The housing crisis is not inevitable

The following article is written by Feargul McGovern of Unite, a Brisbane-based socialist organisation that has friendly relations with The Socialists in Melbourne.

Feargul and the anti-poverty network SEQ were involved in a political occupation of an unoccupied home in September. The goal was to raise awareness about the central role of capitalism in the homelessness crisis – a point that is well drawn out below.

On the 3rd of September anti-poverty network SEQ squatted a house on Lytton Road, East Brisbane as a protest against the lack of affordable housing in Brisbane and the rising rate of homelessness, both occurring despite the ever increasing amount of empty housing.
We chose to occupy a house on Lytton Road, as there were a number of vacant properties, which Brisbane City Council has resumed as part of its plans to widen Lytton Road from four lanes to six. Furthermore, there are suspicions that the surplus land will be sold off to developers to build luxury high-rise apartments. The project is being opposed by the group ‘Lytton Road Wide Enough’ and is primarily made up of local residents. Locating our squat on Lytton Road meant we could bring the two campaigns together.

Both campaigns have a similar key demand: ‘the right to the city’, that it should be the city’s inhabitants who determine its nature and future rather than faceless bureaucrats and property developers. The residents don’t want a 6-lane highway. They would much rather see the $150 million dollars allocated to expanding public transport and turning the resumed properties into public housing.

The wishes of residents and the wider Brisbane community should not be secondary to the council. The council’s primary motive is economic growth and rewarding their developer mates. They want to make the city profitable for the rich. Houses aren’t viewed as a necessity but assets to be bought and sold by speculators in order to reap the most profit. The price of housing isn’t driven by natural ‘supply and demand’ but by the artificial scarcity created by property speculators hoarding property, as exemplified by steadily increasing property vacancy rates. The Courier Mail reported over 11,000 empty rental properties in Brisbane in May this year, and last year’s census revealed over 60,000 empty houses in the greater Brisbane region.

Widening the road is about getting commodities to the market ever more efficiently either by trucks delivering to shops, or people to their workplaces. To the council, the city is the factory churning out surplus value, the roads its conveyor belts.

Taking a stand against these issues goes beyond the call for greater civic democracy, it represents a challenge to capitalism itself. Class struggle at a citywide scale. In the capitalist framework, heritage is only worth the associated price tag, parks and green space are considered unproductive space, and public housing an unacceptable expense. Conversely the protection of heritage buildings and green spaces and the demand for public housing all constitute class struggle, as it is the workers who build the city, make it function and must live in it as well. It’s not just in the workplace that capitalists extract value from the working class but through rents. By turning a park into a road a high rise apartments or shopping complex, the working class is deprived of space in which to enjoy leisure time, whilst the capitalists gain yet another asset from which to extract profit.

The green bans conducted by the NSW Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in Sydney during the 1970’s offer a great example of how effective class struggle can be in determining the nature of the city. There are many historic sites and bush reserves throughout Sydney that still stand as a direct result of the BLF supporting local community campaigns to protect them. The Rocks, which would have become office towers, and the Royal Botanic Garden, which would have been turned to a car park for the Sydney Opera House, are two classic examples. To emphasise the blow that the BLF struck against capital, it’s estimated that the Green Bans cost developers an estimated $3 billion between 1971 and 1974.

Although our action was thwarted quickly when 30 police in tactical gear stormed the house when there were only 4 people in the house, we attracted significant media attention for our action as well as the pickets organised by ‘Lytton Road Wide Enough’. Furthermore we received a wide range of support from the community itself. Throughout the brief occupation residents brought us food and let us use their bathrooms as the house’s plumbing had been removed prior to our squat.

Our campaign exposed the role the state plays in protecting the interests of the capitalists. Our occupation preceded a long campaign by residents that entailed writing letters to council, lobbying politicians and roadside protests. It took only 24 hours after the start of our squat for a large contingent of heavily armed police to storm the house. It illustrated that behind the grey suited, weasel-worded politicians stands a body of armed men and women to violently enforce their rule when ordinary people truly confront power.

This campaign demonstrated we have the skills, resources and the community support to win. People are sick of the cost of living constantly going up and the hypocrisy of seeing so many homeless whilst so many properties lie vacant. It is up to socialists to take the lead by putting forward the alternatives to the greed and self-interest of the bosses and politicians and the strategy and tactics to win those campaigns.

When we started our action we declared a war on empty properties and, though we were evicted from our squat on Lytton Road, we were emboldened by our experience. We will strike again. So long as there are people homeless while properties sit empty we will. No empty property is safe from us.

– By Feargul McGovern

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