Is housing a human right?


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Leading up to the 2012 Olympics in London, there was a scramble to secure housing for the athletes. The location for the games was Stratford, not Shakespeare’s home town on the River Avon, but a major transportation hub about six miles northeast of Trafalgar Square.

Until 1839 this area was pastoral, not much different from the voluptuous countryside just beyond it that is familiar to us through John Constable’s paintings. It happened to be a great place for growing potatoes, the fields fed by a network of streams and the River Lea, a major navigable route to the sea, and there was plenty of space left for the construction of homes for London’s merchants and bankers who could afford a weekend retreat.

In 1839, when the Great Eastern Railway made it an important stop and a site for manufacturing rail cars, the ancient parish was transformed. Industry expanded from a pottery works to become London’s incubator for new inventions.  Monorail, motorcycles, train engines, ships, and, inevitably, guns and gun powder were manufactured here. Thermionic diode and acetone were invented in local factories.

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 As its natural beauty deteriorated, Stratford came under the scrutiny of Greater London planners whose redevelopment schemes further altered the landscape right up to the present. By 2012 Stratford Centre had a 26-story building for students, and Broadway Chambers new 39 and 20-story apartments.  The Olympian Tower was a landmark, and (planners thinking long-range) Strand East had been laid out for 1,200 homes and accommodations for technology businesses. Universities moved in. A new shopping center with 300 stores is one of the largest in Europe. All of this is served by several train routes, the Docklands Light Rail, and three underground lines. Further development of amenities will be capped by the new Crossrail that is changing the real estate game all across London. .

Today (Sept. 23, 2014), The Guardian ran an article by one of the single moms who have banded together to occupy one of the almost-empty buildings in this increasingly desirable location.  E15 Mothers are women who grew up in the area, but cannot afford its escalated rents. Before 2012, they were among 210 forced out of their hostel to make way for luxury flats. The council offered to “rehouse” them in distant Hastings, Manchester, and Birmingham.  But they dug their heels in, and opened a boarded-up flat in the Carpenters Estate, public housing next to Olympic Park. It, too, is on offer to developers.

E15 Mothers are demanding “social housing.”  There are many available spaces in their borough, they claim. They insist that housing, like education, water and healthcare, is a basic human right, not a privilege.

Many people in the United States would scoff at this. We have not yet recognized health care as a “basic right,” and in our neck of the woods we get bigger and bigger water bills. However, we do share England’s angst over “affordable housing,” having recently fallen victim to the same predatory process that has brought London workers to their knees, begging for relief, as rents and housing values soar.

What’s the difference between “social housing” and “affordable housing”? Here’s a hint: “Social” means community, with a government caring for everyone. “Affordable”  homes are houses priced on the free market, with a discount of 20%. Their values are radically inflated, justified by regenerating the area around the new homes. Landlords are ecstatic. Critics say this is “social cleansing.” Reformers can’t do much more than go along with additional transportation projects to carry people to their jobs from outlying areas.

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The situation was palpable and daily headline news in the UK this winter. We got to talking with a member of the staff at a museum café who was working overtime. Do you live in Central London? No, it’s cheaper to live outside of London. How long does it take you to get to work? Two hours. Each week, The Evening Standard was running a feature on housing costs along a selected main tube line. Among the facts brought to our attention was the cost of a yearly or monthly Oyster Card to travel into the West End. What was missing is the cost of day care during those extra hours away from the family home, the status of the marriage, and the impact heavy traffic and construction are having on climate change.

NOTES ON PHOTOS: The Building Centre on Store Street in Bloomsbury permanently exhibits a model showing all recent development in Greater London, like he Shard (tallest building, in photo) and The Eye on the South Bank. Meanwhile, new projects are promoted in the daily newspapers. At present, it takes a million pounds to secure a  family home in London (about $1,700,000). Some projects are scaled back in the time it takes to attract investors and appease local council members. So many “owners” are international investors that the government recently mandated that desirable homes must be offered to UK citizens first. Often the owners are absent, creating a rash of “ghost mansions” across West London. A “mansion tax” is proposed as a deterrent to the invasion of foreigners who are adding property to their portfolios as “collectors.”

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