By Paul Salgardo
Rising rents, decimated social housing, benefit cuts and poverty wages are everyone’s problem, but as ever, they fall hardest on the most marginalised – migrant workers, those with precarious immigration status, the poorest and the unorganised.
‘Housing crisis threatens a million families with eviction by 2020’, one report on homelessness recently headlined, a warning that should have made everyone’s heart miss a beat in appalled outrage.
But politicians, property developers and financiers continue with their plans to tear down the remnants of Britain’s social housing or bulldoze public spaces to raise glittering glass towers of luxury apartments. This is not to house in greater comfort and more security those left homeless, but to allow them to stand empty and become simply another item on a corporate investor’s balance sheet.
Today, a home is no longer a home. Instead, it’s a commodity, something to be speculated in, a means to accumulate capital, something to be bought and sold.
Empty homes are somehow worth more. Luxury apartments and entire blocks of flats are traded among the wealthy while everyone else is either crammed into rooms in shared flats; forced to live in substandard homes deliberately being run down before being sold off; or are forced into a routine of homeless precarity, sleeping in hostels, on a friend’s floor, or on the street.
Not long before the homes in Grenfell Tower burned for an entire day, and out of all the municipalities and jurisdictions on the planet, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing chose the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to highlight how the profits of international financial speculators prevail over the needs of local communities.
‘In financialised housing markets,’ Rapporteur Leilani Farha wrote, ‘those making decisions about housing, its use, its cost, where it will be built or whether it will be demolished, do so from remote board rooms with no engagement with or accountability to the communities in which their assets are located.’
Burning to death in one’s own home, or choking to death in a blackened stairwell because the building is burning, is a consequence of treating housing as a commodity. This is the most spectacular violence that can be caused by the disregard for our communities, our homes and our lives.
But the housing crisis also incites an invisible, relentless violence: stress; tension; depression; the constant panic over money – what bill to pay and what to do without; the cold; the damp; sickness; and isolation. All this is the result of treating our fundamental, basic human need, our collective human right to a home, as just another disposable product to be profited from.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Despite the landlords and developers’ wealth – which buys the acquiescence of politicians – communities are getting organised and fighting back. Migrants Organise has been participating in this campaign for housing justice.
Our work has helped to connect local residents in south London to community organisations defending refugees and to independent unions representing migrant workers, in order to present a united front to developers’ redevelopment plans there. The London Latinxs, the London Renters’ Union, Up the Elephant, Latin Elephant, students from London College of Communication, the United Voices of the World independent union and many estate and tenants’ organisations are getting organised.
Protests and organisation have now successfully persuaded the local council to temporarily shelve a controversial scheme to destroy the iconic Elephant and Castle shopping centre – home to scores of migrant-owned stores and cafés.
Demands for the inclusion in any redevelopment of hundreds more housing units affordable for local people have also been placed at the forefront of the community’s battle, and the last few weeks of the local election campaign are currently witnessing voter registration drives, tenants’ meetings, and hustings to call prospective councillors to account.
As Claudia Turbet-Delof, a LatinX and United Voices union activist declared: ‘Our campaign is being led by migrants and community groups. We will need to stay active and keep a close watch on the council, to make sure they represent the needs of the communities here, instead of giving in to the demands of developers who put profits before people.’
It’s time for us all to organise. Especially if you have no place like home.