Book review

Where the Other Half Lives

Lower Income Housing in a Neoliberal World

Sarah Glynn (Ed.) – Pluto Press, 2009

This book provides a wide-ranging exploration of the issues surrounding the provision of housing for the middle-to-lower-income groups in modern ‘Western’ society; the inappropriateness of ‘the market’ to meet the needs of the ‘working classes’ or even middle-income earners. The issues are illustrated plentifully be case-studies and anecdote from life.

It is not entirely anti-Capitalist, but is highly critical of the Neoliberal rationalisations of ‘welfare’ policies which in practise, work strongly against the interests of the poor and disadvantaged. The editor notes that ‘The media ... decide how and what stories are told and, importantly, what are omitted’, and that ‘business and government sources are [also] proving ever more efficient at influencing news coverage’.

Sarah Glynn has written about half of the book herself, concentrating on the UK, and starting with a survey of the start of charitable or State-funded housing provision in the mid-19th C.

In this, she describes the growing power of the working-classes, through the growth of the Trade Unions, at the turn of the 20th C, as the rulers feared revolution, after the events of the French Revolution, and sought to address their grievances by making some concessions to their demands. This led finally, after the 2nd World War, to the massive council-house building program which continued until the 1970s, when as part of the new Neoliberal agenda, Thatcher cut it and introduced tenants’ ‘right to buy’, and wholesale transfer to ‘not for profit’ housing associations.
This could only take place after tenants’ vote of approval, gained after massive, dishonest propaganda and threats. In many cases this failed at the first attempt, so further intense effort at persuasion preceded second ballots, which still did not always succeed in winning the right to transfer.
Much of the remaining Council housing has been demolished, usually against the wishes of the tenants being ‘re-housed’ – if they are lucky – on the pretext of ‘redevelopment’, which in practise means ‘gentrification’.

Ms. Glynn has also gathered together authors for the other chapters to describe the developments around the World: in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, France, Sweden, and the USA, as well as two case-studies of examples, in Leeds and Dundee (this latter, by herself).

While detailing the differences of timing, approaches and concerns in each location, these chapters make clear the essential similarities. Neo liberalism is a world-wide problem.

She describes the conflicts between ethics and the Capitalist drive for profits, noting the early 20th C Liberals’ ‘preference’ for land reform over proposals for State intervention in the housing market, but without comment on the potential of LVT (Land Value Tax) to affect the situation positively.

As the book’s subtitle implies, all the authors are strongly critical of Neoliberal ideology, and in their case-studies expose the ‘double-thinking’ used to justify its policies – not just in the matter of State/private provision of ‘affordable’ housing, but linking this to the wider issues affected by it. They make it crystal-clear that Neoliberalism must be defeated, if for no other reason, for any long-term solution to the provision of quality housing for the poorer sections of the population to be achieved and maintained.

William Krehm has described the work of François Perroux early in the last century, showing that through history, there has always been a ‘dominant revenue’: that is, the revenue of the dominant class in society, whose welfare-needs have been promoted as being for the benefit of the whole society. Originally, this was the military/aristocracy, then the land-owners, followed by merchants, industrialists, and now, clearly, the money-manipulators – bankers and speculators.

As is, regretfully, almost universal in books otherwise radical, well-argued and perceptive of social/economic problems, this one fails to address the truly radical cause leading to the major problems now seriously threatening the future: that is, the inequitable distribution of the potential abundance which modern technology could provide, given fair distribution of entitlement to a share of it.

The two main issues underlying all others are (a) the banks’ take-over from government as the main issuers of money, which they create as counter-part to interest-bearing debt, and in so doing, gaining effective control both of the ‘economy’ and of governments, as their system generates growing levels of debt and inequality of wealth; and (b) the privatisation of the ‘gifts of nature’, which are the basis for all wealth, and should be communally owned. This implies that we need Land Value Taxation and the taxing, at source, of non-renewable or over-used material drawn from the environment. The revenue from this should be the basis for the issuing of Basic Incomes. Given these reforms, the housing problems, as well as most others afflicting modern society, could easily be resolved.

Despite this caveat, I can strongly recommend this very readable book for its perceptive and detailed analysis of the problems of housing, and its attack on Neoliberalism.

Brian Leslie