How exactly do we conceive of housing? This is a fundamental question, and one that never quite seems to be satisfactorily answered. So often, getting housing is treated as kind of status symbol, a way of indicating success under capitalism. This issue goes to the heart of the ways in which politicians are trying to deal with the housing crisis, and the problems with their current approach: continuing to view housing as something that needs to be earned, instead of being a right.
This January, Shelter released the final report of their commission on social housing. Titled ‘A Vison for Social Housing’, it not only confirmed the funding issues around social housing, but also called for a vast increase in the amount of available stock, recommending that three million new homes be built over the next twenty years.
This report feels particularly relevant alongside the continued rise in homelessness across the UK and in the face of comments made by government ministers on the subject. James Brokenshire, the government’s Communities Secretary, has unveiled plans to expand social housing eligibility to give military veterans suffering from PTSD and other mental illnesses priority for social housing. This indicates that Brokenshire has some appreciation of the fact that access to housing is a vital component of a good life, but his low-key ideas do not go far enough.
The problem – particularly under Conservative governments – is that housing is primarily viewed as being about investment and achievement, with ownership being a sign that one has “made it” in one way or another. But access to housing should not be regarded as a sign of success and status: rather, it should be seen as a necessity to which every citizen has a right. This idea is not unknown; it is reflected, for instance, in the constitution of South Africa, Article 26 of which asserts that everyone has the right to access to adequate housing, and, perhaps more importantly, that the state must take legislative measures within its resources to achieve this right. Here, housing is seen as a right, and it is up to the state to ensure that this right is met for all citizens. This doesn’t mean that there is no homelessness in South Africa; it is still an issue. But enshrining housing into the constitution, while not being an immediate solution to homelessness, fundamentally changes the way that the issue is approached.
This kind of ambitious commitment to improving the lives of people who need state assistance by giving them access to housing is exactly the sort of thing that a left-wing party with aspirations to govern should commit to matching. In launching the new policy, Brokenshire has mentioned the breakdown of the family and referenced the problem of homelessness among LGBT youth. His proposed expansion of social housing, however, makes no provision for these situations. The idea that young people should have a safety net if living with their parents becomes untenable or unsafe doesn’t feel radical, and yet it seems to be treated as exactly that. The problem lies in the framing of housing as something to be earned (as veterans are deemed to have done), rather than something to which we are all entitled. It seems that homeless young LGBT people simply haven’t done enough to deserve a roof over their heads.
Too often it is the most vulnerable who find themselves struggling when it comes to finding stable places to live. Brokenshire argued that family breakdown and issues around addiction contributed to the rising numbers of those sleeping rough – while shrugging off the impact of his government’s policies – and yet the failure to provide adequate funding for social housing seems to illustrate that there is simply no desire to do anything about it.
This is why we must never lose sight of the key question: what is the role of housing? The answer should be obvious, but the ways in which the government and much of the media react to issues relating to property and homelessness indicates that this is far from the case. Even government schemes like help-to-buy seem rooted in housing being perceived as sign of success; policies like a help-to-buy ISA require someone to have the money available to invest into it themselves, as opposed to finding a way to help those who might not be able to save money for buying a home. Late last year, Shelter’s homelessness figures – which incorporate those sleeping rough and those temporary accommodation – estimated that, nationally, one in every 200 people is homeless: over three hundred thousand people: a damning indictment of a country as wealthy as the UK. In September, Theresa May gave a £2 billion boost to housing, said that she wanted to “end the stigma” attached to the council flat and even seemed to acknowledge that the housing market itself was “broken.” But figures on the scale reported by Shelter show that homelessness is not just an issue caused by a broken market. This goes to a fundamental issue of how we consider accommodation, and what needs to be done to be given it.
Looking to the future, any government which claims to care about its citizens must face up to the need to consider more sweeping and fundamental reforms than simply tinkering with social housing eligibility, or throwing an amount of money equal to around six thousand pounds per homeless person at housing with no real plan. And these reforms need to start from the position that housing is a basic right to which every citizen is entitled. It’s clear that there will never be a simple solution to a problem like this, but there are steps that can and should be taken. Without a traditional constitution, it’s difficult for us to approach this in the same way as South Africa, but it is a clear example of that kind of direction things should be moving in. And there’s the issue of government housing policies that still focus on the relatively wealthy; schemes like help-to-buy could be retooled to serve those who are less able to save. The first step forward is to approach the problem at it’s heart: the ways in which we perceive housing.