Public housing (Part II)
In last week's Guardian, JOHN BENNET spoke to JOE STAATS about the Sunshine Rooming House in Sunshine, Victoria, and shift from public housing to welfare housing. This week John discusses government "reforms" and the need to defend public housing. Joe: The Victorian Ministry of Housing forced rent increases upon Rooming House tenants in October 1993: for existing tenants rent rose from 20 percent of income to 23 percent and for new tenants from 20 percent to 25 percent of income. The Sunshine Rooming House did not comply with these increases, I believe? John: These rent increases were introduced last year for all public tenants in Victoria, despite the government offering no justification for this attack on what is now the poorest section of the population. There was no political resistance to this attack, which may be because the ALP in its policy supports a rent increase (section 6.52). However, the Sunshine Rooming House Committee has taken a principled stand against passing this increase on to our tenants as we believe it to be fundamental. We have made systematic and sustained efforts to form a united front with the other rooming house groups against the rent rise and the other disastrous housing reforms of 1998, which included the loss of public tenants' security of tenure and greatly tightened eligibility requirements for applicants. Strangely enough, however, we were unable to gain support on any of these important points from any of the other rooming house groups. This is hard to understand since most of the other community housing groups profess to have left-wing views and concerns for housing justice. Certainly in the past five years housing sector workers who have not been prepared to do the Ministry of Housing's dirty work have paid for their principles with their jobs. We have called numerous meetings with our tenants, at which we have attempted to warn them of the attacks coming their way. But most of our tenants have not worked for many years and have no experience of collective struggle. Furthermore they are in an economically powerless position and are understandably reluctant to jeopardise the only shelter they can afford by taking action against their landlord. Many attempts have been made during the past 10-15 years to organise public tenants in Victoria against the Ministry of Housing, but they seem to be as difficult to politically mobilise as are unemployed workers. Joe: I believe an organisation is being formed now to campaign for and highlight the necessity for decent affordable rental accommodation for all who need it. John: Our committee and supporters are committed to continuing the struggle to achieve housing justice for the working class. To achieve this we have established the Western Suburbs Housing Front, based in Sunshine. We would welcome the support of any Guardian readers out there in the Western Suburbs who want to work with us on the basis of our housing program. Joe: With the emphasis on promoting the private sector by all governments in Australia, to shift rental accommodation from the private racketeers to affordable publicly owned rental accommodation certainly would be a big task, wouldn't it? John: Housing is not a peripheral political issue, nor is it a welfare issue, despite all the emphasis given to homelessness. Housing is an economic matter that is absolutely central to our entire capitalist system. If you consider the amount of Australian capital controlled by developers, banks and the housing industry generally, it is apparent that it comprises a very large part of the total. Instead of sterile discussions on the "causes of homelessness", we need to examine the fabulous profits that have been made by the housing industry for many years. Instead of "ensuring that private rental accommodation is affordable to low income tenants" by increasing Rent Assistance to Health Card holders (as in the ALP's National Shelter policy), we should clearly analyse how all such subsidies inevitably finish in the hands of private landlords. Some housing commentators who consider themselves left-wing are urging that a new imputed rent tax be levied against all owner occupiers, most of whom are of course working class people (ALP National Shelter policy again). But discussion about who bears the costs of housing should be replaced by discussion about why those costs exist in the first place. The mode of production of Australian housing is extremely inefficient if the aim is good, cheap housing. A house is only built if there is a buyer who can pay a price which will satisfy the profit requirements of all the landowners, builders and sub-contractors involved. It is not the human need for shelter which matters here. Unless there is sufficient effective demand (demand backed by money) to provide the rate of profit necessary to the private firms involved, capital will withdraw from construction and seek better investments to exploit. So long as housing is produced only as a commodity for exchange, not as a usevalue in response to a need, progress is impossible. Certainly it is a big task to force change in a sector of the economy so important to Australian capital. Joe: The private home building industry is very profitable for the builders, banks, finance corporations, landlords, real estate agents, lawyers, etc. It is also one of the least unionised sectors of the building industry. Should your campaign also include a publicly owned and operated home building establishment? John: The establishment of a new non-profit government housebuilding commission is an essential cornerstone of any serious housing program. It would permit the production of housing as shelter rather than as a commodity. If properly funded and publicly accountable, it would make possible the building and repair of houses on criteria other than profit maximisation, emphasising instead the fulfillment of housing needs and quality standards. But this is not what we have in Australia. The only part of Public Housing that is still truly public in Australia is the landlord function. But even this is carried out on private corporate principles, with no mercy shown to tenants in rent arrears, and "market rents" constantly rising. If we are going to fight in defence of Public Housing, let's make it clear what we mean by Public Housing! Joe: Have building unions such as the CFMEU been approached on this matter? John: Yes, some building unions were approached several years ago, but that was during the period of the ACTU Accord, when industrial action by rank and file workers was discouraged. A truly socialist housing policy needs to be properly explained to workers at site meetings called by the union. Only then would it be possible for them to comprehend such a radically different approach to their work, and to see how much they stand to gain by it. The implementation of a socialist housing programme offers a better deal for building workers. A National Housing Authority could offer them permanent unionised employment, proper training and equipment, and a loud voice in how the authority was run. Most importantly, the new Authority would set the pace in health and safety standards for the entire building industry. Such a system of rational planning and organisation of housing production is not going to spontaneously appear, since the current system of profit maximisation serves the purposes of capital nicely. It will only come about through adequate political pressure, which is why we are once again attempting to interest the leadership of building unions in it. Perhaps the Accord mentality has been replaced by one which acknowledges that meaningful change for workers can only be achieved through struggle.