Thousands sleep rough on the streets of London(1) while 80,000 homes lie empty(2). It is a city where a fifth of private tenants are impoverished by inflated rents (3) while home owners profit to the tune of £100,000 a year.(4) It is a city whose Mayor cheers on the privitisation of social housing while defining an "affordable rent" as 80% of the market rate, a level that is resolutely unaffordable for the majority of Londoners.(5)
Without fail our politicians have legistlated in favour of landlords, property developers and super rich investors, ideologically fetishising profit and privatisation without a care for the havoc it wreaks upon the zero hour contract worker, the debt laden university graduate or the unemployed single mother who has to decide between heating her home or going hungry.
This is because the political class represent the interests of capital. Our housing crisis is a manifestation of a crisis of democracy, one where profit is prioritised over people and our representatives cannot think beyond neo-liberal dogmatism, beyond privitasion, de-regulation and free market fundamentalism.
This explains the political antipathy towards rent controls, a policy that has proven sucessful for decades across Germany and, where it has been experimented with, in select areas of London (6).
It also explains the continued existance of the right to buy scheme; a policy that benefits a few select individuals at a huge cost to the taxpayer by forcing local councils to sell off social housing at discounted rates, in some cases by up to £100,000.(7)
This gradual privitisation of the bottom of the rental market means that former social housing tenants, still reliant on housing benefit but forced into private accomodation, act as a funnel through which money pours from the government into the hands of buy-to-let landlords.
This stealth corporate subsidy grew under New Labour too. During their time in office the number of private tenants in London claiming housing benefit went up by 150% (from 100,000 to 250,000) and, as a result, the £24 billion the government spends on housing benefit each year now largely goes into the pockets of private landlords and housing companies. (8)
This neo-liberal profit fetish has altered the way we view housing. No longer is a home somewhere to live, valued because of its use rather than its worth. Instead it has been reduced to a commodity, a mere vehichle by which to generate profit.
Nowhere is this more explicit than in housing developments such as "Rise" in Deptford. Cathedral Group, the company that owns the plot, don't even keep up the pretence of building homes for people to live in. Instead they pitch these luxury flats as investments; advertising them directly to wealthy foreigners as a way to profit from the inflated London housing market that terrorises the working class and immigrant communities who have long occupied these "up and coming" London boroughs.
That successive governments have presided over a legislative framework that treats housing as an asset for the rich while pricing out the poor shouldn't surprise us. When a third of our MPs are buy-to-let landlords(9) and prominent cabinet figures such as Phillip Hammond own property development firms, we realise that there is not only an ideological divide between politicians and the public but a conflict of interest too.
Why else would two Tory MPs, one of whom is a landlord himself, fillibuster a piece of legislation designed to stop landlords pursuing "revenge evictions" against tentants that complain about a fault with their property(10). Why else would we see Richard Benyon MP, whose family property firm managed the New Era estate in Hoxton and planned to increase rents by more than 200%, come into direct conflict with some of the most needy and vulnerable in our society.
Perhaps most symbolic of this divide between them and us is found in the Tory's support for the bedroom tax and their concurrent aversion to any form of mansion tax. Blinkered by self interest and ideology our ruling elite see no problem in pushing one in seven of those at the bottom of society into rent arrears, further poverty and towards possible eviction(11) while refusing to tax the most valuable 0.5% of homes. (12)
Thankfully, those on the ground have realised we are not all in this together. The E15 Mothers, the Radical Housing Network and the tenants of the New Era Estate are just a few of the many communities organising in opposition to this pernicious neo-liberal housing agenda.
But as activists we must remember that our housing problem is one of many symptoms of our deepening democratic crisis. In all areas of life Westminster no longer serves the interests of the 99% and only if we act to tackle the problem at root by removing the influence of the corporations, banks and super-rich from our politics will we succeed in achieving a system where homes are built for people rather than profit.
This is why #Occupydemocracy will return to Parliament Square on Saturday for an occupation themed around the housing crisis. We will have speakers from the E15 Mothers, the New Era Estate and the Green Party, as well as workshops, debates and a sleeping bag and blanket collection for the homeless. So come join us from 11am and let us stand together for a democracy free from corporate influence.
(8) Owen Jones The Establishment: And how they get away with it p.187