A Future for Occupy? Why We Need A Campaign for Genuinely Affordable Housing

21.9.12

A year ago, when Occupy Wall Street began, people occupying public spaces in large numbers and refusing to go home was innovative and radical, but then those spaces were reclaimed by the establishment — with violence, or through legal machinations — essentially bringing the first phase in this new era of protest and activism to an end.

Anyone thinking that the Occupy movement has gone away, however, is missing the point. Just as the movement introduced a powerful new concept — the 99 percent versus the 1 percent — into political discourse, so the complaints that motivated people to occupy public spaces in the first place have not gone away.

Essentially, we live in a broken system, broken by criminals who have not been held responsible for their actions, criminals on Wall Street and in the City of London and Canary Wharf, motivated by greed on a colossal scale, who, aided and abetted by venal and/or stupid politicians, crashed the global economy in 2008 but then got away with it.

Saved by government bailouts, the criminals continue to live lives of almost unprecedented wealth and greed, while the rest of the people — the 99 percent — are being made to pay for the crimes of these thieves through savage austerity programs that are driven by malignant ideologies and are also, it should be noted, economically suicidal.

In the UK, the Tory-led coalition government that came into being two years and four months ago presides over a moribund economy, for which it is directly responsible, in which, as part of an “age of austerity” that is actually part of a wretched attempt to destroy the state provision of services and return Britain to the Dark Ages, or perhaps to the inequalities that prevailed in pre-revolutionary Europe, over 200 years ago, the poor, the young, the old, the sick, the unemployed and the disabled are all being driven into poverty and despair on an unprecedented scale. This ruthless destruction of the state is still unfolding, and is underreported because, for the most part, those who should be paying attention — including mainstream journalists — have become too complacent or indifferent to care.

The great scandals of modern life in the countries of the West are chronic self-absorption and the extermination of empathy, but such is the selfishness that dominates our lives that most people have forgotten, and even when they recognise what is happening, they fail to feel it deeply enough to do anything about it.

That may be harsh, and it may be that more people do care, but are simply too constrained by the pressures of their lives to do anything about it, but whatever the reasons, the silence of the majority has led to a terrible and ongoing situation in which, although the government is steadily losing popularity, the butchery of the state continues, essentially unopposed. When I Googled “Tories destroy state” looking for others writing about this, almost the only source was the excellent Richard Murphy, chartered accountant and scourge of the Tories, whose Tax Research UK blog is essential reading.

On September 2, for example, in a post entitled, “The Tories are bankrupting government – and society will fall with it,” he explained, writing about how the destruction of the state is deliberate Tory policy:

When will people realise just how dangerous this is to the very fabric of our society, which will be torn apart by such policies? And when will they also realise that without functioning and effective government the chance of ever creating wealth in this country will be undermined for generations to come?

Politics has not been this raw in our country for generations: we are quite literally facing the destruction of the whole fabric on which our society is based. And that means we all have a choice to accept this destruction of our democracy or fight it. Sitting on the fence is not an option: that’s acceptance.

I’m fighting.

In the last two years, the assault on the state has been unprecedented — the tripling of university fees, the privatisation of the NHS, and the assault on welfare being just three of the most heinous crimes committed by the government. As part of its intention to cut £18 billion from welfare, the government has been particularly savage in its pursuit of disabled people, establishing a review process, the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), implemented by the multinational corporation Atos, “by which,” as JJ, co-founder of the Black Triangle Campaign explained in a recent article, “the majority of the sick can be illegitimately found fit for work.”

The government’s assault on welfare also involves an assault on those claiming housing benefit, capping the amount that will be paid while portraying those in receipt of housing benefit as scroungers on a colossal scale, without ever mentioning that the majority of the money they receive goes directly into the pockets of private landlords. What is also not mentioned is that publicly-owned social housing would be far cheaper — which would be useful, when unemployment stalks the land so vigorously, for any government genuinely interested in saving money, rather than making life as miserable as possible for as many people as possible.

While the cap — at a total of £500 a week, including private rents — will force thousands of people, particularly in London, to have to move elsewhere, causing huge disruption to people’s lives and relationships, and, in the majority of cases, their children’s lives, forcing them to move schools, of course, as their families relocate, the government has gone further, scrapping actual affordable rents for new social tenants by insisting that they pay 80 percent of market rents, insisting that those with one spare room or more downsize (as though they were pieces in a game, and not real people with settled lives and homes), even though properties with less rooms are not available.

The list of ways in which the government is assaulting those in social housing — whether council-run or in the hands of housing associations, which are, essentially, privatised providers of social housing, whose tenants should be immune from excessive government meddling — goes on and on, but even less fortunate are those subjected to the whims of the private rental market, where, in London and the south east, landlords are charging exorbitant rents, and are able to get away with it because of a shortage of new and affordable housing, and because they are essentially unregulated and can do what they want. Horror stories abound, when those at the mercy of landlords are particularly vulnerable, but even when landlords don’t treat their tenants with disdain, they are still responsible for a situation in which, throughout London, anyone taking out a mortgage or renting a property is expected to pay anywhere between £12,000 and £15,000 a year for the privilege. Generally divided between two people, this means a minimum of £120 to £150 a week, although a glance at the property pages will reveal that it is exceptionally easy to pay much more than that.

Buoyed up by wealthy foreign investors, and by enough wealthy parents providing deposits to young professionals, London’s housing bubble refuses to burst, even though more and more people cannot buy into it, and as unscrupulous landlords proliferate, matching the outrageous amounts demanded from first-time buyers, more and more people are trapped, possibly renting forever, and paying a fortune to do so.

As Labour’s Jack Dromey, the MP for Birmingham Erdington and the shadow housing minister, explained in the Guardian last November, when the government launched its housing strategy for England, the approach taken to social rents was to introduce what Dromey referred to as an “Orwellian affordable rent model, which will be completely unaffordable to those who need it most, those on low incomes.” He added, ” In Haringey in London, a rent set at 80% of local market rents would require a household income of £31,000 at a time when the median income for social tenants is £12,000.” He also explained that research suggested that there would be “a £1.3bn rise in the benefit bill as a result,” rather than any reduction in expenditure.

This hidden extra cost is typical of the government’s idiotic and ill-thought out plans, in which, although their intention is to deliberately dismantle the state, the Tory playboy butchers haven’t gone so far as to work out what to do with the hordes of homeless, desperate people their policies will create. Instead, although they obviously all love the idea of privatising everything in Britain — except their own pay, of course, and some aspects of the courts and the MoD, and perhaps (although not with any certainty) the police — they seem to have made sure that anyone intelligent was not in the room when they hatched their cruel and ill-conceived plans and forgot to do the sums.

That, however, is of little help to the numerous people needing incomes of £31,000 (for social housing) to £40,000 and up (in private properties) just to get by. Even if they are not completely cast adrift from the housing market, with the median income nationally standing at £14,000, many — if not most — will be spending half their week working just to pay whichever unscrupulous landlord is exploiting them, and there seems little that they can do about it, now that a noticeable sop to the Tories’ extreme right-wingers — the criminalisation of squatting — came into effect on September 1.

As the Occupy movement enters its second year, and people may be open to thinking about what was or wasn’t accomplished, and what needs to be undertaken from now on, I’d like to see activists push for genuinely affordable social housing, and by that I mean social housing — or not-for-profit housing, as it should legitimately be described — in which rents are set at, I would say, a maximum of £50 per week per working adult.

In the London Borough of Lewisham, where I live, People Before Profit, a political party, has been agitating on this very topic, occupying five properties that Lewisham Council was about to sell in an auction, even though there are over 16,000 people on the housing waiting list in Lewisham, and around 1,000 families in temporary accommodation, a further 350 in hostels, and around 50 families in bed & breakfast accommodation, paid for by Lewisham’s council tax payers. People Before Profit activists made the homes habitable, and then moved people in, calling on the council to refurbish them, and they secured a victory when the council backed down, stating that the houses would be “renovated for future occupancy,” and that they were “looking at working with local charities and organisations employing young people to carry out the work.” A spokesman told the East London Lines blog, “The Council is keen to ensure that local young people in the borough have opportunities to learn, earn and train” — another key aim of People Before Profit, it should be noted.

On September 15, People Before Profit held a conference, “The Future of Social Housing,” in New Cross, discussing many of the challenges currently facing those in social housing, or those in even more precarious housing situations. I was only able to attend for a while, but I met some great people, and had some extremely interesting conversations.

People Before Profit’s house occupations in Lewisham provide only one indicator of what can be done to trigger discussions about how all the assaults on affordable housing mentioned above are creating a situation that is both unjust and economically counter-productive, and I was disappointed, after the Lewisham PBP occupations, that activists in other boroughs didn’t follow their example, as a London-wide campaign of occupations would really prioritise the issues, and attract much more media attention.

There are, however, other actions that can be taken. Although the ban on squatting has led to numerous evictions in London and elsewhere, which have generally been underreported, or not reported at all, one way of highlighting the injustice of criminalising people for being homeless would be for activists to focus attention on commercial buildings, which are not covered by the new legislation, and which provide opportunities both to highlight the economic decline of the UK under the Tory-led coalition government, and also, I believe, to encourage a model of communal living and live/work experiments that can provide a positive example of how we could be living. One example of this is the ongoing occupation of Friern Barnet Library in north London. Barnet Council closed the library in April due to cuts, but occupiers reopened it, and, “along with local campaigners, are running a book-lending service, exercise classes and mother and toddler groups.”

There are other creative options — claiming unused land and building on it independently, or camping on it, for example — but these are, of course, just my suggestions. Anyone interested in pursuing this matter further is encouraged to contact People Before Profit, and, of course, my email remains as public as ever.

“Think global, act local” was not a phrase invented by the Occupy movement — it is attributed to the Scottish town planner and social activist Patrick Geddes, the author of the 1915 book Cities in Evolution — but it meshes perfectly with our needs here and now, and the importance of fighting back against the neoliberal austerity programs designed to consign all but the rich to various types of suffering, from wage slavery to destitution.

Note: For further resources on squatting, see the Advisory Service for Squatters and Squash (Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes), as well as the Eviction Resistance Network, linked to above.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

4 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Ed Rynearson wrote:

    occupy was started by the elite > the people and anger are real

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m not sure Adbusters and the first people who turned up on Wall Street on September 17, 2011 quite qualify as the elite, Ed, but I certainly agree that the anger is real. I am amazed that it is not manifested more strongly. In the UK, which I was mainly writing about in the article, the horrors of the neoliberal Tory government are so painful that it’s difficult not to be furious on a full-time basis. I can’t understand how anything, whatever it is – TV, shopping, drink, drugs, meditation – could take the edge off that.

  3. damo says...

    andy i have just moved again 8 times in 5 years i had litteraly been driven out of my flat by a couple of vile nasty young torie shits[camerons children] they were selfish spitfull monsters vile rich kids with everything i had a choise beat the shit out of both of them litteraly beat them within an inch of there lives at the moment in this sick,sick country the likes of them have the complete weight of the law on there side even though its them who are the passive aggressives…or just upsticks and move …again….now ive moved into a studio flat in shepards bush the place is okish i,m not going to unpack all my stuff as who knows how long it will last do you want to know how much the rent is ok £1,100 pounds a mounth yeah thats right one thousand one hundred pounds a mounth for a tiny 20tf by 15 ft studio flat its like something out of riseing damp in a shabby building…this is modern briton andy this is what its like to be in the private houseing market ..moveing..moveing…moveing..never being safe or settled…never this whole corrupt houseing market is completely out of control we are in the new era of rackman exept thease scumbags hide behind flashy websites and so lettings agencys..as soon as i can i,m outta here ill try to get to berlin or spain …the uk is a place no longer worth liveing in.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Damo, thanks for the messages. I’m so sorry to hear about your experiences. You are chronicling the horrors of modern life in Britain in a way that most of the media is ignoring completely, and your analysis of the new breed of Rachmans who are everywhere these days – with their slickness intended to disguise their evil-hearted greed – is spot-on.

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