Last month, Professor Susanne Soederberg from the Department of Global Development Studies at Queen’s University in Canada spoke about the political economy of rental housing at the 2019 12th Annual Wheelwright Lecture, delivering a powerful message of social struggle and political mismanagement about housing. A tale of three cities (Berlin, Vienna and Dublin), the lecture entitled ‘Governing Spaces of Surplus and Survival in Urban Capitalism’ traced the dystopian lives and counter-struggles of the urban working class.
Housing is not just a commodity for profiteering investors, but the real environment in which the labour sector lives and reproduces itself. The conditions of housing translate to the broader circumstances of the reproduction of everyday life, especially the lower-income working class. Rental housing is a reality for most people and has been a heightened one since the 1980’s Professor Soederberg argued, using the examples of Berlin, Dublin and Vienna.
The analysis was gripping. Housing policies were traditionally aimed at stability and affordability before the rise of neoliberal governments in the late twentieth-century. Housing is now viewed as a profitable thing based on exchange value, rather than as defining it as a political issue of use value, or even as a human right. As the incomes of Western economies stagnate, most have turned to rental housing as the prospect of home ownership becomes increasingly remote. The effects of rental housing are never fully considered, no matter how serious they are. Housing renters experience (but do not recognise) soft forms of oppression constantly, but to opt out of these oppressive arrangements (an option which is not possible is even less feasible. To be displaced is not simply to be a person without a specific commodity, a home is a staple of human life. Humans do the majority of their eating, sleeping,and social reproduction within housing. There is also a sentimental value that we all attach to these places. Professor Soederberg referred to it as ‘the barracks of labour’. This elicits the old line from the Australian comedy film The Castle that “It’s not a house, it’s a home”. To be displaced is to be deprived of this. Of course, displacement is more than just being homeless or sleeping on the street. Professor Soederberg defined those who sleep in non-permanent accommodation for a sustained period (i.e., couch surfers, hotel residents) as displaced, experiencing a specific form of ‘invisible displacement’. People who are also trapped in cycles of over-indebtedness are displaced. Professor Soederberg made an interesting point throughout all this: these problems and the failure to deal with them are not the exception, but the new normal.
The three cities exemplify Professor Soederberg’s arguments. Dublin had a fast-growing economy for a long period in the late twentieth-century and an adequate standard of living. Ireland in this time was referred to as the ‘Celtic Tiger’. From 1995 to 2007, homelessness and unemployment in the city grew and living conditions for this ‘surplus population’ were generally low. This all occurred in a setting of increased government privatisation of public housing and spending cuts on social housing (specifically, by 72%). From 2008 to 2017, the social housing waiting list grew to over 50,000 people in Dublin alone. Similarly, in Vienna, housing fell from a period of stability to crisis when the government cancelled its social housing program, which made up 25% of the city’s housing in favour of Limited Profit Housing Associations. Furthermore, a high migrant population of up to 44% in Vienna has made finding job security difficult and incomes are low, adding to the struggle of affordable rent. Finally, in Berlin, the increasing cost of rent and precarious employment has resulted in rising displacement. Berlin also seen a high intake of refugees in 2015 of up to 55,000, albeit reduced to 16,000 in the following year.
Managing housing is of even more importance than most already think. Housing is not just a comfort, but a necessity to survive. People need it to function; they can’t achieve much if they are depleted and exhausted. In this sense, housing is more of an economic issue than previously envisaged, It can affect the productivity of the labour that an economy needs to actually produce and reproduce. Governing urban living spaces efficiently can have a massive effect on the whole of society, even if these effects go unnoticed. Governing so that rental housing becomes cheap and accessible (or even better so that it is no longer the dominant form of housing) would tackle displacement and prevent the human deprivations that are symbolised by displacement.