Could a notorious prison offer an escape route from London’s housing crisis?

HMP Holloway, Islington, London. Image: Getty.

In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan ponders the task of making a heaven of hell. In Islington, local activists have set themselves a similar challenge.

HMP Holloway, once the largest prisons in Western Europe, was the home of notorious killers such as Myra Hindley and Rose West. The prison was also infamous for the widespread abuse of inmates, including political prisoners such as the suffragettes, who were force-fed within its walls. The last execution of a female prisoner in Britain was carried out in Holloway.  

The prison was closed in 2016 and put up for sale as the government sought to cash in on 10 acres of prime inner-city real estate. Inmates were controversially decanted to Surrey, a move that charity Women in Prison said caused “anxiety and distress for women in prison, and continues to have a negative impact as women are imprisoned further from their families and home communities.” 

The Ministry of Justice intends to secure maximum value for the land and will announce a preferred bidder in the coming months. This has raised fears of a similar outcome as previous sales of public land in the borough: sales which resulted in luxury apartment blocks with minimal affordable housing. 

A coalition of local campaign groups has formed to prevent that happening and stake its own claim to the prison. Community Plan for Holloway (CPH), an umbrella group comprising residents, NGOs, trade unions, faith groups and politicians, has outlined a vision for the site to serve the greatest needs of local people.  

This includes green spaces in a part of London that is sorely lacking in it, facilities for skills training to improve employment prospects, and mental health services in a borough where 16 per cent of adults suffer from depression.   

Another demand is for a women’s building, in recognition of the horrors inflicted on female inmates over the prison’s 166-year history. The building would offer dedicated support to women who have suffered through incarceration, as well as social spaces for the wider community including a feminist library, crèche and rooftop café.     

“We want the building to right some of the wrongs of the criminal justice system, and help women get what they need; from support with addiction to having a sense of community,” says Harriet Vickers of Reclaim Holloway, part of the CPH coalition.   

But the coalition’s top priority is affordable housing, at social rents rather than the government’s contentious definition of affordable, set at 80 per cent of market rates. Islington’s housing crisis belies its trendy reputation, with around 20,000 households on the waiting list for social housing and 900 in temporary accommodation. Local homeless shelters say they are taking in people in full-time employment due to unaffordable rents.  

Islington council is broadly supportive of this agenda, and it has produced its own set of demands based on the “biggest-ever response to a community consultation of this kind”. The documentco-signed by London’s deputy mayor for housing James Murray, calls for a minimum of 50 per cent “genuinely affordable” homes with 70 per cent at social rents, as well as green spaces and a women’s building. The council estimates the site could have capacity for up to 900 homes.

 Diarmaid Ward, head of housing at Islington council, says that social is housing is the “top priority” and his team will fight for “as much social housing as possible”. Ward laments that previous unpopular developments such as Mount Pleasant were forced through by former mayor Boris Johnson, but he is confident that, with Sadiq Khan in City Hall, there will be “no call-ins, no backroom deals”.  

But the council’s plans do not go far enough for some members of the coalition. They argue that, given the scale of Islington’s housing shortage, 100 per cent of homes should be genuinely affordable. As such an outcome is unlikely with a private developer, many feel that the land must remain in public hands.   

Activists are petitioning Sadiq Khan to buy the site and use it to build social housing, but the mayor has so far resisted. Alternative models are also being considered: an investor or philanthropist could provide funds for the site, but allow the council and CPH to shape the development. A similar arrangement gave rise to the Turner Prize-winning Granby project in Liverpool.   

“We know from experience that you cannot control what you don’t own,” said housing campaigner Glyn Robbins at a recent CPH forum. “We must retain ownership to build decent and secure homes for the people of Islington.”   

Campaigners are taking heart from recent victories of grassroots activists against unpopular developments in Haringey and Southwark, as well as the progress of community-led housing schemes such as START in Haringey, and hope to build on those gains with another landmark success.   “We are absolutely part of a movement,” says Will McMahon, a campaigner and deputy director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.  

 The next steps include intensive lobbying of every candidate at the upcoming local elections to extract commitments to the CPH vision. There will also be direct actions if the MoJ appears to disregarding the community’s wishes, as demonstrated when Sisters Uncut occupied part of the prison in May 2017.  

Activists are also looking beyond Islington to propose scalable solutions to the wider housing crisis in London. One core doctrine is to fight the sale of public land that could make a contribution to public housing. The government has committed to massive sell-offs to deliver 160,000 homes by 2020 – but research from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) shows that developers are far behind schedule to meet this target and just 6 per cent of new homes on formerly public land are at social rents. The NEF further claims to have identified 10 public sites that could deliver 4,631 homes, and make a net contribution to the treasury by reducing the need for housing benefit payments.  

The campaign and its wider objectives have a powerful ally in the local MP for Islington North. Jeremy Corbyn has supported CPH since its launch in 2016 and suggested the community plan represented the change in housing policy he would pursue as Prime Minister.   

At the most recent CPH forum, the Labour leader voiced his support for the principle of community-led regeneration and his opposition to unaffordable housing developments that cause “social cleansing”. Corbyn added that he intended to reintroduce laws that would require public land to be offered to councils before private developers.   

“Until 1980, it would have been impossible for the prison site to be sold unless it had been offered to the local authority first,” he told the meeting. “I want to bring back that power. That is very important to me.” 

 Corbyn also pledged to empower councils to build homes, a prominent feature of the party’s 2017 manifesto, which commits to lifting restrictions on councils borrowing to build. Local authorities would be expected to deliver many of the 100,000 affordable homes a year the party has promised.  

 The fate of HMP Holloway will have lasting consequences for the people of Islington. The prison may also offer a window into the future of Corbynite housing policy – and tell us whether Labour has genuine solutions to the housing crisis.  


How the pandemic is magnifying structural problems in America's housing market

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Long before Covid-19, the United States suffered from a housing crisis. Across the country, working class and low-income Americans struggled to pay rent, while the possibility of home ownership receded into fantasy. In hot markets, affordability became a struggle for even the middle class: In California, 41 percent of the population spends over a third of their income on housing costs. 

The coronavirus pandemic will only make these trends worse as millions are unable to work and the economy dives into a recession. Building could slow down in the medium term, as construction loans (risky bets in the best of times) become harder to come by. Unsubsidised affordable housing is often owned by small landlords, who are more likely to struggle during recessions, prompting flips to home ownership or sales to rental empires. 

New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty documented America’s longstanding housing crisis – and California’s efforts to battle it – in his book Golden Gates, which debuted just before the pandemic hit. “My sense is that right now coronavirus is magnifying a lot of things that were already happening,” Dougherty says.  

While Covid-19 adds new pressures, he says that many of the same issues we were facing still loom over the issue, from developers crowding the higher end of the market, to escalating construction costs, to stagnating wages and vulnerable service-sector jobs that leave ordinary Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads. “That’s my larger message,” Dougherty says. “I think the structural problems continue to be a much bigger deal than the cyclical problem in housing.”

CityMetric spoke with Dougherty about how his thinking has changed since Covid-19, Donald Trump’s pro-suburban rhetoric, and the apparent exodus from San Francisco. 

I’ve really been struck by how strong the housing market seems to be despite the epic economic crisis we are facing. Costs seem to be higher everywhere. I've heard realtors talk about bidding wars like they haven't seen before in Philly, where I live. But perhaps that's just pent up demand from the big shutdowns?

What you have is an economy that has bifurcated. You have fewer middle-income jobs, more lower-income service jobs, and more higher-end jobs in software and finance. That's how our economy looks and that's a problem that is going to take the rest of our lives to solve. In the meantime, we have this housing market where one group of people have so much more money to spend than this other group. Cities reflect that. 

What's important about this bifurcation isn't just that you have gross inequality, but that these people have to live next to each other. You cannot be someone's Uber driver and telecommute. You cannot clean someone's house remotely. These lower-end service workers have to occupy the same general housing market as the super-high-end workers. 

All the pandemic has done is thrown that even more out of whack by creating a situation where one group of people is buying and expanding homes or lowering their home cost by refinancing, while another group are at income zero while trying to live in the same housing market with no demand for their services. When you see home prices booming and an eviction tsunami coming in the same newspaper, that tells you the same thing the book was trying to show you.

Does America writ large have the same housing shortage crisis as California and the Bay Area more specifically? There are other super hot markets, like New York City, Boston, or Seattle. But in Philly, or in Kansas City, is there really a lack of supply? 

There are three kinds of cities in America. There are the really out of control, fast-growing, rich cities: the Bay Area, Seattle, New York. There are declining Detroits and Clevelands, usually manufacturing-centric cities. Then there are sprawling Sun Belt cities. This book is by and large concerned with the prosperous cities. It could be Minneapolis, it could be Nashville. But the housing crisis in places like Cleveland is much more tied to poverty, as you pointed out. 

Those kinds of cities do have a different dynamic, although they still do have the same access to opportunity issues. For instance, there are parts of Detroit that are quite expensive, but they're quite expensive because that's where a lot of the investment has gone. That's where anybody with a lot of money wants to live. Then you have Sun Belt cities like Dallas and Houston, which are starting to become a lot more expensive as well. Nothing like the Bay Area, but the same forces are starting to take root there. 

I think that the Bay Area is important because throughout history, when some giant American industry has popped up, people have gone to Detroit or Houston. Now tech, for better or for worse, has become the industrial powerhouse of our time. But unlike Detroit in its time, it's very hard for people to get close to and enjoy that prosperity. There's a certain kind of city that is the future of America, it has a more intellectual economy, it's where new productive industries are growing. I think it's an outrage that all of them have these housing crises and it's considered some insane luxury to live there. 

A recent Zillow study seemed to show there hasn't been a flood of home sales in the pandemic that would signify a big urban exodus from most cities, with the glaring exception of San Francisco. Do you think that could substantially alleviate some of the cost pressure in the city proper?

On the one hand, I think this is about the general economy. If unemployment remains over 12% in San Francisco, yes, rent is going to be a lot cheaper. But is that really the reality we're all looking for? If restaurants and bars that were key to the city's cultural life remain shut, but rent is cheaper, is that what everyone wants? I bet you when this is all over, we're going to find out the tech people left at a much lower rate than others. Yes, they can all work from home, but what do you think has a bigger impact on a city: a couple of companies telling people they can work from home or the total immolation of entire industries basically overnight?

I don't want to make predictions right now, because we're in the middle of this pandemic. But if the city of San Francisco sees rents go down, well, the rent was already the most expensive in the nation. It falls 15%, 20%? How much better has that really gotten? Also, those people are going to go somewhere and unless they all move quite far away, you're still seeing these other markets picking up a lot of that slack. And those places are already overburdened. Oakland's homeless problem is considerably worse than San Francisco's. If you drive through Oakland, you will see things you did not think possible in the United States of America. 

Speaking of markets beyond San Francisco, you have a chapter about how difficult it is to build housing in the municipalities around big cities – many of which were just founded to hive off their tax revenues from low-income people.

That’s why you see Oregon, California, or the Democratic presidential candidates talking about shaking this up and devising ways to kick [zoning] up to a higher level of government. We've always done this whenever we've had a problem that seems beyond local governance. Like voting rights: you kick it to a higher body when the local body can't or won't solve it. 

But for better or for worse, this suburban thing is part of us now. We cannot just undo that. This notion of federalism and local control, those are important American concepts that can be fiddled with at the edges, but they cannot be wholesale changed. 

The first time I ever met Sonja Trauss [a leader of the Bay Area YIMBY group], she told me she wasn't super concerned about passing new laws but that the larger issue was to change the cultural perception of NIMBYism. We were living in a world where if you went to a city council meeting and complained about a multifamily development near your single-family house, you were not accosted for trying to pump up your property values or hoard land in a prosperous city. You were seen as a defender of the neighbourhood, a civically-minded person.

What is significant about YIMBYism is that the cultural tide is changing. There is this whole group of younger people who have absorbed a new cultural value, which is that more dense housing, more different kinds of people, more affordable housing, more housing options, is good. It feels like the tide is turning culturally and the movement is emblematic of that. I think that value shift will turn out to have been much more lasting than anything Scott Wiener ever does. Because the truth is, there are still going to be a bunch of local battles. Who shows up and how those places change from within probably will turn out to be more important. 

As you said, we've been seeing a lot of Democratic candidates with proposals around reforming zoning. How does Joe Biden's plan compare to the scope of the ambition in the field? 

There are two big ideas that you could pull from all the plans. First, some kind of renter's tax credit. It is obscene that we live in a country where homeowners are allowed to deduct their mortgage interest, but renters aren't. It is obscene that we live in a world where homeowners get 30-year fixed mortgages that guarantee their house payment pretty much for life and renters don't. If we think that it's a good idea to protect people from sudden shocks in their housing costs, that is as good of an idea for renters as it is for homeowners. 

I tell people that in this country, homeowners are living in the socialist hellscape of government intervention and price controls. Renters are living in the capitalist dream of variable pricing and market forces. Homeowners think they're living in this free market, but actually they're in the most regulated market – there are literally price controls propping up their market mortgages. 

Then there is Section 8 housing. Right now homeowners get access to the mortgage interest deduction. That programme is available to as many people as can use it, yet only about a quarter of the people eligible for Section 8 can get it. I think rectifying that is hugely important and a lot of the plans talked about that. 

The second big idea is using the power of the purse to incentivise people to more robustly develop their regions. You should have higher density housing in fancy school districts, near job centres, near transit. We're going to use the power of the purse to incentivise you, within the bounds of your own local rules, to do this right. Of course, that’s what Donald Trump is running against when he talks about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). 

When I was a local reporter in Philly, the city went through with that AFFH regulation despite Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson not being interested in enforcing it anymore. The city produced a fat report that maybe a few people read, but I don't think it changed policy. It's this phantom that Trump is running against, an ideal version of the policy that did not exist. It's also a phantom no one's heard of until Trump started tweeting about it. 

It’s been bizarre to watch. But Trump does seem to recognise that suburban politics don’t neatly fit into a red or blue construct. People who live in Texas and claim to want a free market system will turn around and erect local regulation to make sure nobody can build apartments near them. People in the Bay Area who claim to be looking for a more diverse place will use different logic, anti-developer logic, to keep apartments being built near them. 

People like that regardless of how they feel about things nationally. The bluntness with which Trump is doing it is discordant with the electorate and quixotic because people don't know what he's talking about. But the basic things he recognises – can I make voters feel like their neighbourhoods are threatened – he's onto something there. As with many things Trump, his tactics are so off-putting that people may ultimately reject them even if under the surface they agree.

You hear people on the left say the scary thing about Trump is that one day a good demagogue could come along. They're going to actually tax private equity people and they're actually going to build infrastructure. They're going to actually do a lot of popular stuff, but under a racist, nationalist banner. I think the suburban thing is a perfect example of that. There's a lot of voters even in the Bay Area who [would support that policy] in different clothing.

The world has changed completely since Golden Gates debuted just a few months ago. Has your thinking about housing issues changed as a result of the seismic disruptions we are living through?

The virus has done little more than lay itself on top of all of the problems I outline in the book. Whether we have an eviction tsunami or not, a quarter of renters were already spending more than half their income on rent. There's a chapter about overcrowded housing and how lower-income tenants are competing with each other by doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up for the scant number of affordable apartments. We now know that overcrowded housing is significantly more of a risk [for Covid-19] than, say, dense housing. If you live in a single-family home with 15 people in it, that's a lot more dangerous than 40 apartments in a four-story building.

Housing is just a proxy for inequality, it's a way of us building assets for one group at the exclusion of another. It is an expression of the general fraying of American society. I don't feel like that larger message has been affected at all, it's only been enhanced by the pandemic. With the caveat that this can all change, it just doesn't seem to me like there's some uber housing lesson we can learn from this – other than having a bunch of people crowded together is a really bad idea. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.