The spectacle of President Trump rubbing his hands together in delight as he visits the ruined underwater city of Houston perplexed me to begin with; even for a man that strange, this was bizarre behaviour, surely?
Then I read Glyn Robbins’s new book and the penny dropped — Trump is a property developer. The destruction of homes and immiseration of the poorest people doesn’t evoke empathy. For him and his fellow developers it is an opportunity to mop up.
Glyn’s investigation of the effects of years of neoliberal policy on housing in the US is forensically detailed, but he never fails to draw out the key messages and lessons for those of us fighting for homes as a right in this country. Because as well written as this book is, it is most fundamentally a call to action.
Although this was written before the paradigm shift that happened when Grenfell burned, killing scores of working class Londoners, it still has lessons for those of us motivated to organise with fellow tenants to fight for improved housing conditions, particularly in the chapter about the aftermath to Hurricane Katrina.
Glyn’s links with campaigners in the States are one of the many strengths of the book. His use of their testimony is moving and authoritive. The image of Charles Smith sitting on the porch of his ruined home, without running water, ten years after Katrina struck New Orlean’s Ninth Ward — still waiting for his insurance to pay out so he could fix it up — is as heartbreaking and maddening as witnessing elderly care home residents sitting waist-deep in filthy water in Houston today. These disasters are not natural; they are business opportunities.
This book clearly shows that the gentrification of our cities and the privatisation of our homes is countered time and again by ordinary people. The pernicious view of housing as an “investment” is challenged by those who are being forced to fight for homes as a human right.
For instance, Glyn met Tim from Atlanta who is involved in the fight to save a homeless shelter in the Downtown area and for genuinely affordable homes. He talks about his motivation: “We wanted to win stuff for ordinary, everyday people and foreclosure was really hurting the city.”
Grenfell, for us, must be a truly game-changing event, as Katrina was in the US. We have already seen the government pushed back on some of the most punitive aspects of the Housing Act, but there is much, much more to do if we are to make sure that the contempt shown to the people of the Lancaster West estate is never allowed to kill again.
Glynn is clear that because the US has never had a mass welfare state, including council housing, there are still really important lessons to learn from the struggles over housing there.
As Tim from Atlanta goes on to say, “Big property is an adversity that seems impossible to beat, but when we organise smart, we have the capacity to win. We don’t know our own strength.”