‘Requisition houses? Communism!’
That is the impulse of some to respond to Jeremy Corbyn’s offhand suggestion that empty properties of ‘the rich’ be requisitioned for use rehousing those made homeless by disasters like the fire at Grenfell Tower.
But there is a perfectly sound logic to it consistent with the way governments treat all our property rights.
For starters, as Jonathan Portes notes in his book ‘Capitalism’, property rights are not absolute. Planning regulations restrict what we can do with land. Driving and parking regulations restrict what we can do with our cars.
These restrictions are in the name of a collective, greater good [less ugly towns and no chaos on the roads]. So inviolable rights to dispose of property as we like in all circumstances are rare – because to grant them would ultimately cause harm elsewhere.
So too, perhaps, with the right to have an empty flat located just round the corner from a disaster zone that has made many homeless.
In this spirit, one could imagine temporary requisitioning to be like a congestion charge for cars. Housing contiguous to the disaster site is the scarce resource, like roads through a busy city. The equivalent of ‘rush hour’ on the roads is the time immediately after the disaster when the need for accommodation nearby is extreme, and the invoilable right to hold empty flats causing greatest harm.
Relatedly, one could envisage empty-property taxes that rose in the immediate area around a disaster zone like Grenfell Tower, which would either help fund temporary rehousing, or could be discharged in kind by the owners handing over the keys for a while.
Having such rules in place ex ante would encourage better – more socially desirable – use of scarce land.