In February 2012 I contributed to a conference panel session (at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in New York) that was convened to revisit Friedrich Engels' astonishingly relevant 1872 pamphlet, The Housing Question. The title I gave my short talk [starts 19 minutes in] was "The Housing Benefit Question", and I tried to capture what was going on with respect to welfare reform in the UK, to explain its implications for housing, and to summarise why Engels' writings are so important today (both analytically and politically). Although I did not hold back in my assessment (drawing, in part, on my work on the think tank influences behind welfare reform), in hindsight I made a major omission. I made no reference to what has since become the most controversial aspect of the Tory assault on the welfare state, so much so that it is now a major electoral issue, with Ed Miliband finally pledging (on 20th September 2013) to scrap it should the Labour Party win the election in 2015. I am of course referring to what is officially called the "under-occupancy penalty". Its architects and supporters call it "ending the spare room subsidy", and its critics, currently trouncing their opponents in the semantic battle, call it the "bedroom tax". Just to clarify what this is: under the 2012 Welfare Reform Act, the allocation of Housing Benefit since 1st April 2013 takes into consideration the number of rooms occupied by tenants in local authority (council) and social-rented (housing association) accommodation, and restricts payments to allow for one bedroom per person or per couple. If it is deemed by the state that there are too many rooms in such a dwelling for the number of occupants, the "under-occupancy penalty" is applied. This reduces housing benefit payments - a lifeline against homelessness - by 14% for one extra bedroom and by 25% for two or more extra bedrooms. Children under 10 years of age are now expected to share a room regardless of their sex, and children of the same sex under 16 are expected to share. Staggeringly, tenants who use their 'spare' bedroom when recovering from an illness or operation are affected by this policy, as are disabled people living in adapted or specially designed properties. The only exemption made for disabled tenants is when they have a registered carer who needs to stay overnight.
The Conservative politicians behind this particularly brutal part of an already draconian welfare reform package attempt to defend the indefensible by referring to the "need" to reduce welfare spending as part of their current fiscal austerity agenda (itself needless, given that clamping down on corporate tax evasion instead could make serious inroads into tackling the budget deficit). They also, true to form, activate the dismal stigma attached to anyone in the UK in receipt of social assistance of any kind (it is claimed by senior Tories that the policy will reduce "welfare dependency" and encourage people "parked on benefits" to find work in "fairness to the taxpayer", judiciously disregarding the fact that only 1 in 8 households claiming housing benefit are workless). There is also defensive reference to the many thousands of tenants across all sectors "languishing" in overcrowded accommodation; it is claimed that the "reallocation" effects of the policy will reduce council housing waiting lists. However, this argument is immediately stranded once it is recognised that people being evicted from their homes due to rent arrears is not going to reduce council housing waiting lists! The "ending dependency" argument is stranded not only by a glance at the dire state of the low-wage labour market, but by the fact that the horrible prospect of bailiffs at front doors is not going to make it any easier for unemployed tenants to find work. Furthermore, such is the crisis of affordable housing across the UK that there are simply not enough smaller properties available in local authorities to house those affected. Government officials also refer to the "generosity" of their new "Discretionary Housing Payments" - sums of money allocated to local authorities with instructions to local officials to decide which of the people affected should get help in meeting their increasing housing costs. This, of course, relies on efficient and sympathetic local authorities (not renowned for being either), and puts pressure on councils to make distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor (rapidly becoming a hallmark of 'localism' in David Cameron's Britain that few seem willing to discuss).
The heartening series of nationwide protests and third sector action against the bedroom tax (I am going to call it that from now on, in the unlikely event that Grant Shapps MP reads this) were offered considerable ammunition recently from a statement released to the media by the Brazilian scholar-activist Raquel Rolnik, the UN's Special Rapporteur on housing, following her two-week, five-city visit to the UK to assess its achievements and challenges in guaranteeing the right to adequate housing (in accordance with existing international human rights standards). Rolnik was quickly condemned by politicians and right-wing journalists as a "loonie left Brazil nut" who had no right to comment at all, given housing conditions in her own country. Had anyone bothered to do any research, they would have found out very quickly that Rolnik is an eminent scholar of housing and urban studies, widely published and highly cited, and also a key figure in housing justice movements in cities in her own country. In her statement, she praised the UK's long track record in ensuring a right to housing, but then remarked that
"Some of my main preliminary findings indicate signs of retrogression.... It is not clear that every effort has been made to protect the most vulnerable from the impacts of retrogression, indeed much of the testimony I heard suggests they are bearing the brunt. Housing deprivation is worsening... [P]eople appear to be facing difficulties to accessing adequate, affordable, well located and secure housing."
Her concise and carefully considered statement continued to outline the impacts of welfare reform and especially the bedroom tax:
"In only a few months of its implementation the serious impacts on very vulnerable people have already been felt and the fear of future impacts are a source of great stress and anxiety. Of the many testimonies I have heard, let me say that I have been deeply touched by persons with physical and mental disabilities who have felt targeted instead of protected; of the grandmothers who are carers of their children and grandchildren but are now feeling they are forced to move away from their life-long homes due to a spare bedroom or to run the risk of facing arrears; of the single parents who will not have space for their children when they come to visit; of the many people who are increasingly having to choose between food and paying the penalty. Those who are impacted by this policy were not necessarily the most vulnerable a few months ago, but they were on the margins, facing fragility and housing stress, with little extra income to respond to this situation and already barely coping with their expenses."
She concluded her statement with the recommendation that
"the so-called bedroom tax be suspended immediately and be fully re-evaluated in light of the evidence of its impacts on the right to adequate housing and general well-being of many vulnerable individuals."
Unsurprisingly, Rolnik's intervention sent Tories into white-knuckle rage, not least the unbearable Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps (infamous for successfully criminalising squatting in 2012 when he was Minister for Housing), who bleated on several morning broadcasts that Rolnik's report was a "disgrace", and later triumphantly announced that he had written to the Secretary-General of the UN calling for him to investigate how someone with "apparent political bias" could be allowed to evaluate UK housing rights.
A great deal of energy, time and ink has been spent debating (and resisting) the bedroom tax, and there are already some hugely valuable contributions that help us to grasp its dire consequences. However, for me it is Alison Stenning's short blog piece that gets us closest to understanding its terrible human costs on people living at the bottom of the class and housing structure:
"What the 'bedroom tax' belies is a determined attempt by the Coalition and its thinkers to ignore the importance of everyday relationships and their geographies, within and beyond the home."
There are two aspects to Stenning's excellent contribution. First, the bedroom tax "disregards the complexity of family relationships within the home" and "fails to acknowledge a raft of circumstances that might make this [sharing a bedroom] difficult, including special needs or disabilities, or time and space for study, or even radically different personalities." At its most desperate, Stenning reminds us, the bedroom tax profoundly affects "families whose circumstances have suddenly changed, through separation, estrangement, [and] death", and she makes reference to the distressing case of a family "who recently lost their seven year old daughter to cancer and who, as a result, are seen to 'under-occupy' their home." However, it is the second aspect of Stenning's argument that really caught my attention, as it is an issue I've been researching for a very long time. She argues that the bedroom tax "fails to value the place of embedded, long-term, local relationships and their contribution to people's wellbeing." Stenning outlines how people are now being forced to choose between paying higher housing costs (which most cannot afford), or relocating and losing the relationships they have built from living somewhere for decades:
"Those relationships, with friends or neighbours or local shops and services, might be offering all kinds of support: community, conversation and friendship, childcare, loans of money, food, equipment, a watchful eye on each other's homes, to name a few. In short, these kinds of relationships are invaluable, and especially for more vulnerable and isolated households. Their loss may have a real impact on welfare, in ways that may be impossible to quantify but which are nevertheless costly."
When reading this, and considering it in light of Raquel Rolnik's comment about being "deeply touched" by what people told her during her visit, it becomes an analytical and especially a political necessity to interpret people's reactions to their displacement caused by the bedroom tax as expressions of grief. Half a century of research into forced evictions and urban displacement, from all over the world, supports this interpretation.
"Moving people involuntarily from their homes or neighbourhoods is wrong. Regardless of whether it results from government or private market action, forced displacement is characteristically a case of people without the economic and political power to resist being pushed out by people with greater resources and power, people who think they have a 'better' use for a certain building, piece of land, or neighborhood. The pushers benefit. The pushees do not."
The words above appeared at the start of a remarkable 1982 publication entitled Displacement: How to Fight It. It emerged as part of the San Francisco-based "Anti-Displacement Project", a national campaign to protect affordable housing occupants from the displacement pressures of profiteering reinvestment in America's cities during the 1970s. The Project derived much of its energy from an early 1970s struggle over the construction of San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center, a substantial convention, performing arts and public space complex in that city's South of Market neighbourhood. To create Yerba Buena, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency displaced over 4000 poor elderly tenants from Single Room Occupancy hotels (SROs) in a particularly brazen case of land grab. Something of the experience of displacement was later captured in retrospect by Chester Hartman (2002) with poignant eloquence:
"For many pensioners, accustomed to forty-dollar- and fifty-dollar-per-month rents, relocation was a terrifying experience... For older people in particular, personal friendships are perhaps the most important aspect of day-to-day life. Loss of familiar faces in the streets and in the hotel lobbies, of people to talk to, eat, drink, and play cards with is a severe shock. Similarly, the loss of stores, restaurants, and other commercial institutions can rob people of an important basis of stability, a place to obtain credit, to meet friends."(p.66)
The fight against the callous obliteration of a working-class quarter of San Francisco, led by a tenants' organization with the support of non-profit legal organisations, saw some impressive gains. After protracted litigation battles, half the units torn down in South of Market were replaced, and subsidised for permanent low-rent occupancy by federal and state sources and the city's hotel tax, with the tenants' organisation acting as developers and managers of much of the new housing. The slogan of the social movement against Yerba Buena summed up the protest: "We Won't Move."
Throughout Displacement: How To Fight It, there was a total rejection of economists' language of the "highest and best use" of particular land parcels, leading to an argument that competitive bidding for the use of land fails to take into account the interests of those who occupy that land - what that bidding means for people without the means to bid. It was contempt for "highest and best use" and the influence of this notion on urban policy and planning that led Hartman to issue a plea for a "right to stay put" (Hartman, 1984). Hartman called into question conventional 'cost-benefits' thinking in mainstream debates on housing, in favour of an understanding of displacement costs as emotional, psychological, individual and social:
"In seeking a new place to live, the displaced tend to move as short a distance as possible, in an effort to retain existing personal, commercial, and institutional ties and because of the economically and racially biased housing-market constraints they face. What they find usually costs more, has less adequate space, and is of inferior quality. Involuntary residential changes also produce a considerable amount of psychosocial stress, which in its more extreme form has been found analogous to the clinical description of grief."(p.305-6)
Grief (or bereavement) is of critical importance in understanding the impact of displacement. "Grieving for a lost home" was in fact the title of one of the earliest (and still one of the best) accounts of displacement via 'urban renewal', a highly influential 1963 essay penned by the psychologist Marc Fried. Fried was employed by the Massachusetts General Hospital to survey nearly six hundred Boston residents displaced by a massive urban renewal scheme in that city's West End, where an entire working class neighbourhood was officially labelled a slum and then razed to the ground in favour of high-rise luxury housing. Although the surveys administered were never reproduced in their entirety, some of the questions revealed by Fried are commendable in their simplicity and clarity. For example, he asked respondents "How did you feel when you saw or heard that the building you lived in was torn down?", in addition to several questions on spatial identity, and on relocating and settling into a new area (two surveys were in fact conducted, two years apart, allowing for a revealing before-and-after analysis of reactions to displacement). Fried's summary of the findings was as follows:
"[F]or the majority it seems precise to speak of their reactions as expressions of grief. These are manifest in the feelings of painful loss, the continued longing, the general depressive tone, frequent symptoms of psychological or social or somatic stress, the active work required in adapting to the altered situation, the sense of helplessness, the occasional expressions of both direct and displaced anger, and tendencies to idealize the lost place. At their most extreme, these reactions of grief are intense, deeply felt, and, at times, overwhelming." (p.359-60)
Reporting on data obtained from a series of questions on how people felt after being displaced, Fried noted the lack of ambiguity in the responses: "I felt as though I had lost everything,"; "I felt like my heart was taken out of me," "I felt like taking the gaspipe," "I lost all the friends I knew," "Something of me went with the West End," "I had a nervous breakdown."(p.360). Fried was quick to report that these were not simply the isolated or extreme reactions of just a few residents, for of those who previously reported having liked living in the West End, "73 percent evidence a severe post-relocation grief reaction" (p.364). Even among those who were ambivalent or negative about the West End prior to their displacement, one third (34 percent) grieved severely for their lost homes. Whilst there was a minority of residents who welcomed the move to another area, and were satisfied with their new residential situation, these tended to be individuals in higher status employment - "outside the working-class category" (p.373) - than many of their former neighbours.
To be sure, Fried's words are from a different time, a different place and a different set of circumstances, but when reading the voices within some reporting of people affected by the bedroom tax, the grieving for lost homes (and communities) comes across just as intensely. A quick internet search will uncover many instances of grief, but here are just a few examples from The Guardian's reporting on the matter:
"Sometimes I don't bother eating or getting dressed. I've been a cleaner all my life, but I've not vacuumed or dusted in ages. What's the point of cleaning? In the last four months, I've felt like giving up."
"Overnight, the house became a disturbing combination of home, prison, hiding place and guilty under-occupier's hoard of spare rooms. I feel constantly sick with fear."
Back in May, a grandmother from Solihull, West Midlands, took her own life. In a letter she left to her son, she said she could not face life anymore due to eviction from her family home of more than 18 years because of the bedroom tax. Heartbreaking, but not uncommon; a striking trend in the literature on displacement is the death of elderly people due to acute grief associated with being involuntarily displaced (a few references can be found at the bottom of this page). For instance, one of the people interviewed by John Western (1996) in his landmark study of forced evictions from the neighbourhood of Mowbray in apartheid-era Cape Town observed that:
"A lot of people died after they left Mowbray. It was heartbreaking for the old people. My husband was poorly, and he used to just sit and look out the window. Then before he died he said, 'You must dress me and take me to Mowbray. My Mum and Dad are looking for me, and they can't find me in Mowbray.' Yes, a lot of people died of broken hearts." (p.219)
Analysing such distressing data, Western remarked that it "seems coolly insensitive to ask whether there is any evidence of this impression being statistically valid". This remark applies also to the comments of people affected by the bedroom tax, and serves to render even more despicable this response of a Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson to Raquel Rolnik's intervention:
"It is surprising to see these conclusions being drawn from anecdotal evidence and conversations after a handful of meetings - instead of actual hard research and data."
"Eviction from the neighbourhood in which one was at home", reported Peter Marris (1986) in a beautifully written study of slum clearance in Lagos, Nigeria, "can be almost as disruptive of the meaning of life as the loss of a crucial relationship"(p.57). Similarly, in her powerful treatment of displacement as 'root shock', Mindy Fullilove (2004) explained that
"Root shock, at the level of the local community, be it neighbourhood or something else, ruptures bonds, dispersing people to all the directions of the compass. Even if they manage to regroup, they are not sure what to do with one another. People who were near are too far, and people who were far are too near. The elegance of the neighbourhood - each person in his [sic] social and geographic slot - is destroyed, and even if the neighbourhood is rebuilt exactly as it was, it won't work. The restored geography is not enough to repair the many injuries to the mazeway."(p.14)
Once we come to understand - and communicate more effectively - that an involuntary change of home, like bereavement, can be a devastating disruption of the meaning of life for the person or family affected, only the very coldest and cruellest policy elites and government ministers would not reflect on how they might feel if the positions were reversed.
It was the manner in which displaced people dealt with the grief caused by losing their homes that enabled Marc Fried to grasp, in his words, "the importance of local areas as spatial and social arrangements which are central to the lives of working-class people." Grief associated with the loss of place was tightly connected to both loss of the physical structure of the dwelling and its environs (and with it, all the memories and symbolism they contain, not just their practical use) and the loss of social network (the sudden removal of interpersonal relationships and daily routines, which are part of an individual's sense of being part of larger human and social entities). Crucially, Fried argued that
"feelings of being at home and of belonging are, in the working class, integrally tied to a specific place. We would not expect similar effects or, at least, effects of similar proportion in a middle-class area. Generally speaking, an integrated sense of spatial identity in the middle class is not as contingent on the external stability of place or as dependent on the localization of social patterns, interpersonal relationships, and daily routines." (p.365-6)
A very substantial body of evidence over many decades testifies to the inestimable importance of home, community and place to the lives of working class people. As Fried put it so beautifully, "even familiar and expectable streets and houses, faces at the window and people walking by, personal greetings and impersonal sounds may serve to designate the concrete loci of a sense of belonging somewhere and may provide special kinds of interpersonal and social meaning to a region one defines as 'home'". Fried was referring to the strong community bonds that stretch across generations, where people might not view the housing in which they live as some sort of stepping stone to prosperity. They are interested, rather, in 'housing' defined much more broadly, as something that should encompass shelter, family (broadly defined), memories, neighbourhood, and community. Today, the deep roots people grow in the places where they reside - a use-value conception of urban space - are secondary to the totally dominant, cross-party exchange-value (neoliberal) ethos in respect of housing provision and welfare delivery. Marc Fried concluded that "dislocation and the loss of the residential area represent a fragmentation of some of the essential components of the sense of continuity in the working class." 50 years later, thousands of miles away, his words have acute relevance to places where the bedroom tax is causing such devastation.
Now, there might be a danger here that stressing the importance of place gives too much weight to where people are, rather than how they are treated in the broader political-economic structure. Furthermore, I have sometimes been chastised by my social scientific peers for "romanticising working class communities" (although, I should point out, these peers are often the same people who romanticise gentrified middle class communities all the time). They certainly have a point, though - it is all too easy in the process of critique to appeal to some sort of golden era that never was, or to an authentic 'working class experience' that totally ignores the historical record. There is also not nearly enough academic research on what has happened (statistically and socially) to the postindustrial working class over the last three decades of neoliberal revolution - instead, there is a deeply tedious and often tautological obsession with middle class social and cultural (consumption) practices (as reflected in the methodology of, and reactions to, the BBC's Great British Class Survey). But given the unbelievable denigration of working class people that has intensified since May 2010, it sadly still seems important to make the point that displacing such people from their long-time communities isn't some trivial little problem, or the unfortunate but necessary by-product of an austerity crisis. As Mindy Fullilove succinctly summarised, "We cannot understand the losses unless we first appreciate what was there."
Human beings have no choice but to occupy a place in the world, and more often than not develop strong emotional ties to that place, so being displaced by external forces - having that place taken away, given to someone else, or even bulldozed - is among the most appalling of social injustices. Displacement involves the removal of a basic human need (shelter) upon which people depend absolutely - practically, socially, emotionally and psychologically. Displacement (and especially the threat of it) "ranks amongst the most widespread human rights violations in the world", to the point of it being epidemic in some societies. As David Harvey (2010) recently wrote, "It seems sometimes as if there is a systematic plan to expel low-income and unwanted populations from the face of the earth". Furthermore, very rare are the instances where displacement results in some kind of beneficial or 'resilient' outcome for the displaced household; common to the overwhelming majority of qualitative accounts of dislocation are disruption, humiliation, bitterness, pain and, as we have seen, grief. It is therefore a moral and political necessity to identify the numerous causes of displacement, to recognise its many forms, to understand what it does to communities, and to agitate for the institutional and political-economic changes necessary to protect those vulnerable to it. When Marc Fried passed away in 2008, it was noted that his study had an "enormous impact in changing both the perceptions of policy makers and the policies that followed, as well as the general perception of the public, about the advisability of urban renewal as it was being practiced at that time". Chester Hartman remarked that the study "had a lot to do with deflating urban renewal", whereas Elliot Mishler commented that it "affected the way in which urban planners began to think about what they were doing." Perhaps the greatest tribute came from a displaced former West End resident, Jim Capano: "It legimitized our cause. People realized you can't do this stuff."
The Coalition government can't continue to do this stuff, either. The overdue Labour Party pledge to end the bedroom tax (one preceded by that of Scottish National Party, should its independence dream happen) is unconvincing given that Party's recent attitude to housing policy. For over 30 years there has been a cross-party fanatical devotion to homeownership (and to the financialisation of housing) that has resulted a dire crisis of shelter at a time of intensifying human need. In fact, it is not overstating the case to summarise contemporary welfare and housing policy in Britain as: the displacement and financial ruin of the poor. The high cost of housing, contrary to what neoliberals would have us believe, is not a natural development, nor is it a sign of economic progress. It is, inter alia, a deliberate tactic of social pacification - something to nullify opposition to market rule even as everyone feels its unequal effects. But more than ever it seems imperative to consider this miserable situation reversible. In addition to an immediate abolition of the bedroom tax (and a campaign of non-cooperation against welfare reform in general), the long-term remedies are clear, yet light years off a political radar locked on dismal austerity measures: the preservation and restoration of what council housing is left since the privatisation thunderbolt of Right-to-Buy, together with the mass recycling of hundreds of thousands of empty homes, the construction of new social housing (removed from the grasp of indifferent or even profiteering housing association executives), the tight regulation of both the (currently free-for-all) private house-building industry and of private landlordism, and greater community/social ownership of land - all amidst an extended programme of basic income and living wage security. The spectacular fortunes to be made out of land and housing markets show that the resources are there; what is needed is redistributive political will in the face of terrible social suffering. If we leave the last words to Friedrich Engels in his 1845 masterpiece The Condition of the Working Class in England, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that we haven't come a very long way since he was writing. The struggle must continue:
"I have never seen a class so deeply demoralized, so incurably debased by selfishness, so corroded within, so incapable of progress, as the English bourgeoisie."
Tom Slater (firstname.lastname@example.org), Edinburgh, September 23rd 2013.
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