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26 Mar, 2020 17:54

Covid-19 has already sparked huge state intervention. We should go further and start requisitioning the empty homes of the rich

Covid-19 has already sparked huge state intervention. We should go further and start requisitioning the empty homes of the rich

After bailing out businesses and paying everyone’s wages, governments should now commandeer the vacant houses of the wealthy and turn them into emergency hospitals, or accommodation for key workers and the homeless.

Residents in large cities across the globe over the last decade have watched and suffered the consequences of huge glass-and-chrome blocks of ultra-luxury apartments rising as almost a violent act onto their skylines.While the poor and the homeless have faced benefit cuts and been subject to social engineering, the international wealthy have poured their money into these giant safety deposit boxes that now blight all major cities.

Most are what’s euphemistically termed ‘buy-to-leave’ investments, where the owner, often from abroad, is so wealthy that they don’t need to let the property out, and it stands empty rather than being used to house people.

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A 2018 study showed that there were more than 22,000 homes in London that had been lying vacant for at least six months, many of them for years. Unsurprisingly, the worst place was the City of London, the tiny central area that is home to the investment banks and their rich fund managers, and where the average price for a house runs into the millions. Here, 38 homes in every 1,000 sit empty.

A good place for the government to first send its teams of property requisitioners would be the north London borough of Barnet, where homes worth an eye-watering £770mn have been left vacant for between two to four years.

Specifically, they should set their sat-navs to take them to Bishop’s Avenue in Hampstead, which is one of the most exclusive streets in the UK and glories in being called Billionaires’ Row. Yet around 16 of the street’s 66 luxurious mansions– which sell for £15mn or more – have been unlived in for years. As the government scrambles to find enough beds to treat all the expected Covid-19 sufferers, why not turn them into makeshift hospitals? Or homes for some of the hundreds of thousands of people languishing on waiting lists for council housing, some of whom are forced into street homelessness; whose tents and sleeping bags have become part of the street furniture alongside graffiti and thousands of rent-a-bikes.

It’s a similar story across Europe. A 2017 report found 26 percent of homes were empty in central Paris. There are 600,000 empty apartments across Germany, where activists in Berlin are showing the way all countries should go by pushing for the renationalization of up to 200,000 council flats which were sold off to corporate landlords.

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I lived in London from 2013 until 2019 – before being forced to leave and move north, because even as a lecturer at a university, the cost of my private rent was so high that it took 60 percent of my income and meant that I had to take out payday loans to buy basic things.

An ethnographic research project I undertook in the capital between 2014-2018 focused on “class cleansing” – the practice of local councils of removing poorer residents from their boroughs as they had become “a problem” because no genuinely affordable housing was available.

Many thousands of families were “encouraged” to leave their communities and move hundreds of miles away, without any support. I met women and children who told me their stories of being bussed out of London, allowed only to take what they could carry, and being given an address by officials to faraway towns they had never heard of. Often these were places deemed to be economically “left behind” – there has been a specific policy to move the poorest people to impoverished places. It’s not just social engineering, but social cleansing.

Meanwhile, local councils in London have also undertaken the mass demolition of social housing estates – to replace them with yet more private apartments. The Elephant and Castle in Southwark has been completely gentrified in the past six years by this process. Small wonder that homelessness in Southwark has increased by over 50 percent in recent years, at the same time as apartments with a price tag of up to £50mn in the Shard, the borough’s building that is often seen as London’s jewel, sit empty.

Gleaming ghost towers built for the 0.1 percent sit empty all over the capital, while the poorest sleep on cardboard in the streets below, and working-class mothers hold the hands of their children while being bussed to some distant town.

In Manchester’s Canal Street – once a place that was carved out by the gay community as somewhere creativity, art, and music flourished – now is a mass of cranes and builders in hard hats constructing apartments already bought ‘off-plan’ by the international wealthy. All while 6,000 people in the city are homeless – a figure that excludes ‘the hidden homeless’ – those staying with family members and friends.

Some local councils have attempted to solve the housing crisis not by ending the demolitions of social housing or building more, but by putting homeless people and families with children in hostels, or into converted office premises and cheap hotel chains.

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This week the Covid-19 crisis demonstrated the wisdom of this policy, when hundreds of residents of the budget hotel chain Travelodge were turfed out on the streets after it closed; most of them were families that had nowhere to live.

Covid-19 is pulling back the curtain of our financially corrupt system – as we witness self-employed construction workers continuing to squeeze onto public transport with emergency workers who are on the front line of protecting us, and who are having to travel into the cities they have been priced out of. It seems property developers are more powerful than elected representatives.

I propose that all these empty gleaming buildings be requisitioned immediately for the emergency workers in our hospitals and supermarkets and public transport. My friend, a nurse from Manchester who has this week been redeployed to a central London hospital to look after the sick and the dying, deserves a luxury apartment to rest in.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.