Every day I despair of the British Left, and hearing them on the issue of housing is no exception. On the one hand, they should be praised for being the only ones to draw serious attention to the very real problem of rising rents and urban displacement. On the other hand, however, there are serious problems – dangers – in their criticism of gentrification. For starters, its not clear what they are talking about when they refer to gentrification. While there is not a total lack of nuance (see Niall Crowley’s parsing of a distinction between gentrification and regeneration), it seems to be used as a placeholder for anything from cultural appropriation to localised economic growth (While on the right it is taken to simply be rising land values pure and simple, and is therefore defended as a beneficial side-effect of economic growth, notwithstanding the socio-cultural adjustment it brings.)
For the sake of argument, lets us say that gentrification is the outcome of a partnership between local government and established developers to give those developers privileged access to high-potential urban land, usually with some subsidy from local government, or outside of the wealthiest regions, the Left’s beloved EU, in return for something local civil servants and politicians want (sometimes so-called affordable housing, sometimes a high-salaried private sector job in years to come).
The main complaint is that the government should not be spending money on these projects (so far so good) because they should be spending it on building “affordable housing” – that is, housing owned by the local government so they can set the rent below what the market would charge, rather than commercial property and housing which will have above average rental value (and herein lies the problem).
The distinction between affordable housing and other kinds of housing is a non-starter. The average price of housing is a function of supply and demand: for a given level of demand; building any housing at all will decrease the general price level of housing. Housing those who are marginalised from economic participation in ghettos is the least good response to the problem of economic marginalisation. It puts those who are discriminated against by the police all in one place; it geographically concentrates the crime that comes with the inevitable shadow economy that the marginalised are forced to turn to; it creates urban apartheid. As if this wasn’t enough, it’s also a short-term policy: as soon as the political winds change the rents are increased, or the sights are bulldozed for more lucrative development, and people are left homeless, or have to move to cheaper parts of the country. You don’t want a whole class of people to be utterly dependent on their being a Corbyn-led Labour party in government.
What is needed is to address the root causes of urban poverty and homelessness in the first place. And that is the very system that enables both gentrification and large-scale social housing projects: the planning system. Local government decide which sites can be used for what; whether they must remain vacant, commercial, residential, recreational, etc. The problem is local government don’t know which sites are needed for housing (no one does). Those who have the money and/or political pull to lobby local government are the only one’s who have access to the planning system to get it altered in their favour. The fact that there is a need for more housing doesn’t create a niche in the market for building more housing, because the land to do it with, whilst being physical available, is not legally available. The planning system is what artificially stunts the supply of housing, thus keeping it expensive, and keeping the poorest homeless. It is just one of many legal devices used by the unholy alliance of state and land-owners to ensure one part of the population can live off the labour of the other.
Why is the British Left silent on this coercive apparatus which has created urban poverty as we know it? A cynic might think that it is because the middle class left is more interested in controlling other people’s lives through the planning system via their electoral coalition, than actually addressing systemic problems in our economy. The argument that we need affordable housing is often paired with an aesthetic disgust of new architecture, modern bars, overly manicured green areas – spaces marketed at newcomers to the middle class. These projects generate a lot of revenue, and the people who work, live, and play in them like them. One can criticise government planning on the basis that it is going to be worse at anticipating consumer preferences. But that isn’t what the Left typically does; it is far more interested in criticising the bad taste and bad decisions of those who have only recently achieved serious spending power, and are altering the aesthetic landscape of cities with their choices. Much of the agenda of what Roderick Long as called “the aristocratic left” is snobby micro-managing the lives of working class people under the guise of respect and care.
The libertarian Left must err on the side of caution with allying with the establishment Left when it comes to housing policy. Though we both oppose gentrification, our reasons for doing so, and our alternatives to it, radically diverge.