Housing and the right to the city

The right to the city is just as important as the right to housing, argues Ruth Lorimer

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine.

Birmingham city skyline

Housing is one of those everyday issues that don’t seem that ‘political’ until they come under attack. Pretty much everyone now agrees there is a housing crisis in the UK, especially in London where rents and house prices are soaring, and people on low incomes are being forced to move further and further from the city centre. Private renters are being ripped off by landlords, homeowners are being scammed by mortgage lenders and public housing tenants are being hit with privatisation, rent rises and (for some) the bedroom tax.

So it’s quite right, and reassuring, that many campaigns have sprung up recently in defence of affordable housing for working class people. But we don’t just live in houses – most of us also live in cities, and what lies outside our front door is just as necessary as the roof over our head. While we might spend the odd eight hours asleep in our beds, in our waking hours we spend our time working, socialising, generally relying on and inhabiting the city at large.

Urban life is contradictory. On the one hand, it is dominated by capitalism. There isn’t much you can’t do, but everything has its price, and everywhere you go, you are bombarded with advertising. On the other hand, it’s exciting. This is one of the main reasons people move to cities in the first place – to get away from the tedious and oppressive predictability of rural or suburban life. The city offers us all kinds of adventures and opportunities, for creativity, for meeting new people, for learning and doing new things.

This is why the right to the city is just as important as the right to housing, and in fact goes hand in hand with it, something many of the current anti-gentrification campaigns have highlighted. This demand was first raised in France in 1968, in Henri Lefebvre’s classic book, The Right to the City, and it is just as valid today as it was then. Lefebvre saw the uprising of May 1968 partly as a rebellion against the way that the state used the very structure and layout of the city as a repressive tool – literally, keeping people in their place – especially on campuses, where students were strictly controlled.

Today the way urban space is used to repress is somewhat different, but no less effective. Capitalist investment is so privileged over what urban dwellers need that the urban environment is made to be actively hostile towards human beings – like the case of the anti-homeless spikes outside supermarkets, shops and luxury flats. This is an extreme example, but the effects of gentrification all over major cities mean that you can no longer find affordable shops or services that cater to low income residents in many central areas. Poor people are being priced out, not just of housing, but of city life as a whole.

The way Lefebvre phrased it in 1968 remains relevant today – he argued that the right to the city was essentially the right to what he called ‘centrality’. As housing in city centres becomes more unaffordable, working class people are being forced to move further and further away from their jobs, their friends, and all the resources of city life. This can have two results – either our lives are stretched thin, as we spend all our spare time travelling between work and home, or they shrink.

Research into the effects of poverty shows that people living on low incomes, especially if they are out of work, inhabit a much smaller geographical area than the wealthy. When you are poor, your world can literally shrink around you, as going anywhere or doing anything costs money you can’t afford. This has the knock on effect of limiting your social network, making you even more isolated – and all of these obstacles to social life are even harder to overcome if you live somewhere with few or no amenities.

At the same time as our access to the city is being restricted according to income, it is also under attack ideologically. The illusion that you can buy into a lifestyle that protects you from the more unpredictable elements of city life is peddled by estate agents like Redrow Homes, who recently released an advert (much mocked and now withdrawn), claiming that to buy one of their luxury apartments is to “stand, with the world at your feet”. The idea that you can buy yourself out of society is attractive to those who see the diversity of urban life as threatening. It is selling a myth – but property developers are doing their best to sanitise urban space to such an extent that it becomes a reality.

Not everyone is drawn in by this brand of individualism, though, and even the super rich want to feel like they are part of a collective. The concept of ‘community’ has been deployed by property developers and the state in an effort to recreate a sense of belonging, to counteract the atomisation and anonymity of city life. Community has been invoked in all sorts of contexts, to the extent that its exact meaning has become quite vague – it seems to generally come with a large dose of nostalgia for a more innocent time. It’s also something many people quite rightly feel they need to defend in the face of the interests of big business.

While we do need to defend communities that are the target of racist state and media campaigns, such as Muslims or Travellers, I think we need to be suspicious of some of the ways the term is used. Community might sound cosy and comforting, but the reality is often class division and exclusion. The governments use of the term reminds me of the famous Thatcher comment that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families” – when the Tories use the word ‘communities’, it suggests something much more fragmented and divided than ‘society’ in all its diversity.

This should not surprise us. It is in the interests of the ruling class to restrict and control urban life as far as they can, and to limit the potential for resistance that it contains. Cities are both the result of capitalist development and the source of the biggest threat to its continued existence, because they contain the working classes, squashed together in conditions which force us not only to work together, but to live in close proximity and rely on each other in intricate social networks.

Cities have radical and revolutionary potential – so in our campaigns to defend housing, we should also make sure we don’t lose sight of the right to urban life as a whole, the right to centrality, and the right to be a part of urban society as a whole, not just whichever ‘community’ we hail from. Ruth Lorimer

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