New Politics and Geographies of Housing Struggles? By John Flint (University of Sheffield)

Recent controversies over ‘poor doors’ in London apartment complexes serve to illustrate the structural crisis in London housing that was powerfully described in a recent Critical Urbanist piece by Professor Rowland Atkinson.

But the irony of the physical and segregation of rich and poor that ‘poor doors’ symbolise and operationalise is that such doors actually serve to reveal how the fates of those urgently needing affordable housing are inherently intertwined with new forms of global affluence. One of the defining features of the housing philanthropy that developed in response to the Victorian industrial city was the shared destiny in place that linked elite and impoverished urban dwellers alike. No doors, poor or otherwise, were effective barriers to the ravages of infectious disease (and occasional social unrest). This understanding combined with growing public health recognition of the environmental and medical consequences of appalling housing conditions to act as catalysts for the birth of public housing policies. That cord of geographical proximity between rich and poor is, on one level, broken by forces of globalisation in which international investment decisions and flows are made with no cognisance of their socio-spatial impacts at a local level. Professor Mike Raco has long argued that we need a much fuller understanding of how public services, affordable housing and local democracy are being recast by new patterns of global ownership and investment. The high profile struggle of the New Era 4 All and Focus E15 groups to protect their homes has brought into sharp focus how global investment mechanisms exacerbate the continued erosion of the right to affordable housing in the city. But, equally, the apparent successes of the New Era and London poor doors campaigns suggest a new politics is emerging, in which exposing investment chains (such as Westbrook Partners), demanding new positions from prominent political figures, taking direct forms of action and skilful use of social and other media can achieve significant positive outcomes. This also challenges traditional understandings of forms of tenant activism. Similarly, local governance regimes are increasingly attempting to develop new mechanisms for tackling investors who leave properties vacant.

The importance of challenging the calculations of property investors and landlords is not new: the history of the early philanthropic housing movements was based on firstly seeking the support of investors and then establishing new models of housing finance and provision when this support was not forthcoming. The achievements of New Era 4 All and similar campaigns are to be applauded and admired, but the lessons from earlier eras is that we cannot leave it to such groups alone if we want to end a housing system that has poor doors as it primary motif.

Prof. John Flint, University of Sheffield (@JFlintSheffield)

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