If hospitals deliberately spread disease, it would be a scandal. But with an acute housing crisis, local councils, housing associations and other public bodies are routinely selling off homes intended for social rent at public auction. Those with a responsibility to reduce housing need are making the situation worse.
This month, at least 37 homes are due to go under the hammer at four separate auctions held in West End hotels. Among the sellers are Wandsworth and Westminster councils, which have a combined housing waiting list of 9,000 families, and Oxford Citizens Housing Association, part of GreenSquare Group, which operates in the city with the most unequal housing market outside London.
In east London, Newlon Housing Association is offering a five-bedroom family home in Cable Street, Tower Hamlets – a borough in which 18,000 families are languishing on the housing waiting list. Even London mayor Sadiq Khan is getting-in on the act, with City Hall flogging a three-bedroom semi in Finchley. Another repeat offender is Peabody, one of the oldest housing associations in the country. Last year it made a profit of £175 million while still claiming to be a “social landlord”.
In March, 44 social homes were up for sale at three auctions, of which 15 were owned by the NHS.
But there is growing opposition to this flagrant profiteering. People in Tower Hamlets mounted a campaign to oppose Peabody’s plan to sell a family home in Bethnal Green. Under pressure, including from the local mayor John Biggs, Peabody said “we are happy to offer the property to house a homeless family from the Tower Hamlets waiting list.“ Shockingly though, Tower Hamlets Council is itself aiming to sell a four-bedroom house it owns in Whitechapel on 21 May. The home has been empty for some time (a scandal in itself) and now needs significant work to bring it up to a liveable standard, but that cost would be a fraction of that paid by the council to keep a family in temporary accommodation. While one council department is selling homes, another is buying them to use for homeless families.
The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) has said that 165,000 homes intended for social rent were lost between 2012 and 2018 and warn that could reach nearly 200,000 by 2020 “if we don’t take action soon”. But still the practice continues.
Anyone I speak to about this has the instinctive reaction “outrageous”, but it’s important to understand why it’s happening. It’s a result of deliberate government policies that have slashed public service budgets in general and housing investment in particular.
Councils have given up the fight against austerity and are liquidating public assets to maintain services. This has dove-tailed with the increasingly corporate culture of housing associations, which have been encouraged to become more commercial – and have done so with enthusiasm.
These sell-offs are a grotesque display of the property speculation that has made a few rich, while causing misery to millions and untold social damage. This combines with a deliberate, but covert, policy to remove working class people from “high value” urban areas. This social cleansing, which often means ethnic cleansing too, is a familiar phenomenon in the US, but is becoming embedded in the UK, with the active connivance of agencies like those selling social rented homes at auction.
As the CIH says, these sell-offs must stop. But wider change is needed for us to take control of housing, instead of being controlled by it.
Grenfell Tower became the sickening symbol of failed housing policies, but as we approach the second anniversary of that, the outrage felt by Londoners and the wider population hasn’t been translated into action to close the social gap that housing now represents. Only a fundamental rethink will do that.
There’s a growing consensus that instead of selling homes, local councils should start building them again. This will require substantial, long-term government investment, but will pay for itself within a generation. Millions of people will be saved from the super-exploitation of private renting and the rapacious and volatile market will be defused by an alternative – council housing – that provides good quality, secure, truly affordable, energy efficient and safe homes for those who need them.
Until or unless we restore the principle of housing as a social asset and a place to live in, rather than a private commodity to make money from, the auctions of our future will continue.
Glyn Robbins is an estate manager, housing campaigner and writer
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