Homelessness and the lack of affordable housing – Michael Miller (longer version)

A shorter version of the article below appeared in the February 2019 edition of The Messenger.


Homelessness in the UK is now at a record high – 320,000 according to the BBC, including 131,000 children.  That means one in every 200 people is either living in temporary accommodation or is ‘sofa-surfing’ or sleeping rough.  Rough sleeping has increased by 120% since 2010; Crisis reckons it’s 12,300 rather than the official 4,751, plus another 12,000 living in derelict buildings, a car or a tent, or sleeping on a night bus.  Last year 597 homeless people died on the streets or in temporary accommodation, a 24% increase in five years.  And there has also been a steady increase in children having to be taken into care, up to the current 75,420, each costing £56,000 p.a. and taking an increasing proportion of dwindling Council funding, leading to cuts in other local services such as Sure Start centres which might have prevented the need for care.

These are horrific statistics with very damaging effects on the individuals affected, let alone all the consequent costs imposed on society from increased ill health, disrupted education, broken families, increased addiction rates and, of course, the actual expenditure on providing emergency accommodation which now costs the nation £1.1bn a year.  What are the causes of the problem?

Patently the key problem is a lack of housing, and its growing unaffordability.  This in itself is largely due to the consequences of government policies which have often been applied piecemeal and have created compounded unintended consequences.  The key trigger was the introduction of right-to-buy for council tenants; 60,000 council homes have been sold giving a £3.5bn subsidy to the new owners.  This has taken away much of the stock of social housing available on long tenancies at moderate rents.  Many right-to-buy houses have subsequently been sold on to private landlords with tax incentives for those buying to rent.  As a result four out of ten are now owned by private landlords who charge up to four times the amount of rent of the adjoining council properties. At the same time councils have been hampered in building replacement homes because they do not receive 100% of the proceeds of council house sales (a chunk goes to the Treasury), have until recently not been allowed to borrow to build, and have had their funding cut under the ‘austerity’ policy.  Between 2010 and 2017, 79% of councils have reduced their housing spend by an average of 48%.

Consequently, in 2017-18, only 6,463 homes were built for social rent, down from 30,000 10 years ago (in 1980, before Right to Buy, 90,000 council houses were built).  But Shelter calculates that three million new social homes must be built in England over the next 20 years to solve the ‘housing crisis’, a rate of 150,000 p.a.  Doing so would save the government money in the longer term by cutting the amount spent on housing benefit and would lead to reduced demand for private rentals as well as the general financial boost it would provide.  The consequence of the lack of social homes has been a sharp rise in the number having to rent privately, up by 74% from 2007 and now accounting for 20%, of households in England. Rental costs have been rising much faster than incomes; on average private renters spend 41% of their income on rent but home owners just 19% on mortgage payments. Nationally the total rent paid has more than doubled in the last 10 years to £52bn annually, and high rents often tip people into poverty living.  For example, in Sheffield in Burngreave 36% of children live in poverty, but this rises to 51% after housing costs are accounted for.  High rents also drive more people to food banks and exacerbate wealth inequality – high rent payments help a landlord to buy more houses.  Wickedly, some landlords avoid their responsibility for keeping properties in a habitable condition.  If you ever watch ‘Bad Tenants, Rogue Landlords’ on Ch 5 it’s a real eye opener.

Rising rental costs have been accompanied by curbs on income.  More than 8 million people live in poverty in families where at least one member is in work.  The Department for Work and Pensions says, ‘We know the best route out of poverty is through work,’ but zero-hours contracts make incomes unpredictable; Justin Welby has denounced zero-hours contracts as ‘evil’.  Only 37 FTSE 100 firms pay the true living wage of £9 an hour rather than the ‘national living wage’ of £7.83 per hour.  According to the Child Poverty Action Group a single parent on the National Living Wage is £74 a week short of the minimum income needed for a simple ‘no frills’ lifestyle, a couple with two children £49 a week short.

Meanwhile housing benefit rates have failed to keep up with rental costs since the 2016 four year freeze on local allowance levels.  Housing benefit does not cover rents in 95% of the country.  The gap is £900 plus in London so that only 6% of London’s private rental market is available to families on housing benefit.  On top of this the introduction of universal credit with its five week wait for a first payment has driven some into rent arrears and eviction.  And whilst housing benefit was paid directly to landlords, under universal credit it is paid monthly to recipients leading to four in ten landlords refusing to take on social tenants. On top of this the benefits cap of £21,000 impacts particularly on single mothers who make up 85% of those capped leaving an average £3,750 pa gap between rent and benefit levels. Even those who pay their rents on time can be evicted for no reason, or for complaining about property maintenance – half of those who do so are evicted within six months.  A quarter of the homeless have had tenancies terminated by a private landlord, sometimes simply so that rents could be raised for new tenants.

Clearly homelessness is a systemic problem that can only be fixed by joined-up legislation involving building more homes for social rent, increases in wage and benefit incomes, rent controls, longer assured tenancies and other measures.  The balance has to be shifted towards those who need help to live in decent conditions rather than property owners.  As Philip Alston, the UN Rapporteur, said in his report, ‘Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so.’  All we can do as individuals is apply some sticking plaster to the gaping wounds.  Charities you can support include Crisis, Shelter, Centrepoint, Assist, and in Sheffield, the Cathedral Archer project and Roundabout.  And Crisis suggests that if you are concerned about someone sleeping rough you can help by calling Streetlink.  Send an alert by visiting www.streetlink.org.uk, via the mobile app or by calling 0300 500 0914.  The details provided by a member of the public are sent to the local authority or outreach team concerned, so they can help connect the person to nearby services and support.

Michael Miller, January 2019

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