Regarding housing — Badrul Hisham Ismail

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MAY 1 — I was attending a conference on the housing crisis in New York City a few years back, and one of the mantras during the event was that when it comes to the housing crisis, there is a clear enemy, and the enemy is the market. As long as housing is treated as a commodity, the crisis will never end. The logic behind this argument is that the commodification of housing means that the value of a house as a real estate investment outweighs its importance as a place to live.

While it facilitates over-accumulation  for the wealthy, the commodification of housing leads to new forms of risk, unaffordability and instability for everyone else. Profit-seeking businesses insert themselves into the housing system and eventually siphoning off resources, making housing more expensive while not contributing anything for the resident’s needs. As we all know, the ability to pay is unequal, but the need for a place to live is universal. That the market can correct this imbalance on its own, is wishful thinking. The idea of a self-adjusting housing market is utopian at best, if not outright delusional.

The solution to the housing problem is an alternative housing logic. The current problem is not because of Dickensian evil-doers  deliberately trying to exploit the poor and vulnerable to death (although there are some who are still doing that), but they result from the current pro-market logic of the housing system. We need to create decommodified models of housing development, such as public or cooperative housing.

First and foremost, we need to recognize housing as a fundamental right. The kind of right that we need to continue to claim and fight for as part of the social struggle, that challenges the current status quo of the housing system and ensures that all levels of the society are granted this right, from the B40 to the homeless, refugees, and migrant workers. And the right to housing is more than just the right to have a roof over our heads, but to have a dignified dwelling, in dignified neighborhoods and communities. As said by the former UN special rapporteur on housing Raquel Rolnick, “the notion of human right to adequate housing is not restricted to the house itself the right to housing has to be apprehended in a much broader context.”

As mentioned above, we need to decommodify and de-financialize the housing system, to prevent them from being treated as commodities. This can include introducing rent controls, public ownership of lands, public financing of housing, and putting a limit on price speculation, among others.

We should also expand, defend and improve public housing. This will raise many eyebrows as public housing does not enjoy a good reputation in many countries over the world, with our neighbor Singapore as an exception. Indeed there is a real concern about the quality of current public housing, but the problem lies not on the idea itself, but on the way they are managed.

In fact, one can say public housing is not a good alternative at the moment because we are putting too much effort on private development while neglecting public housing for all. This does not mean that there is no place for private development at all. But such development should be at the service of an egalitarian housing process, not at the service of the current, profit-focused model. If public housing is given more priority and attention, then we can change it from being a cheap, sub-par solution for the most poor, to a dignified dwelling for all.  

Most importantly, we need to democratize housing management and housing policy. We need to make housing management more democratic and community-based. This means giving more power to residents in decision-making processes, not mere lip-service participation through feedback surveys and the likes. We need to have strong residential associations, tenant unions and community organizations that have decision-making power in their neighborhood.

In terms of policy, we need to widen the process of decision-making on housing issues, and chip away concentrated power from the hands of developers and corporations. The consistent unimaginative solutions we kept hearing from them, including the recent suggestions from the new CEO of a large Malaysian corporation, shows that they are unable to come up with solutions that will solve the housing issue for the many. By democratizing housing policy, voices from below can be amplified and truly influence the policies themselves. This is also the role that public representatives have to perform as our lawmakers. Unfortunately many of them are in bed with the money people, so we cannot really rely on them either. 

This is just a quick response to the current discussion on affordable housing, that tweet from a few days ago. If more voices are gathered, we can definitely collect more viable solutions, options and alternatives to solve the current crisis. We can also learn from other examples from other parts of the world, from the HDBs in Singapore to the Red Vienna housing estate in Austria. The first good step is to assert ourselves, disrupt the status quo and not let the developers and corporations monopolize the housing system.

Fight, fight, fight! Housing is a right! 

* Badrul Hisham Ismail is the Director of Programs at IMAN Research.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.  

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