This month families and claimants in London will receive notices explaining that their Housing Benefit payments are to be capped at levels far below their current rent. This will force tens of thousands of people, many with children, into homelessness and poverty as properties across vast swathes of London will be taken out of reach of the low waged, disabled people, pensioners and the unemployed.
It is difficult to understate the devastation this will cause to some of the most vulnerable people in the capital. Even those living in inner city areas earning enough not to need Housing Benefit will not remain untouched.
From the middle of the month if you are made redundant then you are very likely to lose your home as the welfare state will no longer provide enough money to enable you to pay your rent. If you become sick or disabled and are no longer able to work the same will apply. Even many ‘young professionals’ are unlikely to have the necessary savings to cover their rent should they lose their jobs and are unable to find work immediately. Public sector workers may find themselves not just unemployed but facing imminent homelessness should their jobs fall victim to cost cutting.
With little or no Social Housing provision available, even for the most vulnerable, the safety net of the Welfare State has been abolished for the vast majority of Londoners living in the private rented sector.
The tragic irony is that this will mean people being forced to move away from where work is available – a far cry from the traditional Tory appeal that people should get on their bikes to find a job.
Landlords, the true beneficiaries of the £21 Billion a year Housing Benefit bill, are not lowering rents to accommodate the changes as Cameron made up they would. As home ownership becomes an unaffordable dream for ever more Londoners, rents are predictably soaring. Whilst the Housing Benefits Caps drive low waged workers and claimants to the outskirts of London, increased demand means rents will rise even in the few remaining affordable parts of the capital. The boroughs not affected by the caps will see Housing Benefit costs soar, whilst Inner London Councils are set to be swamped with homelessness applications. The social costs will be devastating for already struggling Local Authorities as tens of thousands of claimants, pensioners, disabled people and low income families are forcibly relocated into the Outer London boroughs.
People forced to move will not just have their lives uprooted, they may well find there is nowhere to move to. ‘No DSS’ has been a demand of the vast majority of landlords in London for some time. Already benefit claimants and the low waged are often forced to lie about their financial circumstances to prospective landlords in order to be able to secure accommodation. The huge deposits demanded by landlords have long been a driver of homelessness in London. The bare minimum just to secure a tenancy usually involves paying a month’s rent as a deposit plus another month’s rent in advance. Even for properties with rents far below the levels of the Housing Benefit caps this means benefit claimants forced to move will face a bill of up to £2000 before any further expenses incurred in moving. Securing a new home away from central London is just not going to be financially possible for many people.
Housing Benefit has long been a crude sticking plaster which has mitigated the impact of the short sighted and unsustainable market driven housing policies the UK has suffered from for 30 years. Even the so called ‘affordable’ housing being built is unaffordable for most working class people. The mass sell off of council housing, which began under Thatcher, was continued by Labour, and is being escalated by Cameron, resulted in government housing subsidies increasingly falling into the pockets of private landlords rather than being invested in developing genuinely affordable housing provision. The result was a chronic shortage of housing for those on low incomes. Unlike many European countries with large private rented sectors, in the UK tenant’s rights were diminished and rent controls abolished. Buy to Let mortgages quickly became a way to make a quick buck as the housing shortage grew and rents rocketed.
In some parts of the country rents soared to such an excessive levels that Housing Benefit was forced to pick up the slack, not just for pensioners and benefit claimants but also for those on low, or (in London) even average salaries. This crude attempt to mitigate the insanity of the housing market has led to anomalies. At one extreme people this has meant people sleeping in doorways as they are unable to pay a deposit to get them on the rented property ladder, at the other a handful of landlords have received huge housing benefit payments for renting out modest properties to families in expensive areas. Even Housing Benefit has not prevented the hundreds of thousands of ‘hidden homeless’, sleeping on friends floors, in squats, B&Bs, hostels or night shelters.
The answer to these problems of course is a huge increase in the provision of social housing, made available at a ‘living rent’ with secure tenancies. There are few private tenants who would not exchange in a heartbeat their over-priced, low-security shoe box for good quality Council accommodation. Once again social housing, which often makes a profit for local authorities, would no longer be seen as a hand out, but a valid, secure and respectable choice for working class people. In the meantime rent controls could curb some of the excesses of parasitic landlords.
Of course Cameron is doing the exact opposite. Social Housing is to be gradually eroded, council rents are to be forced up to unaffordable market levels and the idea of a home for life is being abandoned. With high rents and no security of tenure then it is reasonable to ask what is the point of social housing?
The system is so fucked that even Boris can see the upcoming social disaster. Describing the Housing Benefit Caps as Kosovo Style ethnic cleansing he has pledged “On my watch you are not going to see thousands of families evicted from the place where they have always been living and where they have put down roots” and then proceeded to do fuck all about it. Meanwhile Ken makes vague noises about rent controls which he won’t be able to enforce even if he is elected.
The housing crisis is a systemic problem – the result of the free market run rampant. The housing benefit changes will remove close to one million homes from the reach of people on low incomes and cause unprecedented levels of homelessness. Unlike the US, trailer parks and cardboard cities are not welcome here – the recent violent eviction of the Dale Farm community is testament to that. The question is where are the poor supposed to go?