. This followed the Great Depression which saw many homes repossessed and a massive increase in unemployment. There were arguments that governments should play an increased role in integrating public housing in town planning. At this stage what little existed of public housing was low density.

In 1943, the Federal Labor government under John Curtin established the Commonwealth Housing Commission and public housing was massively expanded. Between 1945 and 1955 over 100 000 public housing dwellings were built. The wealth generated from increased social-expenditures strengthened the state and gave it a greater integrative function of social services.

During the height of the Cold War, public housing was viewed as a necessity to maintain the health and well-being of the working class in order to increase their overall level of productivity – and to help demonstrate to them that capitalism, at least in a rich country like Australia, could deliver more and better than the Soviet Union. Advancements in welfare, health and housing aided the post-war boom.

Vienna

By the 1960s, government policy had shifted. New construction techniques and economies of scale led to more densely populated apartments being built in the place of stand-alone dwellings. This also made them easier to police and watch over. The residents often complained of police harassment and abuse – a problem that persists to this day. Spiked fences and CC-TV cameras reinforce the alienation of the tower blocks.

Within less than ten years, it was clear there were problems with this sort of high-density living and public housing was starting to be viewed with derision; seen as a concentration of social-ills. This coincided with the end of the post-war boom. Economic contraction globally and a simultaneous rise in both inflation and unemployment led neo-liberal economists to declare that large social expenditures and social welfare was a failure.

However cuts to spending on public housing have not necessarily reduced the state budget. There has been an expansion of spending on policing and prisons to such an extent that in Victoria, prisons now receive 8.6 times more funding than public housing.

The long-held promise of prosperity for all, has been replaced with a doctrine of user-pays, savage cuts, privatisations and restructuring in a trend that has continued for almost forty years. There are few winners in today’s society. The safety net has been ripped apart.

This is acutely felt by those at the bottom; those who are the most marginalised, migrants, who come from broken homes, those who have fled to Australia seeking safety, those who have no secure income and all, those who face systematic discrimination. The issue of housing is closely intertwined with issues of oppression. It is impossible to eradicate any form of oppression without resolving the question of housing. No other issue marks the division of social classes like housing does.

The rise of speculative investment in housing has exacerbated inequality. The practice of middle-income people using the equity in their homes to purchase investment properties has created a housing bubble. The lunacy of the speculative practices that led to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2007 are being repeated. Interest rates and cheap credit have led to the paradox of making housing more unaffordable as it has only enlarged the bubble, pushing prices ever higher. But this creates a problem for the capitalist class. A core part of the ideological hold the capitalist class has over the working class, is based on the regenerative cycle of the “Australian dream” of owning one’s own home.

The Contradictions of Home Ownership Aspirations

There is a contradiction between the expectations of working class people for quality housing and their lived experience. The dream of the house on the ¼ acre block is simply not realisable for most people. A 2019 study by the Australian Housing Research Institute outlined some of the challenges young people face in getting a house. The study found, there is a decline in the diversity of housing available to meet people’s needs.

The study found (unsurprisingly), young adults (aged 18-24) are living with their parents longer and are more likely to be living in share accommodation. Between 2003 and 2016, the number of young adults living with their parents increased from 58% to 66%. Only 17% of young adults lived independently.

Remarkably, only 1/3 of young adults thought that home ownership was out of reach. Yet, the majority of young adults prefer to live independently in a stand-alone dwelling, rather than an apartment, town-house or share-house.

Leeds

Whether they realise it or not, the majority of young adults face the prospects of renting for the rest of their lives. The income and education divide is starker than ever. Home-ownership is increasingly tied to having received a tertiary education, which is also becoming harder to obtain.

There is also a growing sense of instability and precariousness that was pervasive, even before the pandemic. Insecure work, the growing cost of education and the rising cost of living, may not yet have fuelled rebellion, but it is fuelling social anxiety.

Private ownership of housing within a capitalist society cannot be separated from what is the most basic feature of capitalist social-relations: private generalised commodity production. . Because it is a necessity, housing always remains a valuable investment, but like any other commodity traded under capitalism, it is vulnerable to the boom-bust cycle of the capitalist market.

The 2007 GFC was driven by the collapse of the housing bubble in the U.S. Before it burst the bubble had been pumped up through the use of sub-prime mortgages being repackaged into collateralised debt obligations. That’s a fancy way of saying bad debts were bundled together and sold as AAA rated financial products.

Before the pandemic hit, the cracks of the current housing bubble were already beginning to appear. According to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), home lending growth had slowed. It has continued to fall. In June national home values fell 0.7% following a 0.4% fall in May. More tellingly, the value of home loan approvals slipped 4.8%, the sharpest decline since 2015.

The pandemic threatens to completely upend the housing market which could trigger an economic collapse. According to the Australian Banking Association (ABA), banks have deferred repayment on 700 000 loans totalling $211 billion, over 60% of which are for residential mortgages. So far the government has taken no steps to manage these deferrals beyond extending the Jobkeeper and Jobseeker programs. The investment bank, Morgan and Stanley estimates that 20% of borrowers on repayment holidays will default, triggering $4.3 billion across the major banks alone.

Those figures are before the second wave hit. The response from the left has been to call for rent strikes during the pandemic. This is useful in coordinating and raising the level of combativeness of the working class. But a rent strike in and of itself won’t resolve the housing crisis we are facing.

Home ownership and alienation

We must build a better society during the recovery. We must recognise how important home ownership is to people, that in our current society it remains one of life’s defining features.

Socialists must call for an end to discrimination in housing. We must go beyond making discrimination unlawful or simply building more public housing. We must outline and fight for a comprehensive policy that meets the needs for housing for the whole working class.

In Australia there are many factors that complicate the question of housing. It is not just the middle-class and ruling class that invest in housing stock. Owning a second or even third home has become the preserve of better off sections of the working class. This of course will compound the looming debt crisis. This petty accumulation more often than not, comes at a price of ideological loyalty to the ruling class.

Part of the fight around public-housing is to demonstrate that socialised housing is not just a stop-gap measure to prevent crime and homelessness. It has to be a better way to live, providing more social and cultural opportunities so people can develop to their full potential. It also has to be better housing.

It is therefore not enough to build more affordable housing in cramped apartment complexes or hi-rise towers. While high-density housing may be some architect’s wet dream, it’s not the answer. Most people do not live in apartments out of preference (although some do). Most people live in apartments or medium density town-houses, because they can’t afford a stand-alone dwelling. Not everyone lives a confined and sedentary existence comfortably.

Most workers enjoy the outdoors, exercise, projects, sport and entertaining friends; all of which requires at least a modicum of space. Yet most housing they are provided with lacks private space, outdoor areas, gardens or even balconies. Most new housing built in working class areas are featureless, with poor views from living areas and bedrooms, no garages or storage areas, almost zero green-space and are poorly lit.

They are generally poorly insulated from noise and heat, inefficient, made from poor materials and lack accessibility for people with disabilities. Many of the outer suburbs of Melbourne are bland, grey bleak places with few trees or leafy areas and poor access to amenities. They are becoming over-developed, noisy, polluted, littered with waste and congested with traffic.

Socialists should respect working peoples aspirations for better housing, rejecting the high-density model of inner-city living. Monolithic homogeneous apartments are not the answer. Karl Marx in his 1845 work The German Ideology stated: “The greatest division of material and mental labour is the separation of town and country. The antagonism between town and country begins with the transition from barbarism to civilisation, from tribe to State, from locality to nation, and runs through the whole history of civilisation to the present day…”

Three years later in the Communist Manifesto he called for the “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.”

In 1872, Marx’s co-thinker Frederick Engels reaffirmed this position: “The abolition of the antithesis between town and country is no more and no less utopian than the abolition of the antithesis between capitalists and wage workers. From day to day it is becoming more and more a practical demand of both industrial and agricultural production.”

High Line. Urban public park on an historic freight rail line, New York City, Manhattan.

Neither the alienation of the city or of the country is a natural way to live. These are the products of definite property relations based on the development of civilisation through many different stages. We need to point to a better way of living where the question of housing is resolved through collective solutions. This is not possible without first addressing the current crisis which creates an opening for socialist ideas. By gaining the confidence of the working class and drawing on their own ingenuity we can lift the horizons of what is possible.

The aim should be to create greater community solidarity where individuals are not left restricted to the family unit for belonging or left to fend for themselves. A socialist housing policy is critical to helping shift consciousness beyond the individual struggle for survival. The construction of housing needs to overcome the alienation of accumulation for its own sake. Housing needs to be a part of our health and well-being.

Ideas for a Socialist Response

Progress towards establishing housing as a social right will only happen when large numbers of people are involved in fighting for that. However, all movements are based on ideas and we can and should start thinking about and popularising socialist solutions now. These are some of the ideas that could form part of a socialist housing policy:

Socialists demand the government:

  1. Establish a program of large-scale public works to build housing by a government run construction agency.
  2. Provide low-cost housing that is no more than 20% of a tenant’s income.
  3. Introduce rent-controls.
  4. End land-banking. Restrict the purchase of investment properties and eliminate negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts.
  5. Mandated a minimum quota of social low-cost housing in all new housing developments.
  6. Establish a national bank to provide credit on fairer terms to working people.
  7. Enable public-housing tenants to purchase the houses they live in.
  8. Make housing part of a national plan that integrates opportunities to work and study. New suburbs must have adequate schooling facilities and job opportunities. This could be coordinated with a renewable energy plan.
  9. Preserve and expand green-spaces. Building rows and rows of housing is not a community. Town-planning must incorporate leisure activities and meeting spaces.
  10. Local governments should establish community housing associations through which workers of all income levels can purchase housing that fits the needs of the community. Local governments must ensure suburbs are clean sanitary places to live, removing waste, penalising illegal dumping and cleaning waterways. There must be strict regulation of industrial areas. Factories that omit too much pollution must clean up their act or face eviction. Owners of factories that have caused toxic fires must face recrimination. They must not be able to reinvest in the local area. Local governments should advocate for harsher penalties against the big polluters.

While regional towns are in decay, cities are becoming over-developed with increasingly poor access to public transport and basic amenities. A socialist government would overcome this disparity by incorporating regional areas into its broader economic planning, distributing resources where they are most needed and desired.

Public-housing in Australia lags behind that of most other advanced capitalist countries. It is run-down, seen as a last-resort and a burden on society. There are many schemes in Europe, such as in Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium, which provide useful examples of what can be done – even within the limited framework of capitalist governments – to provide affordable housing that is creative, sophisticated and desirable. But perhaps we only need to look to the original public housing schemes in Australia. The vision of the Daceyville “garden city” was a good one.

Maybe the humble single and semi-detached workers cottages of Daceyville could provide the promise of a better future; one with the simple pleasures of comfort, fresh air and sunlight. To be realised, all that is needed, is those who dare to dream and those who dare to struggle. To confront the looming economic crisis, drawing lessons from the past can help us.

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