In our “A World to Win” series, Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance activists speak on issues that affect young people. This week, Emma Fields discusses the right to free, decent housing for all.
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When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights talks about “standard of living adequate for health and well-being”, it means suitable access to food, clothing, housing and medical care.
In Australia today there are many people who do not have this. While politicians, the mainstream media and economists recognise Australia is in the midst of a housing crisis, the government has not deemed it necessary to fund an adequate amount of public housing.
Lack of public housing forces many people into private housing, where inflated rent prices affect their standards of living in other ways. If you find yourself having to choose between eating dinner or paying your rent and bills, that is not surprising: 41% of Australians pay more than one third of their income in rent, according to Australia's Welfare 2015, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's national welfare report, released on August 20.
Other people are forced into homelessness, which makes them vulnerable to abuse, street violence and police brutality.
Disproportionately, those forced into homelessness are from the most marginalised communities in our society. Indigenous people and queer youth are among those most affected.
In the US, there have been some free housing programs such as Housing First in Utah, which works to house the homeless. They have been quite successful. They simply give people homes, and support them to live and participate in the community.
The September 22 New Yorker explained that the program was successful in capitalist economic terms: the cost of giving houses to the homeless is less than government expenditure on the homeless.
“Handing mentally ill substance abusers the keys to a new place may sound like an example of wasteful government spending. But it turned out to be the opposite: over time, Housing First has saved the government money.
“Homeless people are not cheap to take care of. The cost of shelters, emergency-room visits, ambulances, police, and so on quickly piles up …
“The success of Housing First points to a new way of thinking about social programs: what looks like a giveaway may actually be a really wise investment,” the New Yorker said.
However, the reluctance of governments to house the homeless shows they are less concerned with reducing public expenditure than in maintaining profits for the corporate elite.
Rent is a way for those who own land and housing stock to make money. To maximise profits, rents are raised to the highest amount that a substantial number of people can pay. House and land prices are inflated by speculation.
The needs of the unemployed, those on low incomes, full-time carers, working-class students and young people in unliveable family situations do not come into their calculations.
Buying a home in Australia has become prohibitively expensive for all but the most affluent, and rising rents fuel poverty and homelessness, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in June that there is actually an oversupply in housing.
While economists worry about this because of the possibility of a housing "bubble" — a sudden fall in inflated property prices — it is a clear demonstration that human needs are secondary to profits in a capitalist society.
To stop this exploitation, we need to create alternatives to rental properties. There needs to be free, accessible housing available for all people.
Free housing would massively improve the standard of living for thousands of people who are currently spending large parts of their income on rent and mortgage payments.
It would free young people from oppressive family relationships because they are forced to stay at home for financial reasons.
For some queer young people, it could provide security in the face of abuse and violence.
For victims of domestic violence and abuse, it could make the process of escaping that existence a bit easier by easing the financial instability often faced by women fleeing their partners.
It is necessary for the government to invest in a massive expansion in public housing, both in construction of new houses and the buying and renovation of existing housing stock. This housing could be made available to people for either very low cost or for free, with those most in need given accommodation first.
Significant controls on the rights of landlords are also necessary.
Landlords and real estate companies are among the most exploitative sections of the capitalist class, often engaging in practices that leave poor and working-class people in almost slum-like conditions. It is necessary to seriously expand the powers of tenants and control the price of rent through policies of rent control.
Expanded public housing and rent control would have benefits well beyond helping people access housing. It would halt the gentrification of working-class communities. By stopping the rent-hikes which drive gentrification, communities that are centres of cultural life for working class people, young people and ethnic minorities can remain intact.
We must demand a society in which we have access to quality, free or low cost housing as a basic human right.
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