Last Wednesday, eleven people came together to discuss the current housing crisis in Oxford. After some introduction and friendship-building, we began by talking in small groups about our personal experiences of housing in Oxford.
What became immediately clear from our conversations was that there were very contrasting experiences between comfortable home-owners who felt mixtures of luck and guilt at their fortunate situation and those renting often poorly maintained housing for extortionate rents without a realistic chance of having their own home. What was also starkly apparent was that this divide was generational. Indeed, one grandmother lamented how her own children were unable to afford a house in Oxford.
After a break, we moved on to discussing the causes of the crisis. As you will see from the flipchart I produced from our discussion, we noted many interconnected factors, but they all seemed to be related fundamentally to politics: to the politics of land and property ownership and to finance.
A new participant in the group, Katti, has recently come to Oxford from Germany to study and described her shock at rental costs and the extreme degree to which fellow students have to go to make ends meet to be able to continue their studies. By contrasting the situation in Oxford with the general situation in Germany, she was able to highlight the fundamental class nature of the conflict between those making, lobbying for, and benefiting from current housing policy and those suffering its consequences in the UK.
According to Katti, the balance in legal rights and protections are weighted far more in favour of tenants in Germany, whereas in the UK she noted that tenants have very few rights and protections left. She also described a very common scenario, probably institutionalised even, in which letting agents withhold deposits. Kati described having even to directly confront her letting agent in order to get back money which was legally her own. She told us all how the letting agent confessed that she was acting on behalf of landlords with dozens of properties who instructed agents to try their best to retain deposits.
For me, this anecdote expresses the fundamental conflict in our society between the use of houses as assets to make rental income from or as commodities to buy and sell and the use of homes as buildings for human beings to live in security, comfort, and dignity. I proposed that a good way to think about this was by thinking about ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’. A house has its obvious and vital use value – as a building that offers shelter, warmth, security. In our capitalist society, it also has its exchange value – as an asset that generates income and a commodity to buy and sell. What has happened over the past four decades has been a gradual, intentional expansion of the housing market and corresponding mortgage market – the expansion of house as source of exchange value. The general push to intensify and extend the realms of social life governed by the pursuit of exchange value has, of course, been centred around the process of ‘financialisation’. Financialisation means more than the growth and liberalisation of the mortgage market. We have actually seen mortgages bundled together into ‘securities’ for trading and used as the income stream needed to then create synthetic financial instruments for speculation. It was one class of these so called ‘derivatives’ – collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) linked to the ‘sub-prime’ housing market in the US– whose collapse led to the credit crunch and financial crisis of 2008. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their home and the subsequent policy of bank bailout and austerity to make the poorest pay for it has had extreme human and social outcomes across the world.
I suggested that the need for exchange value from houses reflects a few related developments. First and foremost, it shows how the ‘real’ economy where real things are produced and consumed remains stagnant with low levels of profitability. This pushes all kinds of people and firms into speculation on financial and housing markets. The most significant group here, perhaps, are older middle-aged and elderly people who have seen interest rates plummet and their pension funds raided or fall in value. Now more than ever, they need to derive an income from their and other people’s homes. This creates the structural conditions for intense generational conflict. But, it is not generations at war; it is an economic system that creates the antithetical interests and needs required to produce social conflict.
Interestingly, what was not really covered was the current problem of very low wages which exacerbates the housing crisis. Again, I would suggest that very low wages was symptomatic of a stagnant capitalist system needing to revive profitability by squeezing workers ever harder.
We were also indebted to Linda, another group participant, who made two particularly important contributions. First, she told us how the post-war UK government had been able to build well over 300,000 houses each year, peaking at around 400,000 in the early 1970s, but how we now build less than 150,000 – levels not seen since the 1920s.
Second, Linda made the invaluable point that it’s not really simply a supply-side problem anyway. She argued that the small global elite is now so rich that whatever number of houses were built, they could easily swallow this new amount up into their investment portfolios! So, again, it comes back to the fundamental politics of economic power.
We were fortunate to have three people working hard on developing solutions and alternatives. First, Fran from the Oxfordshire Community Land Trust (OCLT). A community land trust acquires land which it then keeps in perpetuity as a trust. It builds homes on the land and provides them to people for affordable rents on secure long-term conditions. The new home occupiers also become members of the trust with the shared power to decide how income will be used to improve their community. So, we are talking about collective community ownership rather than private individual ownership. OCLT has acquired a small plot of land in Dean Court in Oxford and is currently trying to get into the position to commence construction work to build six flats. The primary difficulty Fran described was, unsurprisingly, the cost of land and the need realistically to be donated land.
Second, Charlie Fisher came wearing a few hats! He first spoke about his participation in the Oxford Tenants Union which was established by a group of students last year. He described it as a mutual support group, but also a group trying slowly to rebalance the power between tenants and landlords. One thing that the OTU has been doing is working on a map of properties in Oxford according to its landlord in order to enable tenants to come together to challenge exploitation more effectively. This is slow work because it requires access to private information often very hard to come by. After the meeting, I read this recent article in the Guardian about students uniting to reform the desperate housing situation they face. It certainly seems true that students are a unique group most able to unite around housing which is, of course, much harder to unionise around compared to workplaces.
Finally, Tim, who spent 18 years working in housing and who currently studies at Ruskin College, proposed a plan for ethical landlording. He has in mind those small time absentee landlords who own just one or two extra properties who would generally be appalled if they knew how their letting agents were treating their tenants. He argued that tenants who were treated better in terms of fairer rents and better maintained homes would generally stay longer and be better tenants. He wants to try to bring this disparate group together to try to improve the situation for both tenants and landlords. If you’re reading this as that kind of landlord you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, that’s what went down last Wednesday. A general feeling of a productive and enjoyable session, albeit one that revealed just how challenging the situation is. I would argue that the current system that produces wealth for the few and misery for the many is only sustained currently by a housing bubble and artificially low interest rates. This will end sooner or later, sadly in a mess. The social and economic situation this is causing is, particularly in Oxford, reaching breaking point. Beyond the City, the people who do the work that human beings actually need – nurses, teachers, firepeople, even doctors – can no longer afford to live in Oxford. The roads are clogged with cars driven by people commuting in. Local NIMBY villagers block the development of their villagers.
Something has to give and pretty fast. So, to those who fear nothing will change I say that change is about to happen. We have to be ready for it. All those inspiring folk leading initiatives like the OTU and OCLT may look like small fry, but they are actually producing the models of a new society (based on use value rather than exchange value) that will emerge in the coming years and decades. That’s why we must come together now to learn, to plan, and to act. As this film about the experience in Spain shows, we can definitely win.
Thanks for reading,