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Last edited 24 Nov 2020
Architects for Social Housing - interview
Architects for Social Housing (ASH) was established in 2015 as a means of providing an architectural response to London's housing crisis. It takes the form of a working collective of architects, urban designers, engineers, surveyors, planners, filmmakers, housing campaigners, and so on, operating with developing ideas under set principles.
Foremost among these principles is that increasing housing capacity on existing council estates is a more sustainable solution to the capital's housing needs than demolishing and redeveloping them as luxury apartments.
ASH offers support, advice and expertise to residents who feel increasingly marginalised by local councils or housing associations. They also write extensively here on estate regeneration, housing policy, and much more.
Michael Brooks (MB):
What prompted the founding of ASH?
Simon Elmer (SE):
ASH was set up in March 2015 because we’d been interested in what was happening to estates across London, in particular the Focus E15 Mothers and the demonstrations around what was happening on the Carpenters Estate in Newham. We were looking at the kind of response that was happening in the ‘housing movement’, which was very much about occupying estates or homes at the point of eviction.
We began to think that if we got involved earlier on we could do much more to offer alternatives to it. A lot of the responses were very negative – ‘Don’t do this’ – and we thought we could come up with a more positive alternative.
Do you think the problem is that architects seem to have become stereotyped as an Ayn Rand/Rourke-like hero character fulfilling their grand and ambitious visions, rather than as having a more utilitarian purpose for social good?
One of the things we try and do is to change what we saw as the culture of architecture, particularly as its represented in magazines like the Architects' Journal, and so on. Nowadays architects are very constrained by the brief, and the limits of it. We’ve been trying to encourage architects to stop being focused on architecture as a material investment or embodiment of capital, and re-embrace the social dimension of architecture that we see most represented in this country in council estates.
I can understand the Rand analogies, and certainly the way in which the estate regeneration programme has been promoted, not only in London but across England, has got these big visions of social engineering which we are very against. But that doesn't mean that we just want to limit it. Certainly, the idea of the social good is a very important one.
Considering over 400 luxury towers are in London's development pipeline despite a slump in sales last year, what steps do you think government should be taking to try and tackle the problem of empty housing?
We’ve been going through the various policies that have been promoted – green papers, the Good practice guide to estate regeneration. Unfortunately, the big picture is that we’ve handed over the responsibility for housing the population almost overwhelmingly to the private market, and the recommendations or punitive measures (the withholding of funding or planning permission) really are not having an effect on what they’re building.
When Sadiq Khan tried to raise the quota of affordable housing which had to be built in order to receive GLA funding, the London builders simply said "well, we won’t build them". There is a correlation between the lack of building by the 4 big builders who dominate the London market particularly, and the rocketing pre-tax profits they are making – in the 5 years leading up to 2016 their profits went up six-fold and yet they were building a tiny amount of housing.
The idea of saying you have to build more affordable housing, even given the problems with affordable housing, is not really a solution. A lot of government policy is about recommendations (what people should do), but unless there’s a mechanism for enforcing that (what redevelopments or regenerations have to be), that’s not really going to work. What we believe is that responsibility for housing – building or regeneration – has to be taken back into public hands. That raises the question of what the public is.
You've written about various anarchist collectives who have taken over and squatted in some of the many empty mansions in central London. Would you like to see more direct action of this nature being taken as a means of highlighting the problem?
The occupation in January 2017 of a range of properties in Belgravia was very interesting and got an awful lot of coverage around the world. Because the properties they occupied were very carefully checked out before hand, and the people who owned them and how they owned them, how they purchased them, it was very interesting.
We followed them round and did a lot of research into the history of the ownership of the properties which really did shine a light on, not only the number of empty properties, but why they’ve been bought, who owns them and why they will remain empty. So as a direct action we thought it was fantastic, but it’s not a solution to the empty homes though!
The Mayor's Homes for Londoners report indicates that the number of empty homes in London is actually at its lowest level since the 1970s, at 0.6%. While it may be symbolic of inequality in the housing market, is it actually that big a deal?
I was looking at some figures produced by the charity Empty Homes – they were looking at the spread of homes between council tax bands. Geographically, there are more empty homes up north as a percentage of the actual homes than in London, and they have been dropping since 2008, when there were +300,000 or so.
I was struck though by the fact that, as a proportion of the number of homes in each council tax band, the highest percentage (double the national average) was in the very highest and most expensive properties, and the very lowest.
To try and understand that, you need to look at why homes are being left empty, like in London, and a lot of that is to do with people investing in properties purely as commodities for speculation, some is to do with people buying second homes (homes for their kids or students), they tend to be higher level. In the mid-band level you’ve got a lot of middle class second-home owners, or simply homeowners, buying property because they’re making more money from the accumulation on their properties than they are on their salaries.
But down the bottom end, which is what interests ASH, why are so many council homes standing empty? That’s a rather more complex issue, which isn’t about the oligarchs and the foreign speculators coming over here, and more to do with the estate regeneration policy.
The Heygate has become something of a model for what developers can do. The figures were that they demolished 1,200 council homes, and through these constantly revised viability assessments, the developer Lendlease has only promised to build 82 homes for social rent to replace them.
The records of dispersal of the tenants shows where they go – most end up on the edge of the borough or sometimes out of the borough altogether. The leaseholders end up in Wales or Northumberland, miles and miles away.
A lot of people refer to the Heygate as a terrible example of estate regeneration; I think it’s actually a model of the way estate regeneration increasingly goes. There’s a real shift in the industry that we’ve mapped out that came in when the Coalition government arrived; there was a quantitative change between the way estate regeneration was done before and the way it’s done now. The Heygate was a real test case in the way estate regeneration is pursued.
It was reported that 100% were sold to foreign investors…
On the first development side, down at Trafalgar Place, yes, the whole lot went to foreign investors. Most of them were marketed and publicised on the South-East Asian market long before they were in London, but then there’s very few people in London who are going to pay those prices for those properties. What that means is that most of the properties, even though they are home-owned, they are actually in the private rental market.
How many do you reckon are occupied at the moment?
Not many. But even if they are occupied, they’re not contributing to the home-owning democracy we are all supposed to be moving into, they are owned as properties for buy-to-let, and that’s something that’s producing increasing numbers of empty homes.
There are a huge number of properties which are simply bought and rented out as Airbnb, because even if they are only being occupied a few months in the year, they are making far more than they would just on a basic rent. That’s something which is going on around the world, they’ve got a problem with that in Barcelona, in San Francisco, and elsewhere.
It’s important that the phenomenon of empty homes, and the housing crisis which is driving that, and the profits that are being made from that, have got nothing to do with the reasons we are told about the housing crisis – growing population, and so on. It’s a worldwide problem, happening in Melbourne, Sydney, Vancouver, places that don’t have a shortage of land, but it’s exacerbated in London because of the nature of the housing market.
Thatcher's Right to Buy policy was meant to usher in the 'property-owning democracy'. Has this faith in the market to provide housing lapsed in the political mainstream now in light of Generation Rent or does it still burn strong?
Certainly, the policies of all three main parties, are all directed at home-ownership. We were rather gobsmacked when we read the Labour manifesto and their policies on housing, which seemed to be a complete betrayal of everything that the council houses were meant to be about – homes for rent for the working class.
A lot of people are pulling out of new developments, particularly those built on demolished estates. Like Capco, there’s the idea they are going to pull out of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green redevelopment. What we’ve heard with Lendlease and the Haringey development – that’s been pitched as the local council standing up to them, but I’ve a feeling they might be pulling out there as well.
The idea that this continuous increase in property values in London is going to continue, nobody believes that anymore, we’ve reached a plateau there. Whether we have the political will therefore to take responsibility for housing back into public hands – whether at government or local authority level – I’m not sure, I hope so.
One of the things we are interested in at the moment is more and more groups of people, either through community land trusts (CLTs) or co-operative housing, are working to take small sites and small housing collectives back into their own management. There are also a lot of estates applying for the right to transfer into management or ownership of their own estates. More and more ‘third sector’ groups are taking responsibility for housing which is very encouraging, but again, that’s not the answer to the far bigger housing crisis.
Grenfell brought together so many different strands of English life. The issue of the empty homes is the fact that, nearly a year later, some of those families still haven’t been rehoused. Because of that, and because of the scale of the disaster, there was a lot of research done on the scale of empty homes in London, particularly in that borough.
There are an enormous number of homes in London that are owned by offshore companies or foreign investors, a large proportion of those don’t have any identifiable owner as well. In that sense, it did shine a light on the extent to which London’s property market is financialised by global capital, and have therefore become purely commodities or investments or speculations, they are no longer playing their use value as housing.
The fact that there was a large number of families having gone through such an incredible trauma and yet they still couldn't be housed, dramatised what happens when you hand housing over to the market, which has no actual obligation to house people.
Builders, property developers, estate agents – their only obligation is to their shareholders and their profits. You might decry that, but that’s what their responsibility is, and we shouldn't be surprised – the analogy is like handing a calf over to a vulture, coming back later in the day and being surprised at the carcass.
But what we can do is stop councillors in particular, and councils, behaving like jackals, we can use legislation to compel them, not guide or recommend them, to build the properties that they should do. But that again takes central government policy to bring housing back into the public good.
And there have been concerns raised about the memorial...
When we wrote our report about Grenfell Tower we talked about what would happen after and realised we had to tread very carefully. But it seemed obvious, and this seems to be the general feeling in the neighbourhood and among the survivors, that if there should be a memorial it should be a type of housing that should rehouse the people who survived the fire and the families, and to some extent show that we’ve learnt a lesson from this terrible event.
Housing that isn’t in the control of a tenant management organisation but is run by housing professionals, or housing that isn't going to be neglected by councils or be subject to a demolition and redevelopment, to show that there has to be some other way of building the housing that people need, not as an investment but as something to live in. That would be the best memorial, something that doesn't simply look to the past but actually gives us a model of where we can progress in the future. I hope that happens, but I’m not holding my breath.
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