Thursday, 16 June 2011

Homelessness and the Private Sector

I see that Grant Shapps MP has "called on councils to start forging closer links with landlords and letting agents", presumably because with waiting lists for council housing running to years in most authorities and the coalition starving housing associations of the funding which would have allowed more homes to be built, there is very little option but to put homeless people into private rented accommodation. In reality, a lot of councils already do this - my partner has worked in Homelessness for 20 years and says that most placements of homeless families in our authority are now in private rental properties.

Mr Shapps has stated that "[councils] will need to ensure that vulnerable or at-risk families are not inappropriately housed. And they must ensure that the accommodation is suitable, safe and secure and available for a minimum of 12 months", which sounds lovely and supportive, doesn't it? Private landlords are benevolent and have the best interests of their tenants at heart, so what could possibly go wrong?

Case History

My sister and her husband have never been wealthy; they managed to get by on a low income in rented accommodation, supported by HB and tax credits. Five years ago, they took the decision to relocate in order to be closer to my elderly parents. My brother in law, employed by HMRC [the irony of someone administering Tax Credits only surviving financially because of them was not lost on them], applied for a transfer on compassionate grounds and was told this would be possible.They started searching for properties in East Devon, but were unable to find anything suitable initially. Then my mother had to go into hospital for a knee operation and required substantial care on her return home; at the same time, my niece was due to start secondary school so in order to minimise disruption for her, my sister and the two children moved down and stayed with my parents while my brother in law remained in the midlands, awaiting news of his transfer. 

Eventually this came through, but the only job they could offer was in an office which was difficult to commute to (he's a non-driver in a rural county which has minimal rail services, thanks to Beeching). Their only option was to move nearer to the office, which would have meant my niece changing schools again after only a few months; this was untenable so he started looking for alternative jobs nearer to 'home'. Eventually, he was able to find a job in the town (albeit with a substantial pay cut), but still nowhere to live, so they ended up living with my parents - 4 adults and 2 children (4 and 12) in a 3 bedroomed semi. The council agreed that they were homeless, and that they had local connection, but simply did not have anywhere they could offer them. There are also precious few housing association properties in the area, so they were looking at private rental sector. 

Eventually, after a rather fraught 6 months, they found a property and were able to put down some roots and get their furniture out of (expensive) storage. For a while, things were fine, but then the owner, who had put the house up for rental while working away, came home again, so they were served with notice to quit. this time, they were luckier and managed to find a suitable property in a village about 5 miles away from my parents. Nice house, good landlord, all going well....

... and then the marriage failed. My sister ended up back at mum and dad's; my brother in law stayed in the house until he could find himself a smaller flat. After another six months back with my parents, my sister thought her luck was beginning to change, when the letting agent for the previous house contacted her to say that it was available again and was she interested? It was a three bedroomed house and there were now only two of them, but the rent was within HB limits and, with a lot of borrowing of deposits, etc, she was able to move in in time for Christmas.

At last things, seemed to be calming down and the following May she came to stay with us for a much-needed holiday. On her return, she found a notice to quit; her initial 6 month assured tenancy was up and the owner had decided to sell. The house was never advertised as being on the market, and it was a cash sale, so we now suspect that it had already been earmarked for sale and my sister brought in to maximise income while it was being sorted out. Quite apart from the disruption (again), and having been a model tenant (twice), my sister was very hurt that she'd been 'played' by someone she had thought was a responsible landlord.

Her furniture went back into storage; for the second time in as many years, I spent part of my holiday helping her move house; and back to my octogenarian parents again, not quite what they had had in mind for their retirement.

She has now managed to find a very small, 2 bedroomed house, and is just about surviving, although she lives in permanent fear of what the changes to HB and Tax Credits will do to her limited income. As if things weren't bad enough, she has now been diagnosed with a debilitating (permanent) medical condition and has had to reduce her hours of work and start to negotiate the labyrinth of DLA/ESA application processes. but again, her landlords (a lovely couple) may need the house back at any time and she has no security of tenure. With failing health, she is even less secure.

The irony is that Devon is considered an affluent county. Many of the 'golden generation' of post war property-owning, final-salary-pensioned older people retire there in some comfort and yet, for the majority of younger residents (those who man the schools, the care homes, the local shops) life is pretty hard. The council housing waiting lists run to a dozen years in some areas, there is little or no other social housing, and house prices are prohibitively high in an area where most wages are low.

As ever with the Tories (as with New Labour), the presumption that private is always the answer will cause disruption and misery for millions of people. We're not talking Rachman-esque slum landlords here, but a private landlord, as opposed to a social housing provider, will always put income above the needs of the tenant. You can't expect them not to - it's a business. Legislation might give limited protection from wrongdoing, but does not encourage longevity and settled communities. My grandparents never considered buying property, but by renting from the right private landlord (a man with a small number of properties which provided him with a moderate, regular income) and by being good tenants, were afforded 50+ years in their 'home.'

"Private landlords" are not just business people with a portfolio of properties; they are also homeowners who put their own homes on the rental market when they can't sell or are temporarily elsewhere. This builds an instability into the market and offers very little protection to tenants. The new class of 'amateur' private landlord - fuelled by the buy-to-let craze - has no real stake in the housing supply, and is usually in it for short term gain rather than long term investment.

So really, Mr Shapps, there is no point putting all your housing eggs into the same private basket. Without considerable investment in new affordable housing, we'll never solve the homelessness 'problem'. A "minimum of 12 months" is great, but there is little protection beyond that. Would Mr Shapps, or any of his coalition colleagues, relish a house move every 12-18 months, with the attendant disruption? That is the reality for many people in private rental accommodation.

'Homelessness' isn't simply the lack of a roof over one's head, but the lack of a secure home. At present, we have a lot of families who are housed, but still "home"-less.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Undeserving Poor

A horrible concept, redolent of a bygone age, and one which I thought had gone the way of covered piano legs and child chimney sweeps. For a start, who determines which of us is "undeserving"? It's a very subjective thing, and I'm not sure I would want the responsibility of turning someone away as "undeserving" only to find they had come to harm. Even for a hardened atheist such as myself, the phrase "there but for the grace of God go I" still informs much of my opinion-forming. Bad luck, bad choices, stupidity, ignorance, fate all play a part in how life turns out for us

But it seems the concept is back. Now I can accept this from the Tories - their world view has always been that anyone can succeed and if you don't it's down to a flaw in your personality. An easy, if stupid, conclusion to come to if you either have 'made it' or happen to be a self-made aristocrat who's never wanted for anything material, and with a network of advantage behind you from cradle to grave. 

More worrying is that it's creeping into Labour thinking as well. Yes, there are hard-working, low-paid people who are financially worse off than those on benefits; and yes, there are (a small number) of families who seem to relish their long-term joblessness and  reliance on state benefits. But the latter group, by far the smallest proportion of those living on benefits, could be classed as The Ungracious Poor - those who, having been given support from the state (and therefore their fellow citizens), proceed to rub our noses in it. It's infuriating for those of us who pay our way, but are they really 'undeserving'? Selfish, thoughtless, maybe, but are they any worse that the champagne-guzzling traders or bankers who wave wads of cash at protesting nurses, who are also not 'paying their way' because they have accountants who can minimise their tax bills? 

In proving that Labour understands the "squeezed middle",  let's also stand up for those who life has kicked in the teeth. Ed Milliband may be talking about: 

"some of those on benefits who were abusing the system because they could work - but didn't"

But what the majority will hear is "all those on benefits". Unless you've had to survive on benefits, you have no idea how tough it is. It's not that benefits are too high, but that wages for most of the working population are too low. And what about those who are unable to work through disability? Better people than me have written at length on the daily battles of living with disability in today's culture. And of those who, despite debilitating conditions, continue to try and work and contribute and fulfil "their duty to each other"? The insidious drip-drip-drip of public discourse (encouraged by the tabloid press) is that all benefit recipients are scroungers, despite the fact that we are all one piece of bad luck/judgement away from ill health or unemployment.

And even those families with multi-generational worklessness that we're all supposed to vilify because they 'take' from hard-working ordinary people's taxes? Is no-one querying why, after successive Tory and Labour governments have made it increasingly difficult to get unemployment benefits (regular interviews, training schemes, sanctions for refusing 'suitable' employment), such families remain unemployable? Seemingly, we have been content to allow them to remain outside the mainstream world of work - that seems to me a massive dereliction of duty on our part. Are they 'undeserving' or are we 'uncaring'? 

So before we formulate any policies on welfare reform, let's first change the culture - no-one is "undeserving", and if public opinion believes that some are, then we should be challenging public opinion, not feeding it. I'm all in favour of being part of "the party of the grafters", but I'd also like the grafters to acknowledge that the vast majority of benefits claimants would love to be able to graft, and that we are all potential 'benefits scroungers.'