Decades of underinvestment in social housing have had a disproportionate effect on black communities in Britain and the US, writes Glyn Robbins.
George Clooney’s recent film Suburbicon lampoons the hypocrisy of the archetypal American suburb. Alongside a fictional crime caper, it tells the true story of the first African-American family to move to a neighbourhood previously reserved for whites. The Mayer family in the film is based on the Myers family who, in 1957, moved to Levittown, Pennsylvania. As the film depicts, they met with vicious organised racism (including the involvement of the Ku Klux Klan) aimed at driving them out.
But as with other important landmarks in the US civil rights struggle, the Myers were part of a broader campaign dedicated to breaking down Jim Crow segregation, both through organised direct action and legal challenges. The family and their supporters saw off the bigots and their struggle contributed to the raft of legislation in the 1960s that hoped to end racist discrimination in US society. It didn’t.
The ruling class has always tried to control where people live, from the 16th century Venetian ghetto to the Pale of Settlement, which restricted Jewish residency in Tsarist Russia, and South African apartheid’s Group Areas Act. But the US has a particularly disgraceful history of housing policy and racism walking hand in hand. Various mechanisms, including “redlining” (refusing access to mortgages) and restrictive covenants, have been used to prevent African-Americans buying homes in certain places. “Sundown” rules were used all over the country (not just the Deep South) to threaten and intimidate blacks. During its early post-Depression years US public housing was exclusively for whites. Corporate property interests lobbied to prevent public housing becoming part of the mainstream so it could never be integrated and since its decline to the status of “housing of last resort” it’s become overwhelmingly populated by blacks.
The suburb where the Myers wanted to live was based on an earlier one in Long Island near New York City. That’s where Abraham Levitt (himself an immigrant) and his sons created a huge housing development after the Second World War. The first Levittown embodied the hegemonic ideological project of post-war America — “whites only” private suburban home ownership where conservative social values could be inculcated.
Faced with an acute housing shortage, the US government offered demobbed servicemen heavily subsidised mortgages to move to Levittown, provided they were white. Abraham’s son William explained how narrow economic interests and housing policies become intertwined with racism:
“As a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice. But I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 or 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. This is their attitude, not ours. As a company, our position is simply this: We can solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two.”
Levittown illustrates how government support for different types of housing is exploited for divisive political ends. Private home ownership is presented by the establishment as a symbol of independence, self-reliance and social respectability. As William Levitt put it, “No one who owns his own home and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.” It is counter-posed to non-market, social-rented housing, which Senator Joseph McCarthy described as “breeding grounds for Communism”. But Levittown — like the rest of the US private housing market since — was heavily reliant on state funding.
This prejudice and bias persist. US and UK non-market rented housing and the people who live in it are presented as “subsidised” and “dependent”. But both the US and UK governments spend four times more on subsidies to homeowners than on non-market rented housing. In its 2017 Budget the Tory government announced its intention to pump-prime the private housing market to the tune of £44 billion, with absolutely no commitment to any spending on non-market rented alternatives. This represents a form of institutional racism because black and ethnic minority people are far more likely to be victims of the housing crisis and less likely to be home owners.
One of the most damaging features of recent governments’ obsession with home ownership is the Right to Buy. Since it was introduced as an ideological weapon in 1980, 1.8 million council homes have been lost through RTB. Large state-funded discounts were used to encourage Margaret Thatcher’s fabled “property owning democracy”, but 40 percent of the homes sold have ended up in the private rented sector. Only a fraction of the non-market rented homes lost have been replaced, contributing significantly to the housing crisis.
The potentially ruinous Housing and Planning Act (2016) could make the situation worse by extending Right to Buy to housing associations.
In the US (and to a lesser extent, the UK) the aspiration of home ownership was shattered by sub-prime and, again, black people suffered more. Having been systematically denied access to mortgages for decades, the predatory lending of the early 2000s exposed many to repayments they could never afford. When the market collapsed, the effect on African-Americans was devastating. US housing advocacy group California Reinvestment Coalition noted in 2010: “The foreclosure crisis has created one of the greatest losses of personal and neighbourhood wealth in US history. One estimate places the total loss of wealth among African-American households at between $72 billion and $93 billion.”
Home ownership is still one of the key factors in social inequality in the UK. So it’s significant that only one third of black households are owner-occupiers, compared to two thirds of white households. Unfair, racist housing policies and four decades of underinvestment in council housing in the UK have fuelled the far-right. With echoes of Levittown, in the early 1990s Tower Hamlets Council in east London (while under LibDem control) was twice prosecuted by the Commission for Racial Equality for effectively preserving “whites only” council estates. When Bangladeshi families moved to some areas of the borough, they were met with threatening “welcoming committees” and often suffered sustained campaigns of racial harassment.
In 1993 the fascist British National Party won a by-election on the Isle of Dogs by exploiting the shortage of social housing at a time when the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was receiving billions of pounds in public money to build private housing few local people could afford.
More recently Ukip and elements within the Brexit campaign have repeatedly blamed the housing crisis on immigration using the scapegoating myth that people newly arriving in the country receive preferential housing treatment. The truth is that immigrants are far more likely to live in sub-standard accommodation and far less likely to live in social housing.
The extent of persisting discrimination in housing was illustrated by the intention (subsequently found unlawful) of buy-to-let tycoon Fergus Wilson to exclude Indian and Pakistani tenants “because of the curry smell” (BBC News, 8 November 2017). The actions of this parasite on housing misery were a throwback to the days of “No dogs, no Irish, no blacks” notices in the windows of landlords — and another reminder of why we must demand proper regulation of the super-exploitative private rented sector. Wilson, like many other private landlords, is also a beneficiary of government spending. £10 billion of our annual housing benefit bill goes straight into the pockets of private landlords.
Today’s housing crisis is producing another bitter historic irony for working class communities. The inner-city areas and urban decay they were once consigned to are fast becoming playgrounds for the privileged. The suburbs that were once the destination of aspiration are becoming increasingly poverty stricken.
This process of displacement is, again, heavily inscribed with racism. The over-heated housing market and the shortage of genuinely affordable rented homes are making it almost impossible for low and medium income households to stay in urban areas where they may have lived for generations. Suburban white flight has become a black fight for housing and community survival. Places from which they were once excluded have now become dumping grounds for those priced out of the city, while traditionally working class urban areas have become prime sites for developers.
Urban displacement and impoverished suburbs, with disproportionate impact on black and minority ethnic communities, are a global injustice. But again, the parallels between the US and UK are particularly strong. Demographic changes to the areas around big US cities, particularly since the 2007 crash, have, in the words of the Brookings Institute, “redrawn America’s map of poverty”. According to the Smith Institute report “Poverty in Suburbia” (2014), a similar process is happening in the UK, sometimes accelerated by ill-conceived regeneration projects.
As Paul Burnham from the campaign against wholesale privatisation of council housing and public assets in Haringey, north London, observes: “In the US, James Baldwin said ‘urban renewal means negro removal’ and we’re seeing something similar here. We face social cleansing hiding in plain sight and that has a racist impact. There are plenty of poor people of colour in Haringey: people the council doesn’t want around, at least not in such numbers. Driving up house prices means market forces push people out.”
Rose Oliphant saw her public housing community in Washington, DC, demolished in the mid-2000s during a state-funded private developers’ frenzy involving Lendlease, the same company that wants to profit from the Haringey “redevelopment”. Today her old neighbourhood is enveloped by luxury apartments, a sports-stadium, hotels and expensive bars and restaurants.
Rose says: “The future for DC is tearing down and building up, but there won’t be any more public housing. There’ll be more homeless people… The culture of black people, the places we used to be able to afford to live, are being destroyed. But it’s not about colour. It’s about money.”
Creating ethnically and economically segregated enclaves can have tragic consequences. In February 2012 Trayvon Martin died because he was in a place he “didn’t belong”. The 17 year old African-American was killed by George Zimmerman, a security guard at a private housing development in Florida. The Black Lives Matter campaign started when Zimmerman was acquitted and exploded in August 2014 when another unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot dead by police in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, a city with a long history of discriminatory housing.
This was epitomised by the Pruitt-Igoe development which became the symbol of the perceived failure of US public housing. Design issues and moralistic value judgments were used to obscure systematic racial segregation, poor management and underinvestment when it was ritualistically demolished in 1972. Following industrial decline, property speculation in pockets of downtown St Louis had led to displacement of working class, African-American communities.
In 1970 some 99 percent of Ferguson residents were white. By 2010, the former “white flight” suburb’s population was 70 percent black. As Richard Rothstein notes in “The Making of Ferguson, Public policies at the root of its troubles” (Economic Policy Institute, 15 October 2014): “Ghetto conditions we had come to associate with inner cities [were] now duplicated in a formerly white suburban community: racially segregated neighborhoods with high poverty and unemployment, poor student achievement in overwhelmingly black schools, oppressive policing, abandoned homes.”
Push and pull factors have always shaped the relationship between urban and suburban areas, but increasingly the decision to “move out” has become a compulsion, not a choice.
Grenfell Tower has come to symbolise the inequalities of the fractured 21st century city. As Eileen Short explained in International Socialism 156 (autumn 2017), the media and establishment reaction was heavily laced with racism — seeking to blame the victims instead of the system that created them. Lazy tropes about “welfare dependency” and an “underclass” were quickly dispelled by facts about the kind of diverse, mutually-supportive, robust communities that are typical of council housing. But the appalling failures before and since the fire have heightened a sense that working class lives don’t matter, particularly if they’re non-white.
Hurricane Katrina had a similar effect in the US back in 2005. The Lower Ninth ward of New Orleans bore the brunt, not so much of the flood (it was less affected than some other areas), but the corporate land-grabbers that saw the disaster as an opportunity. In the words of local resident Arnise Parker, the message from the authorities after the storm was, “Don’t come back if you’re poor or black.”
The aftermath of Katrina exposed the brutal truth of housing policy based on profit. The primary target was New Orleans’ public housing. Even before 29 August 2005 the city’s “projects” had been subject to denigration, disinvestment and privatisation. In the ten years prior to Katrina successive cuts had reduced the amount of public housing — which had provided homes to 20 percent of the city’s African-American community — by half.
The storm accelerated attempts to displace working class communities. Contrived technical reasons were given for a new programme of demolition. The cynicism of policy makers was revealed in the words of local politician Richard Baker, who said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
This is a stark warning to Grenfell. There’s a real danger the fire will be used as a pretext for privatisation. At least 50 council estates in London alone currently face demolition. The false pretences of “regeneration” and “mixed communities” conceal the real objective of further diluting public housing while allowing private developers (including housing associations) to build higher density, more profitable homes on valuable public land.
This is a critical period for the future of UK housing. The threat of continuing with the broken market-led system is personified in the grotesque figure of a US president who’s both a billionaire property speculator and a racist. Radical action is needed to avoid the worst excesses of the American model. Tinkering around the edges won’t work. Nor will essentially business-friendly policies with varying degrees of window dressing, such as those of Sadiq Khan in London.
Jeremy Corbyn has outlined a bold alternative vision based on restoring council housing to the mainstream and improving conditions for private renters. But only a national campaign to demand decent, secure, truly affordable, energy efficient and safe homes for all can turn the vision into reality.
Grenfell Tower fire: the corner-cutting race to the bottom is a recipe for social murder
Mohamed al-Haj Ali, a 23 year-old Syrian refugee, was one of the first people to be confirmed killed as a result of the Grenfell fire. Here was someone who escaped this government’s disastrous policies in the Middle East only to become a victim of its disastrous policies at home. It was further proof of a system where economic separation only furthers discrimination.
Like most divisions over race they have an economic root. It is not official policy to segregate on the basis of race but capitalism always ends up denying access to resources for those with very little themselves. These people, on the whole, are black or migrants.
They have less options for employment, where studies have shown that even the origin of your name can be a huge barrier to just getting an interview. This makes earning a living more difficult and then housing choices more limited.
The average (mean) salary in Kensington and Chelsea is £123,000, among the highest in Britain. But the halfway point for the borough is £32,700. The average house price in Kensington is £1.4 million. It is no wonder the poorest and most marginalised are crammed into cheap housing. And these disparities result in an unfair distribution of resources. Life expectancy between wards in the borough can vary by as much as 20 years.
A year ago Conservative MPs voted against a measure that would have forced landlords to ensure housing was “fit for human habitation”. There were clearly vested interests in this — the Guardian estimated 39 percent of MPs were themselves landlords.
Grenfell became a death trap following years of privatisation, cuts to building inspection, sub-contracting and chaos over the regulation of building materials.
According to the Architects Journal website, part of the problem is the effect of the outsourcing of safety through Design and Build contracts and Private Finance Initiatives. Architects have spoken out against the way they have been marginalised in the construction process in order to cut costs.
This goes back to the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Retired architect Sam Webb, a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire & Rescue Group, says Thatcher’s government led to “privatisation, self-regulation and cuts”.
In 1986 the Greater London Council was disbanded, leading to the repeal of the London Building Acts 1930-39 which had included architectural rules over fire safety. The privatisation and deregulation was continued under New Labour. Then in 2012, just days before the inquest into the Lakanal House fire of 2009, Eric Pickles, then minister for local government and communities, announced the final part of section 20 of the Acts was to be repealed.
Since these regulated the installation of sprinklers in specific building, Pickles effectively scuppered what would be one of the primary proposals of the Lakanal inquest in that sprinklers be installed in buildings like Lakanal and Grenfell.
The rules surrounding the cladding that can be put on buildings are at best vague. In the search for the lowest cost and greatest profit, contractors mix together different materials to circumvent the loose rules that do exist. Without any oversight or real accountability, this corner-cutting race to the bottom is a recipe for social murder.
Glyn Robbins is the author of There's No Place: The American Housing Crisis and What it Means for the UK (Red Roof, 2017), £10.