The Housing Question, 1872-2016

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The so-called housing shortage, which plays such a main role in the media nowadays, does not consist of the fact that the working class generally lives in bad, overcrowded and unhealthy dwellings. This general shortage in housing is not something particular to the present moment; it is not even one of the sufferings particular to the modern city worker as distinct from all earlier oppressed classes. On the contrary, all oppressed classes in all historical periods have suffered fairly uniformly from this shortage. No, what is meant today by the housing shortage is the particular intensification of the bad housing conditions of workers as a result of the sudden increase in the population of large cities, the colossal increase in rents, the still greater congestion in individual homes, and, for some, the impossibility of finding a place in which to live at all. And this particular housing shortage gets discussed at such great length and so widely only because it is not confined to the working class, but has affected the middle classes as well.

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The expansion of large modern cities gives the land in certain sections of them – and particularly in those sections that are centrally located – an artificial and often enormously increasing value. But the buildings that already occupy these areas depress this value instead of increasing it, because they no longer correspond to the changed economic circumstances; and, as a consequence, they are demolished and replaced by others. This occurs above all with workers’ homes in central locations, the rents for which, even with the greatest overcrowding, can never, or only very slowly, increase above a certain maximum level. The result of this is that workers are forced out of the centre of cities and towards their outskirts, and workers’ homes – and cheap homes in general – become rare and expensive and often altogether unattainable. For under these circumstances the building industry, which is offered a far better field for speculation by more expensive homes, builds homes for workers only in exceptional circumstances. How, then, is the housing question to be settled?

In our present-day society, it is settled the way every other question is settled: by the gradual economic equalising of supply to demand. However, this is a settlement that merely reposes the question, again and again, and is, therefore, no settlement at all. How a social revolution would settle this question, on the other hand, not only depends on the circumstances in each particular situation, but also on its connection with more far-reaching questions, one of the most fundamental of which is the abolition of the antithesis between city and country. As it is not our job to create utopian systems for the organisation of a future society, it would be pointless to go into this question here. One thing, however, is certain: there are already a sufficient number of homes in the larger cities to remedy, immediately, all real ‘housing shortage’, provided those homes are distributed fairly. Naturally, this can only occur through the expropriation of the present owners by installing in their houses both homeless workers and workers currently living in overcrowded conditions. As soon as the urban worker has won political power, such a measure – which is motivated by concern for the common good rather than individual rights – will be just as easy to put into action as are other expropriations by the State today. But from where did the housing shortage come, and how did it arise?

The good capitalist is not supposed to understand that it is a necessary product of the capitalist social order; that it cannot fail to be present in a society in which the labouring masses are exclusively dependent upon wages (that is to say, upon the means of subsistence necessary for the existence and reproduction of their kind); in which improvements in technology continuously throw large numbers of workers out of a job; in which violent and regularly recurring industrial fluctuations determine, on the one hand, the existence of a large reserve army of unemployed workers, and, on the other, periodically drive the mass of workers on to the streets unemployed; in which workers are crowded together in masses in large cities at a quicker rate than homes are built to house them; in which, as a consequence, there must always be tenants, even for the most infamous slums; and in which, finally, the home-owner, in his capacity as a capitalist, has not only the right but – because of competition on the market – to a certain extent also the duty of ruthlessly making as much as he possibly can out of his property in home rent.

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In such a society the housing shortage is no accident: it is a necessary institution and can only be abolished – together with all its ill effects on health and so on – only if the whole social order from which it derives is fundamentally refashioned. That, however, the capitalist dare not understand. He dare not explain the housing shortage as arising from existing conditions; so he has no other recourse than to explain the housing shortage in moral terms – arguing that it is the result of the greed of man, of moral failings, and so on. Whoever declares that capitalism – which produces the ‘iron laws’ of contemporary society – is inviolable, and yet at the same time would like to abolish its unpleasant but necessary consequences, has no other recourse than to deliver moral sermons to capitalists – sermons whose emotional effects, however, immediately vanish under the influence of private interest and competition.

Yet, from the point of view of capitalists, building homes for workers is also profitable, even when not every law of health and safety is trampled underfoot. That has never been denied. Any investment of capital that satisfies an existing need is profitable if conducted rationally. The question, however, is precisely why the housing shortage continues to exist despite this; why, despite this potential for profit, the capitalists do not provide a sufficient number of well-made homes for workers. And the real answer to this question is that capital does not want to abolish the housing shortage, even if it could. By now it should be perfectly clear that the State, in the form it exists today, is neither able nor willing to do anything to remedy the housing crisis. The State is nothing more than the organised collective power of the possessing classes (that is to say, the landowners and the capitalists) against the exploited classes (the urban and agricultural workers). And what the individual capitalists do not want (and in this instance it is only a question of this class, since in the housing crisis the landowner acts primarily in his capacity as a capitalist) their State also does not want. If, therefore, individual capitalists denounce the housing shortage but do not lift a finger to alleviate – even superficially – its most violent consequences, then the collective capitalist – which is to say, the State – can hardly be expected to do more. At most it will see to it that the usual measure of token assistance is carried out generally and uniformly.

In recent British Acts of Parliament, which gave London building authorities the right of compulsory purchase for the purpose of constructing new streets, a certain amount of consideration was given to the workers evicted from their homes. A provision has been inserted that the new buildings that will be erected on the sites of their demolished homes must be suitable for housing those classes of the population previously living there. As a consequence, large five- or six-storey housing blocks have been erected for the workers on the least valuable sites, and in this way the letter of the law is complied with. At most, however, these buildings will provide new homes for barely a quarter of the best workers evicted by the new housing developments.

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In reality, capitalists have only one method of settling the housing question: after their fashion – which is to say, by settling it in such a way that the solution continually reposes the question. By this I do not mean merely the specific practice of bulldozing long, broad streets through densely-built working-class neighbourhoods and then lining them on both sides with large and luxurious buildings whose purpose is, on the one hand, to develop an urban working class in the building trades that is dependent on the Government, and, on the other, to turn the city into a place of luxury, pure and simple. I also mean the practice, which has now become widespread, of making inroads into the working-class neighbourhoods of large cities, particularly into those that are located centrally – irrespective of whether this practice is accompanied by considerations for public health or aesthetic improvement, or by the demand for large, centrally-located business premises, or for new traffic requirements.

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No matter how various the reasons may be, the result is everywhere the same: the most run-down alleyways and streets disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-congratulations by the capitalists delighted with their enormous success; but they immediately appear again somewhere else. The run-down dives and slums in which capitalism confines its workers night after night are not abolished; they are merely moved elsewhere, where the same economic conditions that produced them in the first place reproduces them again in the next. As long as capitalism continues to exist it is naïve to hope for a separate solution to the housing question, or of any other question relating to the conditions of workers. The only solution lies in the abolition of capitalism and the appropriation of all means of subsistence and production by the working class itself.

– Friedrich Engels (1872-1873)

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