Social housing is the only solution to the housing crisis, whether it comes from government legislation or mass occupation. The Sweets Way estate could be a start.
I'm writing this from the Sweets Way social centre, an occupied house on the Sweets Way Estate in Barnet, North London. I have been organising here with current and recently-evicted residents for the past month, to highlight the quality of housing and strength of community that are slated for demolition by private developers, Annington Properties Limited, in the name of so-called 'regeneration.'
This regeneration was not asked for by the people who have made the 160 or so buildings here their homes over the past six years, and is deeply troubling when seen in the wider housing contexts of Barnet, London, and urban centres around the world. In brief, all-but-the-rich are being forced out to make way for investment properties and second homes. The families that have already been 'decanted' from the lovely houses of Sweets Way, have been forced into accommodation that is simultaneously more expensive, of worse quality and further from the places they live their lives.
Free marketeers act as though solutions can be found by simply allowing more private building to take place, but in a country with over 600,000 empty homes, and a city with over 80,000 empty properties, this is not the fundamental point. Even if it was, leaving the building up to profit-making businesses and private landlords who will always cater to those who can pay the most, would not be the way to go about it.
As journalist Adam Hudson articulates, "gentrification is trickle-down economics applied to urban development: the idea being that as long as a neighborhood is made suitable for rich and predominantly white people, the benefits will trickle down to everyone else."
This is what Annington is trying to do in Barnet. In truth, gentrification is a nicer-sounding word for social cleansing: the forced dispersal of communities based solely on their inability to pay as much for shelter as others. Social cleansing is what happens when the free market is left to dictate housing policy.
Last December, the tenants of the New Era estate in Hoxton succeeded in forcing the US property developers who were attempting to 'regenerate' their homes, to sell the estate to a social landlord after mass public outcry. On the day of the announcement to sell the property, Paul Mason of Channel Four News described the victory as 'rent control from below,' highlighting that public pressure was able to keep tenants rents at a reasonable level, in spite of market forces that would otherwise have priced them out, and a government unwilling to act.
And while rent control is certainly welcome, we also need more social housing. People have been saying this for decades, but the conversation is relegated to demands made of politicians who are consistently too far away from the need, to prioritise it over the thunderous whispers of industry lobbying. The kind of state-funded building that followed the second world war would be great, but in today's political context, it seems a dubious basket to place so many of our eggs in.
So if we've ruled out the feasibility of getting the homes we need via either the state or the market, what is left? We are. And this is what is important about Sweets Way. While the current action rests on a small scale occupation, the potential is vast. The social centre represents a political statement about the criminality of destroying perfectly good houses, and replacing them with investment properties, but what's stopping the rest of the estate from being put to use by those who need it? As of now, very little beyond the metal sheets covering the windows and doors.
This may sound naïve or impossible, but this kind of action is not without precedent. In Spain, social movements have recently occupied 30 empty blocks of flats, rehousing 2,000 people in them. In American cities like Rochester and Miami, communities have organised to open up boarded up properties and help homeless families move back into them. In Argentina, the unemployed workers movement has not only occupied land, but collectively built houses on it together.
Of course we could dismiss these stories on the basis of all the things that make politics, economics and housing different in each of these countries.But we could also acknowledge what makes them similar: that people who need homes are asserting their right to shelter, rather than being made homeless.
So instead of hoping that Labour will be a little nicer than the Tories, or crossing our fingers that a couple of Greens get in and chip away at the political consensus on housing, we could look to one another and create homes together. Just as the Focus E15, New Era, Our West Hendon and Aylesbury Estate struggles have inspired action at Sweets Way, so too can the actions at Sweets Way encourage others to take the next step in their own communities, putting empty houses to use for those who need them, rather than letting them become investments for those who don't.
The buildings are all around us. The question is whether or not we will turn them into the homes we need.