The situation around housing in Australia is dire. Years of deregulated financial excess, attacks on welfare and public housing along with attacks on wages and lobbying by real estate groups have placed the working class into housing precarity. For many workers it is now almost impossible to find affordable and secure rentals with many having to spend half of their income on rent alone. This downward decline in the state of housing continues within the context of capitalist property relations that view housing as a commodity to be bought and sold on the market rather than a basic right of all people. Thus the struggle for housing is not just a struggle for a place to live but a struggle to ultimately redefine the property relations that define our society.
In Australia today we have some of the most unaffordable housing in the world in terms of renting and buying with our cities routinely placed on the world's most expensive cities lists. It is not surprising then that over 100,000 people are homeless with many more a lease ending away from desperate circumstances. How we got here is a story - like most stories about social issues - of the state and capitalism working in their natural way to plunder and maximise their power over their subjects. It is a story of loss and theft that has been experienced by the working class since the dawn of capitalism.
We Do Not Need Landlords
"Landlords' right has its origin in robbery. The landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for the natural produce of the earth." - Adam Smith
You may have heard the refrain "landlords are leeches" or phrases of the like when people are criticising landlords, Though these phrases may seem vulgar they point to an essential truth about the nature of property and the tenant-landlord relationship: landlords are unnecessary. Owning something requires no work. Landlords hoard (read steal) property, a "right" that is defended by the state through its monopoly on violence. If you take up residence in an empty home or refuse to pay rent you will be punished for your crime of sanity. By hoarding housing, landlords engineer an artificial scarcity which leaves us no alternative but to rent from them.
At the start of capitalism the state helped landlords drive peasants off their lands in Europe in a process of primitive accumulation. In Australia land was stolen en masse from the First Nations and handed to business owners, landlords and settlers.
It is important to note too that if there were no landlords there would still be housing. Landlords do not provide housing. They do not labour laying bricks or pouring cement - in fact they do not labour at all. Many landlording schemes are advertised as a way to "make money in your sleep", as the landlord is neither the tradesman who builds the house or the handyperson who maintains it. Landlords could be done away with and housing could still be built. A revolutionary society could build housing for all.
This parasitic relationship constitutes a second theft from the worker. First their labour is stolen at work and then what's left of the value of their labour is further sucked away to help finance a house for the hoarding thieves who stole it.
How Did We Get Here
Though housing under capitalism has always had this exploitative relationship, things have taken a turn for the worse in recent decades. In the late 1970's onwards with the rise of neoliberalism in Australia factories began to be off-shored and the importance of manufacturing in the economy declined. This caused a break in manufacturing as a major driver of the capitalist machine in Australa and instead other industries, particularly finance and real estate, were to play a greater role. Also around this time was the beginning of attacks on the welfare system in Australia with policies like full employment ending, public housing being wound down and welfare becoming more precarious.
This had a number of effects on the housing market - many of which are beyond the scope of this article - one of those being the availability of cheap credit through financial de-regulation. Instead of this improving access to housing it made it worse as those who had more money could now borrow way more than they could before making it much easier to purchase multiple properties. In addition to this increases in credit meant that the money supply increased (as banks create money when they give out loans they do not give out existing currency) which meant that demand increased, driving up the cost of housing in a vicious cycle. In effect the banks and government had essentially created a situation in which housing was to be mercilessly hoarded by the winners-take-all mentality of the market. They had intentionally created a situation where the price of housing was no longer dictated by wage growth but one in which increasing inequality in society meant - even more than it did before - greater gains for banks and landlords.
Another factor that contributed to the housing crisis was the migration to cities from regional areas due to the destruction of regional communities through the loss of manufacturing jobs and the greater extractive effects of the increasing monopolisation of capitalism at the time. This caused ballooning populations in cities like Sydney and Melbourne, making a bad situation even worse as competition for rentals increased drastically. As an aside, it is always interesting that experts view this as an inevitably of how 'efficient' cities are rather than focusing on the devastating effects that neoliberalism has had on regional areas. When you ask most of these migrants they will tell you that they would rather not be in a city .
There are many other contributing factors as well, such as poor planning by councils, government housing grant schemes, the destruction of unions (wage stagnation), tax incentives and government schemes for landlords, among other causes for this housing crisis.
The result of all these factors is an asset based economy in which the ever increasing value of housing and other assets is a major source of economic activity as opposed to other industries such as manufacturing. This has turned our houses into poker chips to be used by the leeches in the upper crust of our society to suck further from the working class and deepen inequality, putting us further under the ruling classes' control.
It is important to note in the Australian context that it is not just neoliberalism that has produced poor housing, but also colonialism. The Northern Territory is the state/territory with the largest Indigenous population and where nearly 1 in 20 Indigenous people experience homelessness. This is not a coincidence. Many Indigenous communities, contrary to popular belief, have been excluded from the various infrastructure and welfare programs that other areas have benefitted from. In rural areas, for instance, many Indigenous people cannot access welfare unless they are on a permanent work for the dole program. Essentially, this turns indigenous communities into slave labour forces. And the destitution shows. Many Indigenous people live as shown in the documentary "Utopia", often in asbestos shacks and without basic amenities like electricity.
As regulations over loans and housing have been weakened, housing quality has gotten worse too. For all that money we pay, capitalism gives us unsafe, unlivable garbage with more than 85% of apartment blocks being built since 2000 having defects in them. In 2017 the Grenfell Tower Apartment block caught fire and killed 74 of the residents and injuring dozens more. In the lead up to the fire many residents tried to highlight the litany of fire safety issues but were threatened with legal action by the apartment management. The management also installed a highly flammable cladding that was cheaper than the less flammable alternative. They, like all capitalists and state actors, used their control to maximise their own wealth and power and to hell with the residents they were throwing in harm's way.
In addition to these shocking examples many can attest to the callous and unaccountable indifference of landlords and property managers. You can read endless negative reviews and horror stories online from toilets falling through the floor to creepy landlords who try to exploit there tenants for sex. You probably have stories like this yourself.
The real icing on the cake of the capitalist housing market is that there are more houses than people in Australia yet so many remain homeless. If markets were so good at distributing housing why are there still homeless people despite there being no material barrier?
Speaking of capitalism, some people will tell us that the real enemy is not capitalism and like prime minister Scott Morrison foolishly argues, we should all just buy a house. But make no mistake - this crisis is precisely caused by markets. This is capitalism manifest. The situation we have today has been engineered and created by the relentless pressures that the capitalist system places on society to bend it to its will. Whether it is the real estate lobby spending millions to get favourable laws to maximise their revenues or states that direct funds away from social housing to maximise their military and political power elsewhere, capitalism and the state work as they are designed to concentrate power in the hands of a few and in terms of housing, this means we get unaffordable, unlivable housing that is utterly precarious.
The solution is to create a housing system based on the many human needs and wants rather than on the desires of a minority of investors. This cannot happen so long as we live under economic tyranny in which decisions about our economy are privatised to boardrooms or abstracted to the state. The only way this could emerge is through the democratisation of our economy and through the direct participation of workers in decision making about their workplaces and society.
How Do We Fight Back
But how do we fight back against the landlords and the bankers? Individual actions alone are not enough. Those who rule over housing are organised and so must we be. Only through organising and building our collective power as tenants and workers can we fight back against this system. By building tenant unions such as the South East Queensland Union of Renters and the Renters and Housing Union - Victoria we can fight back directly and work towards a world where we collectively control housing.