When my family first came to live in the UK from Ireland in the 60s, they rented a flat from a private landlord. I was still a twinkle in their eyes. My sister was probably about 5 years old by then. The flat was in a terrible shape – damp and mould amongst other things – which lead to my sister getting ill.
They went to see a doctor,who in his role as a care giver and a non-box ticker, was concerned enough to recommend they get housed by the council, and he supported them to do this.
So they ended up living in a council flat in Birmingham. Rent was affordable, there seemed to be plenty of work (they recently said to me it wasn’t a cliche that you could walk out of one job and walk into another the next day!). Not perfect by any means, but life was moving on.
At some point, in the early 70′s, mortgages ‘appeared’ – they were easy to come by with low or no deposits – and the monthly payments were less than the rent.
The average wage in 1971 was around £2,000 a year, with the average house selling for £5,632: your home could be bought for less than three times your earnings.
So I was born, my sister grew up, left home and started her own family, and my mum and dad retired, living in their house where they have a spare bedroom for when visitors come to stay, and where they keep odd bits that they don’t want to throw out.Nice.
So fast forward to 2013.
If my mum and dad were still in the council flat then they would have paid rent for over 40 years. At some point in the late 80′s the flat would have paid for itself and have started generating profit for the government, even after ongoing maintenance costs. Social housing is *not* subsidised. This money could have been used to increase the council stock, for example, to spread affordable housing wider into society, to fund self build co operatives increasing tenants control or to replace the houses bought during the ‘Right to Buy’ era. All of this would have counteracted the endless rise of private rents.
If my mum or dad had lost their jobs or had their hours cut to part time then they would have probably claimed housing benefit – a payment to cover the cost of rent paid to private and social landlords.
Anyway, so in 2013, they would have recently received a letter from the council informing them that if they claim housing benefit they should expect it to be cut by 14%. The reason for this is that they have a ‘spare’ bedroom. This is called the ‘bedroom tax’.
The stated aim is to match up those who have extra rooms with those that need the rooms. Sounds sensible yes? Well according to the DWP:
‘According to estimates from DCLG there is a surplus of three bedroom properties, based on the profile of existing working age tenants in receipt of Housing Benefit, and a lack of one bedroom accommodation in the social sector. In many areas this mismatch could mean that there are insufficient properties to enable tenants to move to accommodation of an appropriate size even if tenants wished to move and landlords were able to facilitate this movement.’
Another stated aim is to reduce the cost of the housing benefit bill. Many of those moving out will end up in one bedroom private accommodation. This will increase the size of the housing benefit bill as a one bed private rent costs more than a two bed social rent.
The other stated aim is that this policy will encourage people to ‘GET A JOB!’ Problem here is that many of em already have one! More than 90 per cent of new housing benefit claims over the past two years have been made by employed people, as squeezed workers seek help with their living costs.
So as it only applies to those in social housing, the underlying aim must be to tackle the unfairness that those in private rented accommodation have no money because of the unaffordable rent by making those in social housing also have no money by making the rent unaffordable.
Much in the same way that to tackle the scandal of low wages, rather than say do something progressive and positive like a living wage, the current approach is to create adverts persuading low paid workers that they are low paid because of benefit scrounging folk devils (not because of any massive structural changes in the economy). All this is helping to justify benefit cuts that are going to affect low paid workers as well as those who are unemployed and create a poisonousness split in our communities between the ‘deserving and the undeserving‘ poor.
So here are my mum and dad’s imaginary options:
A) Stay in the flat but be between £10 and £25 worse off per week. Doesn’t sound much but if you are a couple on £111 per week (current JSA couple rate) that could be enough to cause real problems..
B) Try and move into a (non-existent) one bed council flat or into a private rental (where tenancies will be for 6 months at a time)
C) Try and buy a house. In contrast to the 3 X average income in the 70s, to buy a house now is more like 12 X the real average income and that’s if you can get the deposit together.
Luckily this isn’t the situation they are facing. But thinking about it brought the reality home to me, and maybe it will to you too.
The Bedroom tax is such a strange idea that even the Daily Telegraph is coming up with slogans against it:
‘No Mansion Tax for the Rich, a Bedroom Tax for the Poor’
What can be done about it?
Some communities are starting to organise around this issue.
-There are online groups which are helping people organise using social networks
-There are articles showing that if only a small percentage of people challenge both the social landlords and the government on this issue then economically it will be unviable and will grind to a halt.
Some tenants in Liverpool occupied a housing association
In Easton I’ve already met a few people door-knocking who are going to be affected by this. If enough people are interested (once the reality hits home) I’m hoping that they will want to take some form of collective action, whether that’s sharing information or something else entirely
Everything is connected
Anything which helps prevent communities being ambitious for change is something that community organisers should be involved in (if there is a mandate from that community)
Any action which starts off seemingly negative and single issues based can also broaden out in its vision. It can create bonds and solidarities between individuals where there were none previously and it can push through from ‘defend ourselves against the bedroom tax’ to ‘what’s the root cause of the housing crisis and how can we solve it?’
Many people I talk to when door knocking will talk about the shortage of council houses and affordable homes, but this will generally be qualified with the phrase “…but those days are over…” It might be that the solution to the UK’s housing crisis isn’t a massive infrastructure investment in new housing stock, or tackling the millions of empty homes rotting away or a rent cap. It’s not these ideas themselves which are the solution, but the process itself – good ideas have only happened because there was a large enough movement of people which caused the world to turn upside down and change:
With the end of the war in Europe thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen returned home to find that there was no where to live. The first reaction was the mass occupation of army encampments. The squatting movement then moved on to take over empty houses in London and other towns and cities. At the height of the movement it was estimated that there were more than 35,000 squatters.
As a result of the post war squatting movement, housing was pushed up the political agenda and became a central element in the establishment of the post-war settlement. The post-war Labour Government launched a massive programme of council house construction, which was to dwarf the ‘homes fit for heroes’ of twenty years before. Although the immediate programme of council house construction was scaled back due to the austerity measures brought about by the dollar shortage in 1947, it remained at high levels throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, in the 1950s the two major parties sought to outbid each other in promising the construction of more homes. Since the construction of council housing was the only means of ensuring such promises were realised, even the Tories were obliged to maintain relatively high levels of council house building. As a result, by 1970 more than a third of all householders were council tenants.
Maybe the solution will be when ordinary people have had enough and organise positively in their communities to take control of their own lives.
I wonder how my mum and dad would respond?
The Hidden History of Housing