Enough squabbling over supply versus demand. Let’s build the social housing that Britain needs

A council estate in Bristol. Image: Getty.

In the long fight to fix the housing market, it’s Supply versus Demand. Each time a think tank or a government ministry releases a new statistic on the state of the housing crisis, these two camps spring to action to advance their diagnosis of the problem and their own solution to it.

In one corner, the Supply camp argues that prices are high because housebuilding is low. We used to build 300,000 houses a year; right now, we build half of that. New builds are not keeping up with new household formation. It’s a simple mismatch – simple enough that a parrot could teach you. If we want to solve the crisis, the Supply camp insists, we must build more houses.

In the other corner, the Demand camp argues that prices are high because animal spirits are high. They wave compelling evidence that the number of dwellings in Britain has actually grown faster than households. The real problem is that houses are no longer homes, but speculative investments. Building more houses, the Demand camp claims, won’t end the crisis. We need to clamp down on speculation.

But the choice between Supply and Demand is a false one. Both camps point to real problems in the housing market – but both camps overlook the obvious middle ground between them. The simple truth is that Britain needs more affordable homes. And so the real solution to the housing crisis – the solution that can not only satisfy both sides of the debate, but also mobilise a winning coalition of voters – is social housing.

The decline of social housing in Britain has been swift and decisive. Since the introduction of Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy in 1980, roughly 1.5m social homes have been sold into private hands – and only a fraction of those replaced. Under the Conservative’s programme of austerity, the state of social housing went from bad to worse. Since 2010, social housing construction has fallen 97 per cent, to just 1,102 new builds each year. Today, council housing is at its lowest level on record.

While the government refuses to fund social housing from Westminster, it also prevents local councils from doing it themselves. Strict limits on council borrowing has all but eliminated the prospects for new council housing construction. Meanwhile, councils are given easy access to low-interest credit from the Public Works Loan Board, with which they are free to invest in commercial property of any kind. It is a twisted set of incentives, driving councils away from sustainable investments in social housing and toward speculative gambling on the property market.

The result is an entire generation that has never known social housing. Over the last quarter-century, the proportion of young people that live in social homes has actually declined faster than the proportion that owns their own home. The vast majority reside in the private rental sector, where quality is low and rent is high. To keep up, the government’s housing benefit bill has swollen to £25bn each year – more than 1.5 times the total budget for all new housing construction in 2017.

In short, the ‘austere’ Tory housing policy has been spectacularly self-defeating. Far from bringing down government costs, the assault on social housing only inflated them further. Supply of affordable units fell, demand for private units rose, and the government foots the bill – over £190bn in housing benefit just since 2010. The only difference is that, under austerity, government spending takes the form of a subsidy to private landlords, rather than an investment in a public good. It’s facepalm economics.

To get the clearest sense of this ludicrous situation, look at council housing. Four out of ten properties purchased from councils under the Right to Buy policy are now owned by private landlords. They charge, on average, twice the rate of the local authority, forcing less fortunate tenants to seek housing benefit. In other words, the government pays for private landlords to own the properties that the government built itself. It’s absurd.

Returning to the guiding debate, then, the Supply camp is right to say that Britain needs more homes. But they are wrong to think that the private sector will sort it out on its own. All the evidence suggests that, left to its own devices, the private market prefers to serve a high-income clientele. And in Britain’s global property market, there is little guarantee that new units would even flow to local residents rather than overseas investors.

Social housing solves these problems. All social units can be designated as affordable, pegged to renters’ needs and incomes. Access to these units can be restricted to residents, 1.8m of whom currently sit on social housing waiting lists. And the returns to investment can be captured by the public authorities, rather than flowing to private landlords. More affordability, zero speculation, and a fraction of the £25bn housing benefit bill we pay out each year.

It’s smart money, and it’s good politics: 73 per cent of voters support the construction of new affordable homes in their local area, including 69 per cent of homeowners. NIMBYs are simply not the real obstacle when it comes to social housing.

The new Labour Party green paper, “Housing for the Many,” marks a step forward in this regard. The pledge to build one million ‘genuinely affordable units’ is a welcome, bold ambition. And the establishment of a new “English Sovereign Land Trust” – much like the Sovereign Property Fund we advocated in our report, Home Truthsis a necessary reform along the way.

But the Labour Party can go further in rebalancing the upside-down housing budget. The benefit bill is woefully high, pushing many Conservative observers to call for its retrenchment. But there is another way to lower the cost of the housing benefit: a new social housing campaign that applies downward pressure on private rents across the country. A new target for housing expenditure should be created to keep the government accountable to housing affordability. For every pound saved in benefits, one extra pound is invested in social housing construction. The target creates a virtuous cycle as well as a balanced budget.

For Theresa May, it’s time to see the writing on the wall. Her government continues to advocate for policies that merely nudge the private sector toward housing construction. She leaves on the table the simplest, smartest, and most popular solution.

If the Conservatives hope to hold onto their thin margin, social housing is their best bet. Time to build.

David Adler is a research associate at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.