What value do we put on housing? Or, to ask the question in a more precise manner, what price do we put on everyone having access to a home?
According to the late Pope John Paul II:
“A house is much more than a simple roof over one’s head. The place where a person creates and lives out his or her life, also serves to found, in some way, that person’s deepest identity and his or her relations with others.”
The Son of Man may have no place to lay his head, but in the sixth wealthiest nation on the planet, can we not find ways to ensure that everyone has access to a place to call home?
Take Jasmine Stone, a single parent from East London:
“My daughter was 13 months old when I received the eviction notice. I was living in a hostel in Stratford, London E15. The letter said that we had two months to get out. We were homeless; that’s why we were in the hostel in the first place. We didn’t have anywhere else to go. There were 210 other young women living there. Now it’s luxury flats. The council said they would rehouse us, but it turned out they were threatening to move us hundreds of miles away, to Manchester, Hastings and Birmingham. We grew up in Newham. No one on low wages or benefits, or even an average income, can afford to live here.”
Jasmine’s response, along with a number of other homeless single mothers was to form the Focus E15 campaign group – and to occupy one of almost 2,000 boarded up flats on the Carpenters Estate in Newham. As Jasmine says:
“The boarded-up house we have opened is in beautiful condition. It has running water, a power shower, working gas and electricity. Just by adding a sofa, table and chairs and some plants, we have turned this house into a home, and solved the housing crisis for one of the 6,500 rough sleepers or thousands of other homeless people in London.”
In a campaign that some have come to see as embodying the capital’s housing crisis in miniature, the women are calling for the estate to be repopulated with those in housing need, for the “decanting” of existing tenants to stop immediately and for demolition to end.
Newham says that it has been planning to regenerate the estate for more than a decade, but that after consultation with residents, it decided it was too expensive to renovate and a decision was taken to demolish and redevelop the site as part of a local “metropolitan masterplan”.
The £1 million micro-flat
Just a few miles across London, a studio flat that is smaller than a double garage was recently put on the market for nearly £1m. The “micro-flat”, in the heart of Mayfair, is just 334 square feet, with a bed in the living room and a small kitchen and bathroom. The estate agents believe it would be perfect for a student.
“It would provide the perfect Mayfair pad for an overseas student studying in London from a wealthy family, or a socialite who wants a Mayfair address but at a lower cost.”
The Alice in Wonderland world of ‘affordable rents’
The response is surely to build more ‘affordable’ homes. Yet, in the Alice in Wonderland world of housing, ‘affordable’ no longer seems to mean what it says.
A flagship development of nearly 700 apartments on the site of the Royal Mail’s Mount Pleasant sorting office in central London has just been given planning permission. 98 are due to be at ‘affordable rents’ – but it was recently revealed that in this case ‘affordable’ means £1,690 for a one bed flat or up to £2,800 a month for a four bedroom flat. According to a rule of thumb that housing costs should represent a third of income to be considered affordable, their family income would need to be around £100,000.
Yet there is an alternative, if we would but look across the channel to Germany. Germans have never fallen for our fixation with home ownership, but have instead always been happy with long-term renting. Now, in the face of upward pressure on private rents, the German government has stepped in to introduce rent controls. According to the German Justice Minister Heiko Maas:
“The rent cap will help keep rents affordable for average earners. Rent increases of 30 or 40 percent in some urban areas are simply unacceptable.”
What chance of something similar happening here?
In the crazy upside down world of London’s housing market, a home is now a commodity that the super-rich buy, like fine wine or art. For the likes of Jasmine, and thousands like her, the prospect of being able to secure an affordable place to call home in the city of her birth is seemingly a vanishing possibility.
What price a Good Society, in which reasonably priced homes where people can flourish are available for everyone who needs them?