“But there would be consequences.” Some thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s promises on housing

Jeremy Corbyn in Brighton today. Image: Getty.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – the absolute boy, who inspired a generation, won the 2017 election and is even now literally the prime minister – just made his closing speech to the party conference in Brighton.

A large chunk of it was on housing. That’s not a huge surprise: it’s a huge issue for younger voters, from whom Labour draws much of its support, and a clear red line with the Tories who seem incapable of even admitting that they’re presiding over a problem. In that election, Labour’s unexpectedly strong performance came in part from the party’s strong performance among renters.

But what did Jez We Can actually say? And will his policies fix anything? You can read the full speech over at the Staggers, but here are some extracts, with my commentary.

We will insist that every home is fit for human habitation, a proposal this Tory government voted down.

This is not 100 per cent accurate, but it’s at least 96 per cent accurate, which is a lot more per cent than the Tories should really be comfortable with.

The government did vote down an amendment which would have required both private and social landlords to make homes fit for human habitation. It claimed that existing regulations were adequate, and that this amendment amounted to “unnecessary regulation and cost to landlords, which will deter further investment and push up rents for tenants”.

But it’s far from clear that existing regulation is strong enough – and anyway, if it is, surely this wouldn’t be imposing any extra burdens on landlords?

At any rate, this is a huge great open goal for Corbyn, and the Tories have nobody to blame but themselves if it costs them votes.

And we will control rents – when the younger generation’s housing costs are three times more than those of their grandparents, that is not sustainable.

Rent controls exist in many cities across the world and I want our cities to have those powers too and tenants to have those protections.

This is more complicated.

Rent controls are certainly popular – not surprising, when you consider the state of actual rents – but economists all hate it, including those on the left. They argue that it reduces the supply of rental property. Moreover, it splits tenants into insiders (who live forever in rent controlled homes) and outsiders (who can no longer find anywhere to live because nobody is moving out of those rent controlled homes). San Francisco has rent controls, yet is one of the few cities on the planet where housing is more of a problem than in London.

That said, it’s not entirely clear what these rent controls would look like – whether they’d cap prices or link them to inflation; whether they’d be temporary or permanent; even whether this is just misleading code for things like changing the length of tenancies. The devil is in the detail.

And once again, it’s very difficult to look at the actual British housing market and conclude that the status quo is just fine (at least, unless you’re a landlord). As more and more people are forced to live in rented homes for the long term – even bring up children in them – there is certainly a strong case for changing the balance of power between tenants and landlords.

So while there is likely to be much squawking from Tories about the dangers of rent controls, once again I’m forced to point out: your total complacency on this issue is a big reason Labour is now eating your lunch.

(More on rent controls here.)

We also need to tax undeveloped land held by developers and have the power to compulsorily purchase. As Ed Miliband said, “Use it or lose it”. Families need homes.

This is probably broadly a good thing: the big housebuilders do tend to sit on land with planning permission for a while, to help them maximise their profits, and during a time of enormous housing shortage this is pretty gross.

But (there’s always a but, isn’t there?) developers move at the pace they do for a reason. If they moved much faster, prices would fall, and they’d lose money. Builders are not going to build, if it puts them at risk of going bust.

So while this may help at the margin, and it’ll certainly change house builders’ behaviour, my suspicion is it’s not going to be enough to magically double their output and fix the housing crisis. Although I’d love to be wrong on this.

Now for the bit where I get really conflicted.

Regeneration is a much abused word.

Too often what it really means is forced gentrification and social cleansing, as private developers move in and tenants and leaseholders are moved out.

(…)

Regeneration under a Labour government will be for the benefit of the local people, not private developers, not property speculators.

First, people who live on an estate that’s redeveloped must get a home on the same site and the same terms as before.

No social cleansing, no jacking up rents, no exorbitant ground rents.

Okay. This looks great, obviously. Of course housing should be about people. Of course regeneration should benefit residents, rather than clear them out altogether. We can all get behind that.

But, in what is now becoming a theme, things happen the way they do at the moment – developers chipping away at their social housing commitment, tenants being offered a choice between replacement homes elsewhere and paying much higher rents – for a reason. And those reasons are a bit more complicated than “uncaring councils and parasitic developers”.

One is the squeeze on council funding, combined with their statutory responsibility to sweat their assets. In expensive bits of the country, that’s forced inner city councils – often Labour ones – to come up with creative ways of using the highly lucrative land their housing estates sit on. Because they’re not swimming in cash themselves, that’s often meant partnering with developers, who by definition care more about shareholders than tenants. So: tenants get screwed.

Could we stop this? Sure. But there would be consequences. It’d be less profitable, so it’s plausible fewer regeneration schemes would happen. You might be okay with that, but it would mean crumbling estates keep crumbling, fewer homes get built, and those inner city councils are forced into making even more cuts.

We could probably deal with the consequences of that, too – but only if we’re willing to chuck more money into the system. In other words, better regeneration would inevitably be more costly regeneration.

Oh, and if we’re not going to “regenerate” council estates any more, that’s yet another place we can’t build to meet demand for housing in London. Again, that’s a legitimate policy choice – but it will have consequences in terms of worsening the housing shortage, placing yet more pressure on other sources of land (hello, green belt).

Last but not least:

And second councils will have to win a ballot of existing tenants and leaseholders before any redevelopment scheme can take place.

Again, this seems like common sense. But if implemented literally, I fear it would result in no redevelopment ever taking place, because NIMBYism is a thing and anyway who in their right mind would vote yes on having their home demolished?

And yet. As with so much else in the world of housing, the status quo is very clearly awful. Of course tenants shouldn’t be forced out, promised homes that will never arrive, and end up living miles and miles from their homes. Of course we should do this better.


What’s more, it’s no longer clear that what Richard Florida has termed “superstar cities” like London are even capable of generating affordable housing any more. Since London isn’t going to stop needing nurses or teachers any time soon – not to mention carers or retail workers – that’s a very strong argument for defending the idea of state subsidised housing, in a way that no government has done in decades.

So. I’d like to believe this is going to work. And I’m certainly pleased that someone is trying to defend council housing once again. But I have worries.

And the biggest is what was not in the speech. Ending the housing crisis will mean building a lot more houses. Corbyn has said in the past that he’s in favour of that. But where or how a Corbyn government would do so is very far from clear.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and Facebook. Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.   

 

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.