In 1992 I was an intern with a public housing authority in the US (you can tell it was a long time ago because unlike today’s interns, I was paid!) It was a seminal experience. ‘The Projects’ embody a range of deeply-held prejudices and fears in American society reflected in a host of media images portraying places of violence, criminality, poverty and despair. Many of these stereotypes have been debunked by academic research, but the gross stigmatisation of American public housing and the people who live in it – most of whom are black – continues.
During my internship and in several subsequent visits, I witnessed conditions and situations I hadn’t encountered before, nor have since. Despite the best efforts of many tenants and housing workers, the scale of under-investment, disrepair and neglect was beyond anything I’ve seen in the UK. It’s perhaps trite to say that most of the people I met were decent, honest and friendly, but often ground down by their circumstances. Violent, untimely death was a regular occurrence, but this was only the most shocking manifestation of environments dominated by the mundane ‘ghetto capitalism’ of the drugs trade and attempts to police it. But my abiding impression of US public housing was of physical, social and political isolation – virtual leper colonies of the poor.
Ever since 1992, I’ve been convinced that UK housing policy is taking us inexorably towards the US situation. The cumulative effect of waves of privatisation, culminating in the Housing and Planning Bill, has confirmed that view. There are important historic differences between US public housing and UK council housing, but these only serve to highlight the dangers of the road we’re being pushed down. The neoliberal ‘Washington Consensus’ has infected UK housing policy. Taking one aspect of the Bill, ‘Pay to Stay’ creates, for the first time, a link between income and rent for council and social housing tenants that is a direct replica of the US. Likewise time-limited tenancies. ‘The Projects’ are often portrayed as ‘welfare housing’ and this is precisely the formulation envisaged by David Cameron in depicting council housing as only suitable for ‘emergencies’. The Bill will make access to non-market housing a means-tested benefit, as it is in the US.
The consequences of Pay to Stay have been quickly identified by critics and potential victims of the Housing and Planning Bill, as they have been for many years in the US. It’s a disincentive to work, or at least, to earn more than the threshold beyond which rents start to rise towards the market level. The essential quality of US public housing is that everybody who lives in it is, by definition, poor. You can’t get in unless your income is below a certain point and you’re financially compelled to leave if it rises above another. This institutional impoverishment has multiple adverse consequences and is the real reason why US public housing has become ‘the housing of last resort’. Council housing was never intended to play that role, but it’s becoming a government-fulfilling prophecy.
Deliberate financial enfeeblement facilitates a variety of class and profit-based attacks on public housing and will have the same effect in the UK. American public housing started in a weaker position than council housing, but both are now subject to existential threats by governmental and corporate vultures. Across the US – and most starkly in Chicago – thousands of public housing units are being demolished to make away for bogus ‘mixed income communities’ that systematically displace existing tenants and make it almost impossible for them to return to their homes, instead scattering them into the hyper-exploitation of the private rented sector. This is exactly the intention behind Cameron’s announcement, egged on by the development industry, that he wants to demolish ‘sink estates’.
A less publicised aspect of the Housing and Planning Bill is the redesignation of council estates as ‘brownfield’ sites and the creation of a wrecking-ball charter. The bitter irony of the US experience – and one that is again shared in the UK – is that the government wants to destroy public housing at exactly the moment that millions of people need it. Off the record, more thoughtful US politicians and policy makers will admit that failing to invest in building public housing, instead of knocking it down, is a false economy. The same has long been true in the UK, but on both sides of the Atlantic, the political class has convinced itself that only the private sector matters and tenants no longer have a voice. There’s a big opportunity to prove them wrong next Sunday.