Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know there is a housing crisis – and even if you have been, your rent has probably gone up. Despite house prices having fallen slightly as a result of diminished consumer confidence, housing continues to devour outrageous amounts of income. In the UK and elsewhere, many poor, working-class and even some middle-class households experience housing as unaffordable, exploitative and precarious.
Housing has been a site of injustice for so long that it is easy to think this condition is permanent. But across the world, activists are reinvigorating housing politics. Demands that have been marginalised are becoming mainstream. There appears to be a new level of awareness today that the residential is political. And there are some initial signs that the balance of power may finally be starting to shift away from landlords, developers and speculators, and towards tenants, activists and residents.
From community organisers to the United Nations, there is a growing momentum in housing politics. Grassroots organisations and tenants unions are being formed. Housing movements are gaining members and support. These efforts are beginning to have a real impact. Last month, following a tenacious campaign by activists, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, signed a law strengthening rent regulation, bolstering protection against evictions and improving tenants’ rights. In Berlin, activists succeeded in pressuring the city’s Senate to approve a five-year rent freeze. And in recent years, cities across the world such as Belo Horizonte, Montevideo, Valparaíso, Warsaw, Beirut and Jackson, Mississippi have seen mounting vote shares and some outright victories for candidates associated with the new municipalist movement, a contemporary update of the municipal socialist tradition whose central goals include participatory urban democracy, the right to the city and the right to housing.
In some places, a new political calculus seems to be emerging. Establishment figures such as Cuomo have now evidently decided it is more advantageous to defy the real estate lobby than to disregard tenants. Even Theresa May’s government ignored objections by landlord groups this April and announced a plan to abolish no-fault evictions. Real estate capital remains a major political force, but the power of residents and housing activists is on the rise.
As a result, strategies that were seen as non-starters even a few years ago are now on the agenda. Barcelona’s leftwing mayor, Ada Colau, expropriated an empty flat owned by the bank BBVA and has promised more municipal takeovers. The Canadian province British Columbia has introduced a speculation and vacancy tax. Oregon has established state-wide rent controls. More than a dozen countries have piloted some form of unconditional housing for the homeless. These are preliminary steps that clash with other government priorities, and not all of them will succeed. But they set the stage for deeper changes. There’s now serious discussion of renationalisation, eviction moratoriums and new public housing offered to everyone as a right.
This is not to say that there has yet been any significant improvement in the process of finding and maintaining a home in most big cities. And housing movements have also faced disappointing setbacks. In May, the municipalist platform in Madrid lost power in local elections. Voters in Barcelona failed to deliver a majority for Colau and and her programme of higher public investment in housing, punitive fines for owners of empty apartments, and affordable housing quotas for new private developments, though she remains in power as part of a coalition.
But even if housing activists’ recent electoral record has been uneven, it is clear that housing is being politicised in new ways. Local branches of the Labour party and the Democratic Socialists of America have led campaigns around housing. Feminists and antiracism activists have highlighted the ways in which the housing crisis reinforces and in turn is reinforced by patriarchy and white supremacy. Proponents of the Green New Deal have put housing justice at the core of their debates.
All of these developments herald a new direction for housing. Since the 1970s, housing systems across the world have been moving towards models dominated by owner occupation and private renting. Developers, speculators, banks and other financial actors have become increasingly powerful. In the process, residential space has been turned into a commodity for speculation and exchange. Public housing, cooperatives and other residential alternatives have been sold, demolished or aggressively underfunded. The ideological consensus of the neoliberal era has been that housing should be privately controlled, debt-fuelled and highly unequal. It will take a lot of work to dismantle this system and build an alternative based on the idea of a universal right to good housing.
But housing is not going to disappear from the political agenda anytime soon. It is becoming both more central to contemporary political economies and less accessible to many households, creating ongoing opportunities for activists. The housing crisis is lurking just below the surface of many of today’s political currents, from socialism to populism. The idea that the home has special ethical and social significance, and therefore should be available to all as a matter of right, can draw support from many political positions and create new alliances.
The housing question is not going away. The resurgence of housing movements, and the fact that housing is increasingly seen as a site for political struggle, are signs of hope on an otherwise bleak political horizon. It is an issue that established political actors ignore at their peril.
• David Madden is an associate professor of sociology and the co-director of the Cities programme at the London School of Economics, and co-author of In Defense of Housing.
Since you’re here…
… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading and supporting The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism than ever before. And unlike many news organisations, we have chosen an approach that allows us to keep our journalism accessible to all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford. But we need your ongoing support to keep working as we do.The Guardian will engage with the most critical issues of our time – from the escalating climate catastrophe to widespread inequality to the influence of big tech on our lives. At a time when factual information is a necessity, we believe that each of us, around the world, deserves access to accurate reporting with integrity at its heart.Our editorial independence means we set our own agenda and voice our own opinions. Guardian journalism is free from commercial and political bias and not influenced by billionaire owners or shareholders. This means we can give a voice to those less heard, explore where others turn away, and rigorously challenge those in power.We need your support to keep delivering quality journalism, to maintain our openness and to protect our precious independence. Every reader contribution, big or small, is so valuable. Support The Guardian from as little as $1 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you.