Squat to own – Sadiq Khan must think bigger to solve the housing crisis

In his campaign for London mayor, Sadiq Khan stated repeatedly that his greatest challenge would be the housing crisis. What we have experienced instead is a disappointing dearth in the mix of tactics to confront property speculation and skyrocketing rents.

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Previous generations responded to their own housing crises with massive social housing projects, housing benefit, rent control, cooperatives – and squatting. Already back-tracking on slightly more radical policies such as rent control, Khan’s central initiative has been Homes for Londoners, a private-public partnership to encourage investment in additional housing capacity. But, while Khan has criticised investors for regarding residential assets in London as “gold bricks for investment,” his own policies in fact capitulate to the speculative property market by offering “affordable homes” as just another investment brand.

Khan recently stated that he would be friendly with business as mayor of London.  Yet, as a public official, his remit extends beyond the narrow interests of business toward those of the wider community.  If his rapport with the market is to surrender to its logic, Khan will merely perpetuate the root cause of the housing crisis.  In line with the neo-liberal mantra, the “free market” is not meant to efficiently allocate housing as a social need, but to generate revenues and maintain property values.

The housing crisis, in this way, would seem to be a matter of perspective.  For landlords and investors, there is in fact no crisis at all, but record profits and expanding opportunities for investment.  The crisis exists only for end-users, housing consumers in a seller’s market – where supply is maintained in artificial scarcity.  Bound by this logic, Khan’s Homes for Londoners will provide little incentive for a shift in investment behaviour – and will therefore not solve the housing crisis.

A credible housing strategy – indeed, a housing revolution – must deploy a mix of tactics and must transform the logic of housing provision through public investment, regulation, and cooperatives.  Yet, as we have seen, Khan has not challenged the pre-eminence of the market – even though in housing allocation, it has so clearly failed. In the face of the contradiction between property as a residential asset and housing as a social necessity, Khan must challenge the market by expanding his range of options to deliver on his promises to London.

Shelter contends that new construction must be the centrepiece of the strategy to resolve the housing crisis.  Yet, the method to deliver the required capacity need not – and should not – be – an exercise in merely subsidising property speculators and the private rental industry.  Social housing, after successive waves of privatisation, accounts for only 8% of the housing stock.  New investment in the social sector, including cooperatives, will provide additional affordable capacity and will work to lower the temperature of a super-heated rental market.

Another instance of the dysfunctional housing market is the large number of residential vacancies.  According to Empty Homes, there are over 600,000 vacant properties in England – over 20,000 in London alone.  These vacant properties are further instances of “gold bricks for investment” and further reveal the conflict between speculative assets and the allocation of affordable homes.  There are legislative means to reclaim empty homes in the form of Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPO), but the cost of 20,000 properties in London would be forbidding for the public purse alone.

A more direct method of filling empty homes would, of course, be squatting. Beyond social housing, housing benefit, rent control and cooperatives, squatting has been – and remains – a prominent tactic during housing crises and land hunger.  For centuries, squatters in the British Isles have sought to re-balance the housing and land economies, exposing in the process the vast inequities in land access and ownership.

It is questionable whether squatting residential properties can become part of Khan’s mix of tactics due to its criminalisation under Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act of 2012.  Squatting continues however with little or no law enforcement intervention and its criminalisation has been vigorously criticised by academics, politicians, police officers and grassroots organisations.  If Khan wishes to keep his options open, he should join the chorus to repeal the ban on squatting as a thread in a broader strategy of urban land reform.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, Khan has called for the devolution of more powers to London – among these, tax powers, policing, transport, and housing.  Within such a devolved framework, Khan could certainly expand his portfolio of options, raise finance for social housing and cooperatives, develop a regulatory framework for the housing market, impose rent controls and decriminalise squatting.  The latter would allow for the timely rehabilitation of vacant housing stock and could be carried out with the cooperation of local government.

Even without the proposed devolution of powers to London, Khan could still deploy the “squatting concept” through a policy of settlement.  Vacant residential (or non-residential) properties could be settled by registered home-seekers on license, receiving settlement grants for their rehabilitation.  The licensee would have her own rights and responsibilities, and, after an agreed duration of residence, could be given ownership.  Such a policy would meet the immediate needs of home-seekers and would send a clear signal to property speculators that land must be used in the public interest of everyday Londoners.

If Khan refuses to expand his portfolio of tools, he will fail to resolve the housing crisis.  Workers and students will continue to be fodder for the “rent farmers” of the housing industry and homelessness will rise.  By itself, Homes for Londoners, Khan’s brainchild, will be subject to the power of the landlords and property speculators and will be a poor substitute for social housing.  Kahn must admit – as unfashionable as it may sound – that business is not friendly to social needs such as affordable housing and cannot be the means by which the crisis will be solved.

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