Tag Archives: housing

Islington Fights Buy-to-Leave: First local policy steps to a Lambeth we can live in?

Islington Council is moving to penalise landlords who buy flats in new highrises  and leave them sitting empty, using a new term I haven’t heard before but describes perfectly a new phenomenon of housing assets instead of homes: Buy-to-Leave. In summary from the Guardian:

Property investors who leave homes empty just to make money from property price rises could be fined or even jailed under proposals made by a London council.

Islington plans to force owners of newly built homes to prove they are occupied. If homes are left empty for longer than three months owners will face high court injunctions which if breached, could bring fines, repossession and, in the worst cases, jail for owners, the council said.

The drastic action has been proposed as the north London borough revealed that 30% of 2,000 homes built in the last six years have nobody on the electoral register and, even when students and foreign tenants are discounted, close to a quarter of homes in five of the newest residential developments appear to be empty.

I’ve been wondering for some time just how many of these new highrise flats going up all over the city were occupied — and racking my brains as to how to measure it — especially as a lot of them are being built in Vauxhall, and there is a possibility that they will be appearing in Brixton. Islington Council has tried to use the electoral register to look at how many are actually serving as permanent residences. The Guardian states:

The boom in investment in homes is being felt across the capital. Research consultancy Molior has found that in developments of more than 20 units in London, over 70% of new-build sales in the £1,000-£1,500 per square foot range were to investors, and over 50% in the £700 to £1,000 per square foot range. It said some are “held as permanently available hotel suites” by the owners.

So I imagine that data is where the below graph published with the story comes from — but aside from being an indictment of greed in a city where so many people are desperate for housing, the sources of the data are remarkably opaque. Perhaps because Molior is a high-price research service for real estate interests.

Islington’s announcement has, of course, caused a ripple of shock and horror across the business community. I saw a link to Forbes, clicked it, and while it was loading this quote appeared on my screen:

Those who condemn wealth are those who have none and see no chance of getting it.
–William Penn Patrick

It made me throw up a little in my mouth. In a world facing sky-rocketing inequality and still reeling from the crisis caused by bankers, not to mention environmental collapse, the condemnation of wealth is not just sour grapes. But such a quote just tells you to expect to a string of cliches rather than any kind of considered response to a council fighting for its constituents and their quality of life. Tim Worstall’s An Englishman’s Home Is No Longer His Castle does not disappoint. In claiming that the council is ‘micromanaging the London housing market’ he writes:

But the most important point really is that property is property. You own something then you get to do as you will with it. If you can’t do what you will then in a certain sense then you don’t in fact own that thing. So this is another step along that road of killing off the idea of private property altogether:

But leave that aside: if people wish to leave a house empty, given that they own that house then they’ve a perfect, nay an absolute, right to do so. Just because that local council isn’t issuing enough planning permissions for new homes doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to overturn this most basic right to the ownership of those things that, umm, one owns.

This ignores centuries of restrictions on property, because we’ve had centuries of comfort, nay better lives all around, due to a concept of the public good. He’d probably be the first one to complain if a strip club was built next to his house (lowered property values, nuisances, loud drunks, licentious behaviour, umm, I can hear him rant now). Luckily he’s probably protected by zoning or other planning measures. For the public good. We have parks for that too, and public drains and shared streets and street lights even, all sorts of things he takes advantage of without second thought.

Just imagine the terrible impact that vast amounts of uninhabited housing have on a community. I don’t have to imagine it, because I’ve been interviewing older folks living in the remaining social housing in Limehouse. It breaks my heart to hear them mourn the destruction of their communities, as their children have had to move miles away to find housing they can afford.  They don’t feel safe because their neighbourhoods no longer bustle, no longer have life. Those people who do live in those new highrises tend to be there only for a few months at a time, or from Monday to Thursday. Churches are sharing their pastors and shutting down almost all their services and events, local businesses are disappearing, pubs are closing, the streets are empty come weekends. Flats sit empty when council waiting lists for housing run to the tens of thousands. Worstall asks:

What is it about “private property” that the local council doesn’t get here?

But really, what is it about not just urban planning, but the value of the public and society and a community safe to live in that you don’t get?

Islington Council member James Murray writes in the New Statesman the reasoning behind this effort, and he is certainly eloquent (this is for you Tom Bridgman, delivery lead on Regeneration for Lambeth Council):

Off-plan profits hit the headlines last week with reports that a studio flat in Battersea power station, sold for close to £1m in the spring, is now due to go back on the market for up to £1.5m before it has even been built. The old free market assumption that building more housing meets demand and makes prices fall is turned on its head – in this case new housing is not helping the crisis and, by pushing up prices generally, could actually be making it worse.

And among these flats that are sold off-plan, people get particularly outraged when they are bought as “buy-to-leave” investments – flats which are built and then left empty as their values rise. It’s one of the grimmest expressions of how new housing built in London can become a prized asset over a place to live.

It shows, I think, at least a little bit more sophistication in understanding London’s housing market than that shown by Lambeth’s council I’m sad to say — and they really should know by now given what’s happening in the rest of the borough, particularly Myatt’s Field — and more willingness to work to find solutions. This is just a start in addressing the bigger problems, as Murray writes:

Of course ending buy-to-leave would only take the very sharpest end off the housing crisis in London. We also need to help councils build more, to elect a mayor who takes affordability seriously, and to make the private rented sector fit for purpose. But we need to challenge the injustice people feel when new towers rise out the ground and sit there empty. We need to stop a cynicism that threatens to undermine support for building when people can’t see how new homes will help.

When we’re building homes in London, buy-to-leave shows it really matters what we build – and at the very least, new “housing” must provide homes. That really shouldn’t be too much to ask.

It’s definitely something Lambeth’s council should be supporting, looking to implement, and at the least learning from as the planning measures move forward through the challenges from developers.

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Utopia London

DVD_coverDirector John Cordell (2010)

Utopia London opens with a statement:

‘Buildings leave the mark of past ideas on a city.’

You see a print of London in which St Paul’s Cathedral stands prominent, to show the power of God. Today, we see everywhere monuments to money. But this is an exploration of a period that fascinates me as much as it does Cordell, the early part of this century when for just a little while an alternative to both of those two visions unfolded as an ideal of constructing a society of equal citizens – this is the filmmaker’s journey through the city he grew up in ‘to map the life and death of London’s egalitarian dream’.

I still find it hard to write about film, particularly a documentary so packed full of actual information I want to master rather than just emotion or spectacle. This has some great shots of the city and the modernist spaces created there, alongside information from architects and historians that I am afraid is mostly paraphrased here as I took furious notes. I miss the clarity of the printed page, a misplaced nostalgia I know, when compared with the ability to experience space through this medium, hear and see these wonderful architects speaking about their buildings and the ideals behind them even as we experience the physical spaces they created in a way that books just can’t manage. Anyway, where I am sure of a quote I put marks around it, I just didn’t have time to transcribe more closely.

Drawn from the website, this is a part of Director Tom Cordell’s statement about the making of the film:

I grew up in the London of the 80s and 90s and it’s still my home.

I’ve always been drawn to the excitement of its post-war landscape; concrete and brick textures, unadorned clean lines, neon glow and dark shadows.

And most Londoners my age that I know feel the same – the modernist city is our landscape.

Yet all our lives we have been told that the same urban spaces are ugly – symbols of a failed, arrogant technocracy. While we’re comfortable celebrating 60s pop culture, many people still hate the buildings of that time.

Worryingly, while I had once thought that popular taste would catch up with the urban building of the 50s, 60s and 70s, it’s now under attack. Major symbols of that time are being destroyed – often with gruesome delight on the part of the wreckers. We urgently need to defend what is left before it is all gone.

I feel the same urgency, hopefully growing among an ever larger population and helped along after seeing much of the footage of the urban slums from the times when such housing was still a dream. I thus appreciated greatly the interspersing of quotations like the following, the filmmakers signposts to how to preserve these spaces:

‘Freedom for the pike is death to the minnows.’
–RH Tawney

The film looks at a series of modernist buildings in chronological order, I think perhaps I shall just share the notes of my main impressions for each, as much of this was still new to me and I am treating it as an introduction more than anything. I am so looking forward to revisiting and reading more about those who built them.

Finsbury Health Centre

Part of the birth of the NHS, and it could not have come too soon! The architect was from Russia, Berthold Lubetkin,  and deeply influence by the Russian Revolution he believed in the linkage between radical art and social progress. He believed that a new architecture could reshape society, whereas our previous architecture had only served to reinforce the split between rich and poor.

This building showed what architecture could do, calling upon a new idiom that was ultra-modern, almost SF, in which to build a new future. The film has a wonderful picture of this building at night that I could not find, but the picture below (and read the article it’s from) shows just how extraordinary this building was in comparison with what had come before:

finsbury health centre

During WWII and the search for national strength and will to resist the bombing, Churchill’s mythologisation of a distant and heroic past was counterposed by a utopian dream of a better future, and this health centre providing free health care was one of the symbols of that as the poster below shows.  The image is from a WWII era poster shown on the website of those who fought (and won) the saving of this wonderful building — and the dream that it represents. Of course, there is still more to do:

yourbritainfightforitnowgames1

Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space
— Mies Van de Rohe

South Bank

I never think of South Bank as utopian dream, this has forced me to it. This is the section where a little background on the County of London plan comes — and the footage presenting it is amazing. Patrick Abercrombie is standing there explaining that you plan a city just as you would plan a garden, you have to give shelter from the wet and cold, there needs to be room to grow, protection, no overcrowding. In 1943 they created a map of London envisioned as a series of interconnected villages, and saw their goal to be the bringing up the poorest to the level of richest. Makes my planner’s heart beat faster this does:

Close-up for upload

South Bank was to be ‘new symbolic heart’, a ‘counterbalance to symbols of money and power facing it across the Thames’. I shall never be able to see it as anything else now, though I didn’t before. In the face of gloom and despair over continued rationing and hardship after the war, the South Bank Centre was built in 1951 with a ‘technicolor launch party for the welfare state’, festival and fun, open air cafes and an attempt to fuse Churchill’s heroic past and dreams of future. This was an effort to show how modern architecture could rebuild public spaces. I have only ever loved it at night when it is beautiful glowing in the lights (so many modernist buildings are their best lit up in the darkness), and of course when it appears in Dr Who, but now I shall remember the hope it brought to a post-war society starved of light and colour and all the food and drink you could want.

Lenin Court

One of the first modernist social housing schemes was also designed by Berthold Lubtekin, on the site where Lenin lived while in London hiding from czarist police. There was supposed to be a bust and monument to Lenin, but with the coming of the cold war, Lenin was buried under the central column of the wonderful central staircase.

My favourite story.

This was supposed to be  ‘An El Dorado for the working class’. Amazing. His apartments were are all given equal weight in design, none better than others, everyone equal. Lubetkin’s slogan? ‘Nothing too good for ordinary people.’ He believed residents should live in a work of art, and that is what he tried to build for them.

I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few or freedom for a few.
— William Morris

Alton East

‘We were trying to build heaven and earth, some of us’, said architect Oliver Cox, his utopian attitude in part based on his respect for Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement.He and his colleagues critiqued the then modern style as being a bit arid, they felt that something had been lost in the idea that people could be enriched by design. I love thinking about people are enriched by design.

The original plan was to build vast estates of council housing on edges of parks, and wealthy communities. Thus the tower block came into being, with layouts designed to preserve trees and give all of the tenants stunning views of a landscape once only enjoyed by the wealthy. They tried to pay as much attention as possible to detail, Cox is shown in the building’s stairwells which are beautifully tiled. They meant to show that quality and love had been put into an area that is normally unloved. A good quote from the film: ‘Architects building in the present for a future they can only imagine.’

Alton West

This was designed by four other architectures in something of a rebellion against Alton East, yet whose inspiration was Le Corbusier (I find that surprising, but no mind).  This western extension was more of a designed formal landscape dominated by massive slab blocks of concrete, a pattern of building ‘that would come to symbolise the welfare state’, but was never meant to. It was meant, again, to maximise views of Richmond Park and integrate the buildings into the landscape they were designed for.

By the time they were building Alton West, however, Labor had lost the 1951 election. The recent hardships ensured that the Tories continued with the welfare state, but they abandoned the idea of a ‘coordinated egalitarian society.’ The LCC was forced to drop plans for building in wealthy park areas like Hampstead, Greenwich and Blackheath and to hand over sites to private developers, building social housing instead on previous slum sites. Thus there was no ability to move beyond designs for Alton West that had been developed for park sites, and these plans were simply reproduced in poor areas. Stepney and Brixton’s Loughborough Estate are examples, and this kind of building began to symbolise the opposite of the original architects’ and planners’ intentions. Instead of the utopian dream of a classless society, they began to symbolise the class divide itself, with concrete a new signifier. Thus East and West Alton still remain separated, with a class barrier even here.

The Alton estate was also the site for much of the filming of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, its architecture used to symbolise the dystopian. But I’ll come back to that in a later post I think.

1964 – Lambeth Towers

I have always loved this building, and always think of it as that wonderful estate where my friend Rosanne lives — fighting a long battle against steadily rising rents.
LambethTowers-2-GF-1967-GI Designed by  architect George Finch, it contained doctor’s offices, a lunch club for pensioners, the registry office — this estate got the closest to what he wanted to do with his architecture, putting all things together into a block so it was interesting and lively and everything was close.

This was in some ways a renewal of the old left vision in struggle with the consumerism of 1950s and 1960s, an attempt to make labour relevant again. The 1960s also contained the promise of technology making possible the dream of less hours, more free time, putting human contentment within reach. This alongside Finch’s belief that everyone deserves this kind of wonderful space, that everyone’s work is important to a society. So he built this place, and man, the views are amazing.

He built eight more of these tower blocks to eliminate as much of the terrible slum housing as possible. In the paraphrased words of Elain Harwood, (architectural historian and author of forthcoming Space, Hope and Brutalism which I am definitely checking out) this showed Lambeth’s commitment to building housing in one of the worst slum housing areas. It represented Lambeth saying ‘look at us’, look at we can do. It makes you sick to see what they are doing now.

Finch built a set of tower blocks and tried to give them a sense of ‘dancing around’ rather than being staidly lined up. His humour and hope overflow, particularly in his sketches of space. He designed Brixton Rec as well, and put himself and his son in several of the wonderful pictures he drew to envision a lively, well-used and well-loved space:

Swimming_pool,_main_hall_web

The same Brixton Rec that is currently at the heart of a very different kind of development driven by a very different kind of council. One that has lost its conviction in the belief and social vision these buildings tried to make material: housing and public space as rights, not as assets.

Alexandra Road

I didn’t know this development at all and fell in love, totally and utterly. It was designed by Neave Brown for Camden as a large development that would address some of the problems of 1950s – 60s building.

It is a wonderful long terraced building, reminded me of pyramids with its splendid concrete and lots of greenery, or perhaps more of mountains. Everywhere has splendid views, and Neave says he was aiming to create a seamless building and ‘continuous public realm.’ I loved his notion of a ‘coherent seamless society’, one that doesn’t say that everyone is the same, but instead buildings  are not simply the markers of status but in the reach of everyone and thus simply markers of difference and personal preference. They are just  buildings you might or might not want to live in. What a wonderful world to aspire to.

3059631875

The pictures don’t do it justice the way video does as it takes you through the space and the changing, unexpected views. There is great footage of a woman who grew up there, talking about how she saw it as a big playground, its stairs strange and magical, full of secret places you could find and be alone in. While interviewing Neave you see children running up one of the concrete slopes, and Neave is delighted saying he designed it like that just so they would do it. It is wonderful, even if, as Neave reflects, it is a little too big and he didn’t consult people as he should have.

Econmics are the method, the object is to change the soul
–Margaret Thatcher

Dawson’s Heights

Just before the big change in everything ushered in by Thatcher, we come to Kate Mackintosh, and her vision of humanised modernism. She found London very claustrophobic coming from Edinburgh, so to design Dawson’s Heights on a hill — she realised how special this sight was. Wanted to create a scheme that had unity, that grew out of the hill. She notes that there was almost certainly a ‘Castle image lurking’, and designed something that was imposing from the outside, but protective of what was inside and underpinned by cooperative ideals. She designed Leigham Court as well, which is another wonderful building Lambeth Council is trying to sell.

So we come to Thatcher, there is footage from her celebration of the 12,000th council house sold. Local governments were required to sell council housing to tenants and unable to build new homes to replace them, rent controls were abolished, more rights to evict were given to landlords.

The 1980s meant collapse.

There’s footage also of Professor Alice Coleman — a geographer who worked for Thatcher, and who argued that these modernist physical designs of council estates encouraged crime and anti-social behaviour. Her words were quite vile in comparing the ethic of council housing to suburban homes, attacking the buildings as much as the dreams behind them.

The documentary ends with the loss of Pimlico School, an incredible modernist building also representative of the new visions for eduction.  With funds long ago cut for its maintenance, the land was recently sold and the building destroyed to build a new academy. The architect John Bancroft was splendid in his rage at ideals betrayed.

This film is just one more effort not just to save buildings, but to save dreams of equality, a struggle for a better society, homes that are safe and secure. Things worth fighting for.

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Lambeth College Open Forum, 19 November 2014

Held on Wednesday and announced in the Brixton Blog, it was what I should have been expecting. I thought it might have been more like a meeting, but was actually a small room with about six professionally done schematics and some artists renderings of what the new buildings as a whole might look like hanging on the wall. There were smiling white men in suits, very nice and friendly and anxious to answer any questions we might have. While I was there they outnumbered the community members present.

Lambeth College is almost entirely gone.

I knew that was what they were planning — in spite of our protest’s earlier  ‘victory’ in saving the site for education rather than development as luxury flats, in spite of assurances that Lambeth College is staying in Brixton. Perhaps being bought by the Department of Education was the worst possible outcome given the Tories’ ideological onslaught against public education. Lambeth College was here reduced to a small yellow rectangle engulfed by Trinity Academy and the South Bank University Technical College (SB UTC), neither of which we need here though our other needs are very great. While many people there had been informed through leaflets distributed among those living immediately next door and were very concerned about the height of the new building and the construction (and rightfully so), my own concern as a slightly more distant neighbor was primarily the new use for the land.

So first the issues with Trinity Academy. There is of course a string of hard and repulsive facts about academies in general: academies are failing their students and providing inadequate education, they have been shown corrupt in their dealings with Ofstead (and buying designer tea sets), aren’t hiring qualified personnel, and are being fought tooth and nail by local parent groups along with students and teachers.  There has been some brilliant research done on who the politicians are who are pushing academies, and their links to the people who are profiting off of them here, and an array of well-researched briefings to be found here, collected by the Anti Academies Alliance. All in all they seem like one giant land and profit grab by people trying to make money off our children, while also taking over public resources.

Trinity Academy though? Even if you’re not involved in this longer and broader political struggle, you’ve probably heard about how few students it has, and how insanely over-subsidised it is. The Independent investigated and found only 17 pupils studying on the premises given them by the Tory government at a cost of £18 million pounds. This when:

Imogen Walker, deputy leader of Lambeth Council, said: “We want every child in Lambeth to have the best education possible and a near-empty free school in an area that already has adequate provision will not help that aim in any way.”

The borough estimates it already has 226 spare places in its schools.

An insult really, to a borough reeling from budget cuts and the ongoing slashing of budgets for all teachers and youth workers across the borough, with shortfalls being made good by the eviction of long-term residents in so-called shortlife housing so their artisanal Clapham homes can be flogged off in a process of social cleansing.

The artist’s drawings of the new site show only Trinity Academy, a new four-story building with the giant logo highly visible along the side of it. I was a little sick. In them all the greenery now in the frontage of the school is also gone, the trees cut down, so the building comes right up to the pavement.

2014.11.22 big picture
But talking later with some friends, we realised that equally terrible is the proposed UTC block and their technical programme for teenagers. They write ‘The UTC will equip students with the necessary technical and employability skills sought after by employers.’ That sounds all right, because in this climate of economic recession everyone is worried about their kids being able to find work. This seems to be what they are counting on. I’m so wary. Especially reading this:

The UTC is government funded and was introduced as part of the Academy Programme. The UTC is free to attend
and is independent from local Authority control.

They are sponsored by a University, but the staff are not required to have the same level of expertise or training, and several UTCs can be run by the same board of directors. Essentially it’s the flawed academy model with lower standards and less public oversight (or any oversight at all).

They are offering highly specialised education that starts at 14, by 16 children are supposed to make ‘an informed decision’ about whether they want to specialise in medical or building engineering. There might be a few children capable of deciding that all they want to be is a radiographer at age 14 when they enroll in this place, but this level of specialisation this early seems set up to entrap students into ‘career’ tracks of their parents’ choosing. Because the focus is employability and skills development, it also means they are not geared toward higher education (though the possibility of this is maintained throughout the document in glowing language), thus entering their ‘chosen field’ at the very lowest level of qualification, leaving top level jobs with advancement possibilities to those who follow the higher track of education.

But the employability stuff is the worst. Because what is it that employers want? Training children to work adult hours — even though the latest research is uncovering how teenagers need more sleep and perform better when school starts later. Have they left their own school days so far behind that they can’t see that this erases childhood and leave students without the downtime they need to process what they are learning? I also wonder when we lost the old 9 to 5, and the desire to work less not more:

The UTC day will follow business hours starting at 0830hrs and finishing at 1730hrs

Getting them used to unpaid overtime and REALLY long work days:

All post 16 students will be required to undertake two extension activities, which will take place on two evenings a week

Getting them used to working for free – and taking advantage of their labour in the same way workfare does:

During the year it is anticipated that all students will undertake a period of several weeks of volunteering work during one of the extracurricular sessions.

It seems so cynical to me to have this kind of institution where a college used to be, taking advantage of local community fears of unemployment and parent’s need for something to do with their kids during working hours now that all children’s services have been destroyed. They’re doing this to channel local youth into technical jobs that will always have ceilings without higher education. Clearly this is targeted at poor kids and Black kids, the ones being failed by our current education system and blamed for it, the future drones of Britain.

You can download a scanned pdf here (apologies for the poor quality of the scan). The information sheet is as below, or for download here:

2014.11.19 Information sheet

They seem to be sticking to their timeline as posted earlier by the Brixton Blog, there will definitely be some community action around the public consultation and the plans:

  • End of Feasibility stage – November 2014
  • Design Development – up to end of January 2015
  • Public consultation – January – March 2015
  • Town planning submission – March 2015
  • Town planning decision – June 2015
  • Start on site (subject to approvals) – July 2015
  • Project completion – targeted for early 2018

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Future Brixton Open Day 22 November, 2014

I have a lot of thoughts about the enormity of the developments planned for Central Brixton that will completely transform the place I live in and love and won’t be able to afford to live in much longer. This is the extent of the area shortly to become one enormous construction zone if the council gets their way (and you have to factor in construction on the Lambeth College site too):

2014.11FutureBrixtonProjectAreas

So after a few days of letting it sit in my mind my primary question is, why the hell are they doing it now?

I wish I had asked them that. Though I’m afraid of the real answer.

The number one perceived need in the community as identified by every focus group and survey they themselves have carried out is housing affordable to people who live in Brixton now. They had a graphic even, housing dwarfed all other concerns, even jobs. And the one thing this development can’t honestly provide in the current climate without federal government funding is social housing. This ensures that this transformative development will only speed up the skyrocketing rents, the displacement of local residents, and the transformation of our community diverse in class and race to one that is homogenous, wealthy and probably overwhelmingly white.

We are in a period of ideologically driven austerity — all the evidence points to this government policy not working, even by Tory benchmarks, except in the sense that a massive transfer of land and money is taking place from public to private hands. It makes my heart hurt to see the infrastructure of social care and the urban fabric itself destroyed in this way. The slashing of central government funding has left the local councils scrambling to fund the provision of the services the community needs — and working with private developers out for as much profit as they can get rather than forming any kind of effective opposition to the destruction of a state that takes care of its people. Lambeth council has accelerated its sell off of community owned resources and housing to fund basic services.  They are in fact selling off the housing we so desperately need. Once it is gone only a nationalisation of land will ever get it back given the inflated prices of land and the costs of building things anew.

So what does the council say about the housing situation now being exacerbated by their own policies? Future Brixton’s latest newsletter, handed out at the open day, shows on page two the three priorities of the council from this development: ‘Bringing new jobs to Brixton’; ‘What’s good for business?’; and ‘Desperately needed new homes’. Under this last, it says this:

With over 20,000 people on Lambeth’s housing waiting list and over 1,600 families in temporary housing, new homes are desperately needed. Since 1981, the council has lost almost 40% of its council housing stock, largely as a result of right to buy and of properties transferred to Registered Providers.

Over the same periods council rent levels have increased by approximately 500%, private rents and house price have increased by much more and the population of Brixton has risen by almost 18% to over 78,000 (according to the 2011 census). The Future Brixton developments will see about 750 new homes built over the next 10 years with the aim for at least 300 (or 40%) to be affordable housing.

At Somerleyton Road, building new homes for rent is the priority and as many of these as possible will be at council rent levels. It’s expected that all of the 300 new homes here will be managed by a housing cooperative. Read more about this on page 8.

20,000 people on the waiting list, and they are transforming all of Central Brixton through massive development and only providing 300 homes? It’s worse than that though, first because of how they are defining affordable housing, and second because they can’t even agree on what number of homes will potentially be built. As the Brixton Buzz reported, they originally stated the figure (as described clearly in this newsletter I’m holding in my hands) of 750 homes to be built, and received back an official letter from the council saying that only 250 homes will be built (of which 40% will then be affordable?). The number reported at Somerleyton estates alone is 300, are a fraction of those then the only ‘affordable’ units to be built? Confusion confusion.

We need to redefine ‘affordable’ as well, I hate the dishonesty of current definitions that ignore the deepening inequalities driven by low wages and unemployment to focus only on artificially inflated housing markets. The new and widespread meaning of ‘affordable’ in relation to housing is where rent is simply set as up to 80% percent of the area’s market rate rents, rather than what people can afford to pay. This is hardly affordable to any working people in Brixton (or anywhere), and also means the more expensive housing becomes (note the council itself is well aware of how private rents are steadily spiraling upwards), the higher rents will rise. This will ensure the steady displacement of the tenants who do manage to qualify initially as they are priced out.  This false idea of ‘affordability’ is very different from the traditional methods of calculating rent for social housing, which work to ensure a better level of true affordability and are usually set around 50% of market rate, if not lower in more expensive areas. A good description of both and the differences between them can be found here.

So we have a massive development that provides almost no homes (and a very questionable number of them set at very questionable levels of true affordability), that will also serve to send property prices (and therefore market rents) throughout the area soaring. What are we paying for it? Brixton Buzz reports: ‘What is clear is that Your Nu Town Hall will cost £50m. Cllr Paul McGlone, the Cabinet member for Finance has stated that this will NOT be borrowed money.’

I find the big picture of this, then, slightly vomitous. A massive development that, rather than produce the housing the community desperately needs, will instead force market rents and land prices higher, accelerating the displacement already rampant here. Worse, it’s funded partly through the sell-off of local cooperative housing and estates like Leigham Court, Cressingham Gardens and the Guinness Trust that the council is carrying out to make up the shortfall between their budget and central government funding. Talk about social and ethnic cleansing.

It seems to me that some people working on the project must understand this, but that many probably do not. The project itself in its details has quite a lot of very nice things that are much needed by the community. Perhaps some people on the council genuinely believe that to get any housing at all they have to do something like this. I’d say they should wait until Labour get back in power and start funding social housing and social services again, so this development can include a high proportion of social housing as demanded by the community, and the council can once more work to provide the services their constituents really need. But wait…that isn’t Labour’s policy now is it. Makes you want to punch walls.

So instead this lovely community process has been held, the primary request for housing has been essentially ignored, but some beautiful public spaces will be created (how wonderful that they are developing and opening up that terrible area behind the town hall?), some help will be given to local business and more market stalls created, the train station will be improved which it desperately needs, and I love the idea of a chef’s school at Somerleyton Rd. Sadly, this will all go to benefit the new people moving to Brixton, replacing all of those who participated in this community process in the first place. But that’s not part of the discussion at the Open Day. You walk into a room like this:

2014.11.22OpenHouseInsideIt is full of details and pictures and helpful people to answer questions about the development particulars. It focuses you in on things like the proposed 14 story building replacing Olive Morris House, the terrible cookie-cutter architecture, the innovative opening up of more railway arches. You notice things like how all the pictures of community consultation show a vibrant Black community, but most of the individuals wandering many of the artist representations of what will be are white (a huge problem with computer generated renditions visible all over this damn city). You see that the consultants have tried to address some aspects of the problems with ‘affordable’ housing, but without grappling with how this development in its entirety will make the need so much greater. It’s frustrating, because you know most of the people involved have without much thought accepted right-wing defined limits of what is possible and just haven’t thought through the big picture.

There are lots of details on the Future Brixton website, and I’ll probably be looking more at those as I drag myself to future consultations, but really. This development just shouldn’t happen until a very large block of funding is included to develop a very large amount of social housing. That would help stabilise the community who make Brixton what it is. Given they are the council’s constituents, their right to remain as the community should be the council’s first priority.

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Social Justice and the City

1888655Social Justice and the City brings you back to the beginnings of geography’s emergence as a radical project, the point at which a whole branch split away from what Harvey terms ‘liberal formulations’ to work towards the transformation of society. It does it through a series of essays that traverse this change in Harvey’s own thinking, creating a provocative and unique book in my mind, and a good reminder of the fields roots in more positivist economic thinking.

It begins an account surprisingly along the lines of traditional–and what in my mind I classify as neo-liberal urban economics–but really are what Harvey terms liberal. He throws terms around like ‘Pareto optimum’, wields statistical models of equilibrium, treats households as simply consumers though trying to understand the social and psychological housing barriers that people face alongside their distance from the city center (distance was for so long a defining factor in models of home prices). Instead he begins thinking of constellations of factors, notes the ways that transport policies favour suburban areas and the injustice of expecting inner-city residents to adjust their own methods of travel to accommodate this disequilibrium.

Thus slowly he approaches a model that moves away from urban form as a result of simple market forces to take into account politics. He writes:

The realities of political power being what they are, the rich groups will probably thereby grow richer and the poor groups will thereby be deprived. It seems that the current real income distribution in a city system must be viewed as ‘the predictable outcome of the political process’ (Buchanan, 1968b 185 as quoted by Harvey: 73) He draws on Olson and Buchanan to note that small, privileged and well-organised groups are often able to defeat larger groups, and create institutional structures that are closed, effectively marginalising and excluding larger groups. Particularly if they happen to be poor. They become the slum-dwellers, the losers in the city’s pecking-order when it comes to competing for resources and services.

The cultural attitudes of the inner city have always been different from those of the suburbs and it does not seem that these differences are decreasing. Therefore I find it hard to accept either Marcuse’s thesis (1964) that there is a growing homogeneity in cultural values…or the spatial form equivalent of it in which a ‘one-dimensional man’ dwells…(84)

In thinking about how to create a just city in which the ‘spatial organization and the pattern of regional investment should be such as to fulfil the needs of the population’ (107), where needs and resource allocations match, he is forced to leave liberal formulations. He writes that it is unsurprising programmes in the UK and US have failed to eradicate poverty as ‘programmes which seek to alter distribution without altering the capitalist market structure within which income and wealth are generated and distributed, are doomed to failure’ (107). That capital will always flow to where the rates of return are highest, thus capital clearly will flow in a way which bears little relationship to need or to the condition of the least advantaged territory. The result will be the creation of localized pockets of high unfulfilled need, such as those now found in Appalachia or many inner city areas…Thus arises the paradox of capital withdrawing from areas of greatest need to provide for the demands of relatively affluent suburban communities. Under capitalism this is good and rational behaviour—it is what the market reuires for the ‘optimal’ allocation of resources (112).

Then he slams it home:

If it is accepted that the maintenance of scarcity is essential for the functioning of the market system, then it follows that deprivation, appropriation and exploitation are also necessary concomitants of the market system (114).

A new system is needed to obtain what he calls ‘A Just Distribution Justly Achieved: Territorial Social Justice’

1. The distribution of income should be such that (a) the needs of the population within each territory are met, (b) resources are so allocated to maximize interterritorial multiplier effects, and (c) extra resources are allocated to help overcome special difficulties stemming from the physical and social environment.
2. The mechanisms (institutional, organizational, political and economic) should be such that the prospects of the least advantaged territory are as great as they possibly can be.

And so we go on to Part II, Socialist Formulations. The first chapter is ‘Revolutionary and Counter-revolutionary Theory in Geography and the Problem of Ghetto Formation’, and much as I value this work it fails here to deal with race or racial ideologies in any deep manner. I’ve been thinking about what it is about the paradigm within which he is working, both in its liberal and socialist formulations, that limits the vision in this way, prevents the questions I personally find most important after a decade of work in the ‘ghetto’ from even being asked. But to return to Harvey, he starts with Kuhn’s scientific revolutions and then has a wonderful bitchy quote from Johnson (1971) on new theory in academia

On new academic theories: ‘First, it had to attack the central proposition of conservative orthodoxy…with a new but academically acceptable analysis that reversed the proposition…Second, the theory had to appear to be new, yet absorb as much as possible of the valid or at least not readily disputable components of orthodox theory. In this process, it helps greatly to give old concepts new and confusing names, and to emphasize as crucial analytical steps that have previously been taken as platitudinous…Third, the new theory had to have the appropriate degree of difficulty to understand…so that senior academic colleagues would find it neither easy nor worthwhile to study, so that they would waste their efforts on peripheral theoretical issues, and so offer themselves as easy marks for criticism and dismissal but their younger and hungrier colleagues. At the same time the new theory had to appear both difficult enough to challenge the intellectual interest of younger colleagues and students, but actually easy enough for them to master adequately with sufficient investment of intellectual endeavour…Fourth, the new theory had to offer the more gifted and less opportunistic scholars a new methodology more appealing than those currently available…Finally, [it had to offer] an important empirical relationship…to measure (quoting Johnson 1971, 123).

Then he goes on to think what might happen if we get rid of the idea of private property, get rid of the idea of scarcity. He writes:

‘scarcity is socially defined and not naturally determined. A market system becomes possible under conditions of resource scarcity, for only under those conditions can price-fixing commodity exchange markets rise…We therefore find a paradox, namely that wealth is produced under a system which relies upon scarcity for its functioning. It follows that if scarcity is eliminated, the market economy, which is the source of productive wealth under capitalism, will collapse. Yet capitalism is forever increasing its productive capacity. To resolve this dilemma many institutions and mechanisms are formed to ensure that scarcity does not disappear’ (139).

He uses the example of the ghetto to explore this paradox. Owners charge too much rent for appalling conditions, but still don’t make huge profits. The value of property remains low. It experiences the highest rates of overcrowding as well as the highest rates of abandoned buildings. Banks are afraid to lend money due to the uncertainty of the return. And so:

In fact, it is a general characteristic of ghetto housing that if we accept the mores of normal, ethical, entrepreneurial behaviour, there is no way in which we can blame anyone for the objective social conditions which all are willing to characterize as appalling and wasteful of potential housing resources. It is a situation in which we can find all kinds of contradictory statements ‘true’ (140-41).

That is certainly the argument that every slumlord I’ve known has made. He looks at Engels, and the parallels in slums from his time and ours, the reality that this is intrinsic to capitalism. And then he looks at what we need to do to end it. What does it entail?

Let me say first what it does not entail. It does not entail yet another empirical investigation of the social conditions in the ghettos. In fact, mapping even more evidence of man’s patent inhumanity to man is counter-revolutionary in the sense that it allows the bleeding heart liberal in us to pretend we are contributing to a solution when in fact we are not (144).

Hell yes. Instead:

This immediate task is nothing more nor less than the self-concious and aware construction of a new paradigm for social geographic thought through a deep and profoiund critique of our existing analytical constructs…our task is to mobilize our powers of thought to formulate concepts and categories, theories and arguments, which we can apply to the task of bringing about a humanizing social change. These concepts and categories cannot be formulated in abstraction. They must be forged realistically with respect to the events and actions as they unfold around us’ (145)

What I love about Harvey, is that this is exactly what he has been doing since he wrote this. Forty years now or so. And unlike many, he recognizes that it is not just academics who are intellectuals, but follows Gramsci in believing that a social movement becomes such when the whole population is acting to ‘reconcile analysis and action’ (149).

He moves on to use value and exchange value, ‘a prevailing source of concern for the political economists of the 19th century’ (153) like Smith and Ricardo and of course, Marx. Land is a very specific kind of commodity, it cannot be moved around at will, no individual can go without occupying space, it changes hands relatively infrequently, investments in built environment have some permanency to them, market exchange happens at one point in time, use over a long period. Its use values are numerous and overlapping:

1. shelter
2. a quantity of space for exclusive use by the occupants
3. privacy
4. a relative location which is accessible to work places, retail opportunities, social services, family and friends, and so on (and this includes the possibility for place of work etc., to be actually in the house)
5. a relative location which is proximate to sources of pollution, areas of congestion, sources of crime and hazard, people viewed with distaste, and so on
6. a neighbourhood location that has physical, social and symbolic (status) characteristics
7. a means for storing and enhancing wealth (159)

He writes that these are formed with respect to the ‘life support system’ of the individual, and lies outside the sphere of political economy. But this alone cannot generate an adequate theory of land use, this happens in ‘those catalytic moments in the urban land-use decision process when use value and exchange value collide to make commodities out of the land and the improvement thereon… (160)

He notes that there is little work done on relating use values to exchange values though much looking at each independently. Within a micro-economic framework there are 5 distinct actors in the housing market: occupiers (‘all occupiers of housing have a similar concern—to procure use values through laying out exchange value’ but also used to store equity – he clearly sees this as a minor consideration in comparison to exchange values for this group, but clearly this store of value is key is producing stability and wealth (163)), realtors (exchange value), landlords (exchange value – exchanging housing for money), developers (‘involved in the process of creating new use values for others in order to realize exchange values for themselves’ 165), financial institutions (interested in gaining exchange values through financing opportunities for the creation or procurement of use values’, when involved in development their decisions are ‘plainly geared to profitability and risk-avoidance’ 165), and government institutions (production of use values through public housing, intervention to support or regulate market, institutional constraints and zoning affect values also). It is also a situation of monopoly, given that there is limited land that is divided between individual landowners who control their own parcels, and thus is formed a class monopoly as those who already have property find it easier to hold it and expand those holdings, to live where they wish and to use land as they will. Thus ‘We therefore arrive at the fundamental conclusion that the rich can command space whereas the poor are trapped in it’ (171). He argues that this serves as a foil to show the short-comings of liberal economic utility-maximization models.

And then there is the fascinating subject of rent—though this section feels somewhat tentative here, and Harvey works it out much more fully in Limits of Capital. But his conclusions are interesting, though I don’t know that I agree with them:

If we argue that rent can dictate use, then this implies that exchange values can determine use values by creating new conditions to which individuals must adapt if they are to survive in society…The capitalist market exchange economy so penetrates every aspect of social and private life that it exerts an almost tyrannical control over the life-support system in which use values are embedded. A dominant mode of production, Marx observed, inevitably creates the conditions of consumption. Therefore, the evolution of urban land-use patterns can be understood only in terms of the general processes whereby society is pushed down some path (it knows not how) towards a pattern of social needs and human relationships (which are neither comprehended nor desired) by the blind forces of an evolving market system. The evolution of urban form is an integral part of this general process and rent, as a measure of the interpenetration of use values and exchange values, contributes notably to the unfolding of this process (190).

He continues:

When use determines value a case can be made for the social rationality of rent as an allocative device that leads to efficient capitalist production patterns…But when value determines use, the allocation takes place under the auspices of rampant speculation, artificially induced scarcities, and the like, and it loses any pretence of having anything at all to do with the efficient organization of production and distribution.

This is an interesting place to start an analysis of urban development from, although he is in conversation here with economists, with the contradictions between rent theory and capital theory, that I am unfamiliar with and that I imagine no longer provide a background for human geographers (if they ever did, though I cannot generalise here beyond myself and my own reading).

The next chapter, ‘Urbanism and the City’ takes us back to urban beginnings, drawing on anthropology and archaeology much as Ed Soja does in Postmetropolis, though with a focus on how the development of surplus value drove the development of the city. He works to bring together the ‘(1) the surplus concept, (2) the mode of economic integration concept and (3) concepts of spatial organization’ (245) to build a framework for ‘interpreting urbanism’ (246). I liked the point that ‘Urbanism, as a general phenomenon, should not be viewed as the history of particular cities, but as the history of the system of cities within, between and around which the surplus circulates’ (250). Always things are in relation to everything else, never static and enclosed.

At the current conjuncture he writes: ‘The contemporary metropolis therefore appears vulnerable, for if the rate at which surplus value is being appropriated at the centre (if profit levels are to be maintained) exceeds the rate at which social product is being created, then financial and economic collapse is inevitable’ (264). Thus ‘the survival of capitalist society and metropolitan centres to which it gives rise thus depends on some countervailing force’ (265). He looks to monopoly arrangements and technological innovation, me, I’m not so sure. But it is certain that much of the expansion of the built environment, particularly the intense suburbanisation of the past decades has been driven by a need to expand the circulation of surplus value as he says. Also that there are large pocket of intense poverty, these communities forming the industrial reserve army (in Marx’s formulation) which serve to stabilise the economy even as they rest on ‘human suffering and degradation’ (272). Given that the market ‘leads different income groups to occupy different locations we can view the geographical patterns in urban residential structure as a tangible geographical expression of a structural condition in the capitalist economy’ (273). This is true on a global level, how awesome is this comment on Sweden? ‘Sweden is in effect an affluent suburb of the global capitalist economy (it even exhibits many of the social and psychological stresses of a typical suburban economy)’ and thus ‘There is no limit to the effectiveness of welfare state policies within a territory, but there is an overall limit to progressive redistribution within the global economy of capitalism as a whole’ (277).

He hasn’t moved far from what could be called economic determinism, though he does later. Still, this follows the whole base-superstructure orthodoxy: ‘Issues stemming form the economic basis of society will frequently be translated into political and ideological issues…for example, issues of unemployment may be translated into issues of racial or ethnic discrimination in the job market’ (279). He says later on ‘In a conflict between the evolution of the economic basis of society and elements in the superstructure, it is the latter that have to give way, adapt, or be eliminated’ (292). Thus base is defining in the ultimate sense.

He ends with some interesting thinking around Marxism itself, that to me seems very Althusserian along the lines of Hall, though he draws on Piaget (1979) and Ollman (1972) who I haven’t read. So Ontology – the theory of what exists. He quotes Ollman as saying ‘the twin pillars of Marx’s ontology are his conception of reality as a totality of internally related parts, and his conception of these parts as expandable relations such that each one in its fullness can represent the totality (p 8, quoted on page 288). Thus ‘Capitalism…seeks to shape the elements and relationships within itself in such a way that capitalism is reproduced as an ongoing system. Consequently, we can interpret the relationships within the totality according to the way in which they function to preserve and reproduce it’. Which I like, though ‘capitalism’ as a thing doesn’t exist to do anything, it is a set of relations between actors and instititions so it’s all a little more complex. But I agree with where this leads us in terms of uncovering Marx’s ontology ‘that research has to be directed in discovering the transformation rules whereby society is constantly being restructured, rather than ‘causes’, in the isolated sense that follows from a presupposition of atomistic association, or to identifying ‘stages’ or ‘descriptive laws’…’ (289).

Cressingham Gardens

Cressingham Gardens Estate is a lovely place, leafy and green with warm, comfortable beautifully designed housing on a very human scale. A place that fosters community, and indeed, it is part of that post-war building of social housing whose architects believed in just that goal. There is a wonderful summary of how the utopian social vision of Lambeth Council and architects came together to create estates like Cressingham Gardens (built between 1967 and 1978) at the Municipal Dreams blog, so I won’t delve further into that here. I will, though, just share one of the wonderful quotes it has highlighted from Cressingham Garden’s architect Ted Hollamby:

We are not just dealing with housing as such.  We are building a community.  We don’t look at this in terms of so many houses. Rather we think in terms of the functions of a community. We don’t, you see, have club rooms for tenants but centres for a community.  We don’t have old people’s homes set aside on their own. We integrate them into other things we are planning (1).

Hollamby’s team also designed the homes beautifully both inside and out in the ways that they connect to Brockwell Park, making the most of the park’s beauty and open space for every resident of the estate (you can read more here and also at the Single Aspect blog, which has a bit more history of the site itself and design schematics). Community is what he created, and now that Cressingham Gardens is under threat of redevelopment by Lambeth Council, the community is very effectively fighting to keep their homes. We marched on Saturday from the estate to Brixton Town Hall, and you can see from the gathering here just how lovely the estate is (apologies for the phone-photos as well, I grabbed my camera without the memory card I’m afraid!)

2014.10.18 CG7

We marched around the estate, again, it is lovely:

2014.10.18 CG5

And then on to Lambeth Town Hall.

2014.10.18 CG1 2014.10.18 CG2 2014.10.18 CG3 2014.10.18 CG4

Why the march? I give you the words from the petition that you should sign in support of the Cressingham Gardens tenants:

Lambeth Council is considering the partial/full demolition and rebuild of Cressingham Gardens instead of simply repairing it. To fund the demolition and rebuild, they will be building extra new flats and homes on the estate that will be sold to raise cash for the council. This will destroy the existing vibrant community and affect every user of the beautiful Brockwell Park.

The tenants are awesome and organised, you can follow what’s happening at cressinghamgardens.org.uk, there’s a short film about the estate and campaign here, and you can also watch and listen to more video documenting their stories and their love of their estate at the older site savecressinghamgardens.co.uk. There’s an older article from last month’s Brixton Bugle here, but yesterday’s protest generated a lovely amount of press. More on the protest can be found again at the Single Aspect Blog, and Brixton Buzz has some more photos from the march when it reached the town hall. But the Guardian also printed an article from tenant Joanne Parkes about why they are fighting for their estate. She writes:

More than two years after Lambeth council told us our estate had been put into a regeneration programme because they couldn’t afford to repair it, we are marching to the town hall to show our opposition on Saturday.

We’re frustrated that no one from their side is listening to us, so we hope the protest will now catch their attention. The message must get through, before the borough’s cabinet committee decides our fate in December.

ITV also covered the protest, you can see that here. Hopefully this protest and its coverage will get the message through to the council. The health and safety issues and the way that the redevelopment at Myatt’s Field is pricing out previous tenants shows the pitfalls of such plans for redevelopment by Lambeth Council, and we need to stop it before the Cressingham Gardens community is similarly smashed and social housing lost to our wider community.

I went from this to the TUC march — the Cressingham Gardens protest was so much better. I think with Unison and UCU calling off strike actions this week and the TUC just being generally useless, this march was a general lesson in how together they have demobilised the labour movement. It’s quite shameful, I know we can do better, we must.

(1) Quoted in ‘Lambeth – Edward Hollamby talks to Peter Rawstorne’, RIBA Journal, July 1965

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The Alternative mipim Conference

Cities for People not for Profit…

The speakers were on the whole so impressive, a big thank you to all of them for coming together and sharing what they know about the crisis and what is happening to housing. A full listing of the programme is here.  I made it to two sessions last night — well, maybe I should say one full one. The website had the wrong time on it, so I was very late to ‘Mapping the Crisis’, but I did hear the Q&A for Beth Stratford’s talk, Rita Silva on the situation in Portugal, and Anna Minton on public housing. I’d been looking forward to hearing her speak, because her book has been on my to-read list forever, but I still haven’t gotten to it:

6354582A good summary of the building of public housing and the ideals behind it, and in a metaphor I really liked, she looked at the way that the current government is now taking a wrecking ball to those socialist ideals. My only caveat with her talk was that she gave them the benefit of the doubt that this might be unconsciously done. I don’t know I’d be willing to go that far…

I stayed for most of the second evening session as well, chaired by Michael Edwards who is wonderful. James Meadway of the NEF saying that the housing crisis is being caused by too many low-income jobs being created in London driving housing demand driving prices up seemed a little crazy, maybe I misunderstood. But there was definitely no talk of global capital and investment, why only luxury housing is being built, and etc. His solutions? Rent control, more jobs in the rest of the country, and build more housing. All good, not enough to solve the problem though I feel. Mary Robertson was pretty awesome and brought global capital back into the picture, giving a quite technical run down on financialisation and how it works, and her qualifications of Meadway’s recommendations were both good ones: get rid of the myth of homeownership as the ideal, and the creation of more social housing. Louis Moreno‘s talk I really enjoyed as well, a very different tack on how financialisation is internalised, a discussion of Zola (hurrah!) and his discussions of the Hausmannization of Paris and the desire to have the wealth that others have, thus to do as landlords do. This was the set-up at 67 Guilford St:

IMG_0421

But last night I was in this same second room where the lights didn’t work, so sat in darkness, and the room was packed (I couldn’t get into the parallel sessions upstairs at all on the occasions I tried as the room was smaller) — a good thing really — but strangers leaning into me and hitting the back of my head when they went past was quite distracting. So I confess, I didn’t get as much as I wanted from the sessions and left early. This morning it was beautiful though, as you can see. And there was a cat, which made it all better.

wattThis morning’s speakers were also awesome – I’ll just summarise the highlights. Paul Watt on the ways that Camden and Islinglington councils saw the incipient sweat-equity driven gentrification in the 60s and 70s and actually bought up a lot of private housing to stabilise the working class neighbourhood – that story made me happy. This early phase of gentrification was followed by phase two, massive development and regeneration schemes, and now phase three which is state led — them flogging of housing through stock transfers and PFI (Private Finance Initiative – read more here) after having themselves created a rent gap by disinvesting in social housing. Stuart Hodkinson was great too, getting into the nitty gritty of PFI, how councils have been forced (though what he calls the ‘neoliberal straightjacket’) into redevelopment schemes to repair housing that consistently puts them into increased debt even as it privatises social housing, transferring massive amounts of wealth from the public to the private sector. While the councils are undoubtedly between a rock and a hard place, none of them have chosen to get out of the straightjacket, just make themselves more room within it. His work on Myatt’s Field in Lambeth was fairly illuminating, both of the dangers of the redevelopment of council estates causing the loss of public housing, but also the ways that private capital have totally outclassed the council in terms of contract negotiations and profiteering. That needs to stop. And finally Nick Mathiason from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with some great graphics on the social cleansing taking place in London. You can find their archive on the housing crisis here.

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the afternoon sessions or final plenary, nor the actions…life has been busy! So I’m not sure how much this moved practical actions forward, but the talks were certainly illuminating in thinking through how social cleansing and privatisation is happening and being justified, as well as where leverage lies for future struggle. There is another conference coming up around building a campaign against PFI — called the People vs PFI. It looks great, with a fairly brilliant mix of speakers in the room. More information can be found at www.peoplevspfi.org.uk.

Don’t Evict Gustavo Garcia

I saw a post on the Lambeth Housing Activists list asking for support in a protest to the council not to evict a vulnerable tenant recovering from a stroke. So I protested. we were hoping to speak with someone in charge but they said that wasn’t possible.* What doesn’t seem possible to me is that they will send this human being back to live on the streets when he needs a home and he needs care. In fact this story would once have been quite impossible, but the changes of the past few years means that Lambeth Council has been selling off social housing rather than building it, even as the waiting list for homes rises and rises — because we all know rents are rising and rising some more. As a citizen of this country, not its customer, I really hate the term ‘Customer Service Centre’. Lambeth Council has made their service centre look as impersonal as a bank, and when we went in we saw it was full to overflowing with people in need. This physical reality is as much a part of the neoliberalisation of space and services as their capacity to kick Gustavo Garcia back into the streets unless we can stop them.

* UPDATE: Needed because after I left the manager came out to speak to them. Apparently they were supportive and said that the eviction notice is suspended until further notice while they review his case. A small victory, and not yet permanent the way it needs to be for Gustavo’s health and well-being, but nice all the same.

The below is a description of Gustavo’s circumstances from the folks working to give him support:

2014 has been a tough year for 54 year old Gustavo Garcia. He suffered a stroke, causing him memory loss and physical weakness, and has also led to severe depression. He now faces his 55th birthday next month with the threat of life on the streets, as Lambeth have given him notice they will be evicting him.

Gustavo became homeless in June when he had to stop work after a stroke. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to get Lambeth to accept that he was actually homeless, the Council finally agreed to assess his housing need and give him temporary accommodation. The stroke he suffered means the right side of his body is now numb and much weaker. He cannot do the things he used to. His previous job as a window cleaner fills him with fear as he doesn’t have grip in his right hand, so climbing ladders and working at great heights is dangerous for him. He is shaky. This in itself is hard enough to cope with, but his memory loss has also caused him much distress and disorientation.

Gustavo came here from Ecuador eighteen years ago, and is now a British citizen. He spoke fluent English prior to his stroke, but the memory loss caused by the stroke means he has forgotten a good deal of the language.  Before the stroke Gustavo was self-employed, but memory loss means he also cannot remember his customer base. Nor can he remember friends that he had before the stroke. “I feel so alone. I can’t sleep at all. I’m always worrying, afraid of being put on the street” he tells me in broken English. As his stroke was caused by stress, Gustavo’s greatest fear is that the mental stress he is now suffering will provoke another one. “I think of suicide often. I’m finished” he shrugs, with an unbearable look of sadness and despair.

The council now accepts that Gustavo is homeless, but say that he is not sufficiently vulnerable to deem him a priority case for housing. They say that although they accept he suffers numbness in one side of his body, because he doesn’t need a walking aid, he would be okay on the streets.

Join us in protesting at Lambeth’s Homeless department in Olive Morris House, Brixton Hill at 9am on Wednesday 8th October in solidarity with Gustavo to let the council know it is unacceptable to treat vulnerable people in this way.

Freund’s Colored Property

Colored PropertyColored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America starts with a simple question about white people in Detroit within a concrete period: the time between the formation of two distinct white mobs coming together around the prospect of sharing their neighbohood with a stranger of colour – the first in 1925 (the infamous Sweet case on Garland street) and the second in 1963 on Kendal Street.

In short, we know that between the 1920s and 1960s both the geographical and intellectual settings for white homeowner vigilantism had clearly changed. The mob that descended upon Kendal Street represented a new generation of white resistance to racial integration–ethnically more inclusive, predominantly home-owning and suburban. And postwar whites organized to maintain the color line at a time when it was impolitic, at best, to announce one’s racism out loud. Nonetheless, the similarities between the Garland and Kendal Street episodes, and the apparent continuity of white hostility to integrated neighborhoods, raise a fundamental question that this study seeks to answer: If most northern whites had disavowed racism and supported the principle of racial equality, why did so many continue to oppose residential integration? What motivated postwar whites to exclude black people from their neighborhoods? [5]

So it looks at the articulation of changing ideas of race and changing patterns of property ownership and the private and public policies that shaped these.

Most commentators treat white racism as something unchanging and as conceptually separable from other variables that fuel conflict between groups (including racial groups). Scholars generally portray white racism as a static, though ill-defined, sentiment, an irrational and misguided antipathy toward nonwhites. … Largely missing from this important scholarship is an investigation of how whites’ racial thinking itself changed during the years that the United States became a predominantly suburban and home-owning nation. Like many studies of the postwar metropolis, this book argues that race did matter- that whites’ racial views and preferences continued to shape struggles over housing and neighborhoods in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. But unlike most studies, it argues that whites’ ideas about race were undergoing a fundamental transformation during these years. It explores an important facet of that transformation, by showing how whites grew deeply invested in new ideas about the relationship between race and property. And it argues that this new racial thinking was decisively shaped by the powerful new institutions and private practices that fueled postwar suburban growth while also successfully excluding most black people from its benefits. Rather than describe how other variables interacted with a presumably static white racism, I argue that white identity and white racism were being remade and that these changes were inextricably linked to a revolution in metropolitan political economy.

It’s quite an interesting, and exceedingly pursuasive argument about racial formation

As whites abandoned theories about biological difference and hierarchy, they embraced the argument that racial minorities simply threatened white-owned property. This shift occurred as a majority of whites became property owners for the first time, and as the politics that facilitated this process encouraged whites to view property and property ownership through a powerful but distorted racial lens. New ideas about race were largely born in and sustained by the politics of metropolitan change itself. [12]

This revolution in the metropolitan political economy is extensively documented here:

the huge influence of the real estate industry and the open racism of early theories about zoning

The most enduring legacy of developers’ involvement was zoning’s new focus on protecting the value of residential property. Originally framed as a panacea for a wide range of practical urban problems, by the mid- l910s zoning was portrayed in NCCP sessions primarily as a tool for shoring up real estate markets, especially for “high class” residential subdivisions.

– the community builders and huge expansion of the suburbs incorporating racial covenants and discriminatory zoning — there is not so much on covenants but

Most studies treat zoning ordinances and racially restrictive covenants as discrete if sometimes complementary legal instruments of exclusion because zoning law addresses the right of public bodies to regulate the uses of privately owned property, whereas covenant law addresses the right of private persons to regulate uses of their own property. Zoning ordinances established and defined public powers, while covenants governed interactions between private individuals.86
Largely unexamined, as a result, are the ways that zoning and racial covenants shared an intellectual, cultural, and even legal provenance, a shared history documented by the courts’ defense of both. [92]

-the rise in local incorporation of suburbs in order to implement restrictive zoning
-the various government programs which transformed the property market while promoting the myth that they were doing nothing of the kind…Freund argues that broadly speaking, the federal government intervened in three ways

1. ‘federal initiatives and policies fueled the resegregation of the nation’s metropolitan regions by race and by wealth.’

2. ‘state interventions helped popularize a new rationale for the exclusion of minorities from the fast-growing suburbs. Through its involvement in both zoning and mortgage politics, the federal government put considerable force behind the theory that racial segregation was driven not by white racism but by economic necessity, that exclusion was a “market imperative,” required solely by the principles of land-use science. This argument was not new to the postwar era. But federal involvement made it constitutive of a new metropolitan political economy’

3. ‘federal interventions were instrumental in popularizing a powerful and quite paradoxical myth: that neither suburban growth nor new patterns of racial inequality owed anything to the state’s efforts. The federal government insisted that the new metropolitan order was a product of unregulated free-market activity. [33]’

What I found most interesting (and struggled the most with as well, as I can’t quite get my head around the mortgage stuff)

Still most commentators understate the extent of federal subsidy and the depth of the federal role in shaping the private market for housing, because they focus almost exclusively on FHA and VA operations and because they do not examine how selective credit policy transformed the way that wealth in housing is generated in the modern United States. The FHA and VA worked in tandem with other powerful programs that subsidized and regulated the conventional mortgage market (for home loans not covered by FHA or VA insurance) and virtually created a secondary mortgage market (enabling investors to trade home finance debt like other securities). Taken together, this broad range of federal initiatives did more than shore up a struggling market for housing finance. It created a new kind of mortgage market and a new kind of mortgage industry, which together issued more credit, and thus produced far more wealth than their predecessors. These chapters situate federal mortgage policy within a much larger revolution in U.S. money and credit markets, demonstrating that postwar suburbanization was part and parcel of a fundamental transformation in the mechanics of American capitalism.

And so, to recap in terms of how this affected people of colour in the U.S.

Because the programs that subsidized the mortgage market systematically excluded racial minorities, suburban growth and its corollary prosperity were not just state-managed but also inherently discriminatory. Federal housing policies did not merely “embrace … the discriminatory attitudes of the marketplace,” as the FHA’s critics have long argued. Selective credit operations created a new kind of discriminatory marketplace.52

This structural transformation was accompanied by a change in national housing politics, an ideological change of equal importance. State involvement in the private housing sector helped popularize a mythical story about the mortgage revolution and suburban racial exclusion. Supporters of federal intervention insisted that market forces alone were spurring suburban growth and that it was these same impersonal forces that required the exclusion of minorities.

There follows the case studies on Detroit neighborhoods, which certainly bear out the theory above.

If I have any critique of Colored Property, it’s that I think with some editing it could have lost a lot of the bulk that made it so much work to get through. It felt like a number of things were repeated or overly detailed, which might explain why it doesn’t seem to be seen as the pivotal book I really think it is in terms of connecting the formation of ideas of race with the development of property markets and the geographical consolidation of homes and wealth in the U.S.

What is largely missing from this story though? The struggle of African Americans to escape the Black belt, to get access to resources, to fight discrimination, to face black mobs, to build their own houses, realty organisations, banks…

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The radicalisciousness of housing

That article I’m supposed to be writing right now? This is sort of part of it, so enjoy the preview.

Today I was invited to a party to celebrate the victory in a court case over a building that I started organizing just before I left SAJE, and it’s sent me remembering the crazed stress and anger of the days when the owner ripped the outside off of the building while the tenants were still inside it. Lead, asbestos, he didn’t care. The city came out when we called and put a stop work order on the building. The owner ignored it. So the city came out when we called and put another stop work order. And the owner ignored that too, and he did it over the weekend when the city rests and relaxes, so he was able to do quite a lot of ignoring in the form of strewing asbestos and lead paint all over the sidewalks. So the city came out again when we called and put a third stop work order. The owner kept on stripping the siding off the building until you could see the sun shining through the walls while sitting on your toilet,

You could feel the strong winds through the window from which all glass had been removed while showering.  Someone from the state environmental agency came and put a fourth stop work order on the building because children from the school across the street had to walk past the building and over the asbestos on the sidewalk, but they took the extra step of wrapping the building in yellow danger! do-not-cross ribbon. The tenants had to duck under it to get home…at least the adults did, their kids were just fine of course. The yellow tape didn’t last so long…

But none of these agencies could physically stop the owner from working if he decided to ignore them (as he did), and punitive measures? A possible lawsuit months down the line long after the tenants had been forced to leave. Then the city inspectors came and ruled that the bathrooms were unsafe as the owner had also started to remove some of the foundational supports from the first floor, they used more caution tape (red this time, for extra danger) to prevent the tenants from using the toilets. We didn’t know whether to cry, or buy shotguns and keep everyone the hell away from the place.

And this reminds me of another story.

In California, tenant organizers have the right under civil code to visit any tenant who invites them into their apartment. In the Morrison Hotel, the tenants brave enough to invite us in had their electricity turned off, were physically threatened, were faced with eviction, and were thereafter prevented from having any visitors at all. After the first two, there were no more volunteers. And all to no avail as we were not allowed in, but were physically kept outside by first the managers and their pit bull, then by armed security guards hired especially for us. While the fire-arms and attack dog flattered our organizing super-powers, they were also quite annoyingly effective. The managers also called the police. The police surprisingly enough, did not really seem to care about civil code. They told us (and I quote) they were there to protect property rights, and so if we tried to enter we would be arrested for trespassing. And as we fought to enforce our civil right to get in the building, the owners steadily and illegally emptied 70 apartments through a combination of threats, illegal evictions, harassment and bribery. They boarded up the empty rooms, many of them filled to overflowing with trash (and rats), and for the remaining 30 families who lived in the building and fought for their homes for another year and a half. It looked like this:

What these two stories have in common is the way that they expose the ugly reality that property rights take precedence over everything else in the US. Buy me a drink and I will tell you many more, or perhaps you can buy me one not to, especially the one about the building that collapsed in Echo Park, killing one of the tenants. Law and law enforcement exist to protect the owner’s right to do anything he chooses to his building.

And so what better place for radical struggle? In these stories lie not only grave injustice, but also what we would call a teachable moment, a place where people can break down for themselves the powerful American mythology of private property. What happened in these two buildings (among so many others), exposes the essence of capitalism and its human cost, and demands an alternative vision for our society.

Without grasping this moment, critically analyzing it, adding theory, folding it into a greater movement, these stories are nothing more than stories, a struggle with a beginning and an end that makes little difference in the world as it currently exists or the hearts and minds of those who fought.

So theory, I had my theories of course, but I have to say I was never particularly rigorous about them and I still feel a level of pragmatism is key…Still, I’ve decided to take the task in hand, and I’ve mapped out radical thought and thinkers on my walls before doing it on paper. I have read many of them (but isolatedly over the years), heard of many of others, and I discovered many that I did not know…but I wanted to see how they all fit together and where my community and our stories fit within that. And maybe even create a tool for people to see their past and ideas for a future and learn from it.

This is what it looks like right now, it feels massive when you’re looking at it though my room is tiny so the photo’s not the best. It’s still only a skeleton, and I’ve made sure you can’t really read it because I’m not quite ready for the onslought of criticism over my simplifications of theory and events that will probably be entirely justified.

In blue are thinkers, in red major theories, in orange organizations based on theories. And seems like Marx and Engels nailed most of the essentials of capitalism and its discontents. And the “communalist anarchists” nailed the vision of a society where local communities define their own needs and govern themselves through direct democracy, and federate together to take care of those needs that each cannot provide on their own. And even after (or better said because of) years of organizing I believe like they did, that building such collective organization and direct democracy in the now is the way to a successful revolution and a new world, though I know that’s where the radical world divides and sets to work killing each other. Ah, the glory days when Marx and Bakunin were still talking. And of course, there has been much important work done since to expand theory and understanding to take into account race and gender, imperialism, globalization, the environment etc. And exciting things have happened as people have adapted theory to their own countries and culture and put it into practice to build large-scale movement. Still. Seems like we had a lot of the answers 150 years ago. That’s when I get rather sad. And then I look at Latin America and get a bit more optimistic. And then I remember kids able to look through the walls of their building and having their blood drawn to test for lead poisoning, and I am so filled with rage I don’t really care about the odds. I’ll just fight. We need something better than a world where people pay rent for a building falling down around them so that their landlord can make more money. And organizers and tenants need to be able to understand what exactly they are working against, they need to look up and see what exactly they are working for.

Luckily, the theory wall is full of humor as well, though I believe that precious few of the bastards were able to laugh at themselves, that’s really why I’m here I suppose…But who knew (apart from Hugo Chavez) that Bolivar’s full name was:

Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar Palacios y Blanco?

And that Augusto Sandino was a member of the Magnetic-Spiritualist School of the Universal Commune founded in Buenos Aires by some Basque guy, and it blended anarchism with zoroastrianism, kabbalah and spiritism? And google Bogdanov and Fourier, they will make you smile.

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