From June 1872 to February 1873, Engels authored a series of articles under the title The Housing Question. He asserted:
It is not the solution of the housing question which simultaneously solves the social question, but rather the solution of the social question, the abolition of the capitalist mode of production, which makes the solution of the housing question possible.1
Since Engels recorded these lines, capitalism has shown again and again that it cannot adequately provide housing for the great masses of the proletariat. Indeed, the greatest periods of building housing for the working class only occurred under conditions of direct or indirect state intervention in an environment of the expansion of an ascendant phase of capitalist accumulation. Only a communist society could begin to address such a basic human need as housing.
The industrial reserve army of labor, excluded from the labor process, is also excluded from housing. Beyond that, costs of housing worldwide routinely outstretch the ability of employed workers to pay. The global recession of 2007 began in California where the overhang of bad mortgage debt destabilized the entire global banking system. Finance capital depends on vast quantities of wealth being tied up for the long-term in real estate. In the US, this crisis came with an increase of tent cities and roving mobile home camps that despite the capitalist celebration of recovery, have not gone away. For workers, an already bad housing situation became a disaster as rents continued to sky rocket for a supply of housing that is neither growing nor getting any newer. From 2005 to 2017, the average age of housing increased from 31 to 37 years, reflecting the lack of home-building during the Great Recession. Indeed, much of the actual housing supply that workers rely on in most urban areas is considerably older than 37 years.2 Choking off the supply of available housing is good for the continued accumulation of capital. An enormous population of migrant homeless has come into being as the result of local political bosses pushing their homeless population onto other communities who are also trying to criminalize the homeless.
The UN Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, in his report to the UN Office of the High Commissioner paid particular attention to the housing crisis in California, noting that the homeless have been effectively criminalized due to the system of anti-vagrancy laws.3 Skyrocketing real estate prices and finance capital are recreating the conditions that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. The most visible effect of this is the increasing numbers of homeless and the growth of tent cities almost ten years after the outbreak of the most recent crisis.4 One longitudinal study of homelessness in Birmingham, Alabama from 2010 found that most homeless men earned an average of ninety dollars a week for doing about thirty hours’ worth of work.5 Much of the data available on homelessness in the US is antiquated, dating back to the “Great Recession” 2010 or earlier and does not reflect a situation that has been steadily worsening for decades.
Capitalist social cleansing in the cities has increasingly pushed out the working-class populations. One of the most iconic tent camps in the US is Los Angeles’ Skid Row. There are hundreds of such places across the US and across the world. Cities will do homeless sweeps of downtown areas shortly before big events, so that nobody of class social importance can see the problem under their noses. The legal assault on the homeless has increased the numbers of migrant homeless as local authorities gentrify their cities. California is the most extreme example in the US of concentrated wealth of the capitalist center surrounded by tent cities. While the inhabitants of such camps are not “without skills” the capitalist class has every reason to drive down the costs of those skills.
Many schemes have been attempted to address the problem within the system. One being the building of microhouses in various cities in the US. In Japan, lockable sleeping pods have been employed in an attempt to address the problem of homelessness. In the US, homeless shelters have increased steadily in size and numbers since the 1980s. These have only served as repositories for the homeless.
Radical reformist approaches such as cooperative housing, rent control, squatting to own or rent striking are very appealing and such struggles day-to-day are often necessary but it is still reformist and it doesn’t begin to address the problem. Ultimately, any reformist approach can only attempt to make the conditions of life under capitalism slightly more bearable for a few. Like all the other necessities of life such as food, drink, medicine, or clothing, housing remains a commodity to be bought and sold. Reforms can only show the limits of what can be achieved within capitalism but it is the task of revolutionaries to organize for the overthrow of the capitalist system with all misery that it generates.
ASm — Internationalist Workers’ Group (US)
On its own admission, therefore, the bourgeois solution of the housing question has come to grief — it has come to grief owing to the antithesis of town and country. And with this we have arrived at the kernel of the problem. The housing question can only be solved when society has been sufficiently transformed for a start to be made towards abolishing the antithesis between town and country, which has been brought to an extreme point by present-day capitalist society. Far from being able to abolish this antithesis, capitalist society on the contrary is compelled to intensify it day by day. On the other hand, the first modern utopian socialists, Owen and Fourier, already correctly recognized this. In their model plans the antithesis between town and country no longer exists. Consequently, there takes place exactly the contrary of that which Herr Sax contends; it is not the solution of the housing question which simultaneously solves the social question, but only by the solution of the social question, that is, by the abolition of the capitalist mode of production, is the solution of the housing question made possible. To want to solve the housing question while at the same time desiring to maintain the modern big cities is an absurdity. The modern big cities, however, will be abolished only by the abolition of the capitalist mode of production, and when this is once on the way then there will be quite other thing to do than supplying each worker with a little house for his own possession.
In the beginning, however, each social revolution will have to take things as it finds them and do its best to get rid of the most crying evils with the means at its disposal. And we have already seen that the housing shortage can be remedied immediately by expropriating a part of the luxury dwellings belonging to the propertied classes and by quartering workers in the remaining part.
2 Na Zhao. “The Aging Housing Stock. National Association of Home Builders.” Eye on Housing. (January 2017).
3 Philip Alston. “Statement on Visit to the USA.” UNOHCHR. (December 2017).
4 Gee, Alastair. “America’s Homeless Population Rises for the First Time Since the Great Recession.” Guardian. (December 2017).
5 JA Wasserman and JM Clair. At Home on the Street. (Lyne Rienner Publishers, Inc: 2010).