Today the very rich own multiple mansions while the very poor sleep on the streets.
Like everything else in capitalism the provision of somewhere to live is determined by money considerations and market forces. The extremes of property prices are astronomical. A penthouse flat in Mayfair was recently sold for £140 million – more than a thousand times the market value of a three-bedroom house in a poor part of the country.
For the working class the question is usually to find somewhere to rent or to buy on mortgage. In both cases money in the form of rent or interest goes to the owners of capital.
Those who own enough capital to live comfortably without having to seek employment (a tiny minority of the total population) can afford to rent or buy the biggest and best accommodation. They can live in only one place at a time, but they can buy ‘security’ for the others.
Supporters of capitalism like to describe Britain as a property-owning democracy. In recent years they have encouraged ‘buy-to-let’ – for some a bonanza but for others definitely not. Holding the false belief/hope that property prices can only go up, never down, they have had their financial fingers burned. They have suffered ‘negative equity’ – the market value of the property has become less than what they owe on it. When the owners cannot keep up the payments, the property has been re-possessed by the bank or building society.
Today there are over a million vacant homes in the UK. These are mostly actual homes (houses or flats) and some homes that could be provided in disused commercial property. Some owners cannot afford, or do not wish to afford, to repair them up to a standard for occupation. Sometimes it may be more profitable to leave a property vacant to increase in market value rather than to have it occupied, particularly if the tenant would be difficult or costly to remove.
Money and housing
A number of occupations and organisations exist wholly or partly to deal with the money side of housing. These include:
accountants, auctioneers, bankers, bailiffs, building societies, cashiers, conveyancers, credit card agencies, debt collectors, estate agents (realtors), financial advisers, insurers, lawyers, market analysts, moneylenders, mortgage brokers, receivers, rent collectors, security firms, solicitors, tax collectors, treasurers, and valuers.
All these and others of a similar kind will either not exist in socialism or will change drastically in conditions of production solely for use, common ownership and free access.
Housing in socialism
In what kinds of accommodation, and under what circumstances, will socialists house themselves in the future? The general answer will be in accordance with the meeting of all our other needs for goods and services, based on common ownership (the same as no ownership), democratic control and reasonable free access.
Of course we cannot foresee in any detail what conditions and opportunities there will be for housing people in a socialist world. We can’t know (but we can speculate about) what changes will be made in capitalism as we move from a few hundred socialists to a few million.
Traditionally socialists haven’t had much to say about housing in the new society. Marx and Morris thought that country life was better than city life, although they wanted to narrow the gap between the two. Ron Cook (in Yes, Utopia!) and Rod Shaw (Socialist Standard, September 2009) both foresaw a growth in communal hotel-like accommodation,. And that’s about it.
With unsurprising lack of imagination but admirable democratic intent, socialists often say: 'The people at the time will decide.'
With the ending of ownership, the meaning of ‘tenancy’ will surely become much wider than in capitalism. It will denote the democratically agreed right to occupy a place for a certain length of time, probably with some attached responsibilities. A tenancy will be granted to one person who wishes to live wholly or usually alone, to a couple, a family or a group of friends. A ‘place’ may be expected to vary according to size and the number and needs of the tenants.
In the early stages of socialism (if not later) the places available for tenancy will include solid structures that have existed for some time. The larger ones will, no doubt, be split for tenancy purposes. Places like the White House or Buckingham Palace could combine living accommodation with public services like conservation or tour guiding.
The length of tenancies will probably vary considerably. A beach hut in Bognor (if they were still wanted) could be available by the day. A cabin in a round-the-world cruise liner would be for one trip or segment.
The ending of inequality-producing, money-based ownership will open the way for other forms of allocating occupancy. Waiting lists of available places – kept as short as possible by increasing supply to match demand – would mean first come, first registered, first offered tenancy. It could be agreed that some groups, the disabled for example, should be given priority. In cases of very great demand for limited supply, there could be allocation by ballot. Different combinations of these and other possible methods of allocation could apply by democratic decision in different parts of the world.
Much more could be said about the possibilities of housing when it is removed from capitalist control and arranged according to socialist principles put into practice. There is space here to briefly mention only a few points:
-- Avoiding or at least minimising environmental hazards. Places to live would not be built in areas subject to earthquakes, landslides, floods, tsunamis etc.
-- More non-monetary planning/administration. Although there will be no time and effort spent on buying and selling, it seems likely that the democratic provision and allocation of housing for all will involve a lot of human activity, aided by the appropriate technology.
-- People will vary – but not as widely as now – in the amount and type of possessions and stuff they keep in their homes.
The case for socialism
Men and women who don’t find it too hard to get their head around the idea of common ownership and free access regarding such things as water and public transport should go the extra yard to apply it to the whole of society, including how they are housed. They will help to change history by moving from 'It’s a nice idea, but…' to 'Yes, we can!'