Does the Labour party actually want to solve the housing crisis?

Really, though? Image: Getty.

Say what you like about the housing section of the Labour Party's manifesto – and I’m about to – but no-one can deny that it is well written. It movingly invokes the “horror of the Grenfell tower fire” as an example of the “failing housing system”. It acknowledges that “everyone has the right to a decent secure home” and pledges to make this a reality. 

Yet if mere rhetoric solved the housing crisis there would be no crisis by now. After all, as the party’s own manifesto notes, the 1945 Labour government promised that “every family in the island” should have “a good standard of accommodation”. Yet in 2019, this is still a pipe dream for millions of people. 

It is the policy, not the rhetoric, that matters. And in fairness the headline policy is substantial, aiming for councils to build 100,000 homes and housing associations to build 50,000 homes a year by the end of a hypothetical labour administration. 

But there is policy in theory and policy in practice. Building housing, particularly social housing, faces a large number of political obstacles. Lest we forget, Tony Blair also promised a programme of social housing but failed to carry it out. 

First, where should the houses be put? We do know. From the manifesto, we do know where the houses won’t be built: it promises to “protect the green belt”. However, apart from ruling out 13 per cent of the country and a large number of golf courses and car parks, the manifesto has little to say on location. Less to say, in fact, than their 2017 manifesto, which specified “a new generation of New Towns to build the homes we need”. 

Angela Rayner said the programme would use brownfield sites; but in most cities, the social and affordable housing need outstrips the number of houses that can be built on brownfield by a factor of two or more. For example, according to demographic projections London needs at least 30,972 social homes a year and 11,869 affordable homes every year, giving a total need of 42,841 homes. However according to Shelter brownfield land is only capable of producing a maximum of 18,000 homes a year in the city, a gap of more than 30,000 homes every year. Equally, rural and suburban communities, with scarce brownfield, also suffer from the housing crisis and need affordable housing. 

So it looks like Labour is either unwilling or unable to say where most of these houses would go. Perhaps the solution is their proposal to establish a duty for councils “to plan and build these homes in their area”. In short, it will force councils to do the “dirty work” of allocating land for social housing.

This solution may cause conflict. Social housing is not exempt from the fact it may affect people's views, damage green space and put pressure on local services. As councils are elected by residents often angered by this, many councils are resistant to house-building in general, including affordable housing. Many affluent areas explicitly do not want affordable housing and abuse the planning system to keep poorer people out. 

There have been suggestions intended to mitigate these problems and enable communities to support local housebuilding. Labour is committed to reforming the land market, proposing the establishment of a sovereign land trust to acquire cheap land. It may wish to consider extending these powers to local authorities to enable councils to share some of the increase in land value that comes from development to benefit the local community and make the necessary housebuilding more popular. Equally, the party is always welcome to use YIMBY proposals on street level planning to enable councils to build affordable “missing middle” housing with local support. 

Whether the social housebuilding programme ever happens depends on what Labour is prepared to do to get these houses built in practice. It must either innovate with the planning system to make the building of affordable housing more popular where locals currently oppose it. Otherwise, Labour must be prepared to force many local authorities to meet their affordable housing needs. 

If Labour truly believes its manifesto’s claim that “the gap between the housing haves and have-nots is at the heart of the injustice in our country today” then it must be prepared to consider how it will get housing built in reality. Otherwise, its policies will not be realised and added to the long list of failures that have, since 1945, left decent housing for all as a dream printed in manifestos.

This is the first installment of a two-part article. The second will look at the Conservatives’ housing promises.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.


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.