Under pressure

The latest homelessness figures confirm some disturbing trends over the last five years in why people lose their home and what happens to them once they get help.

The statistics for England published by the DCLG on Wednesday run up to the end of 2014/15 and so allow the record the coalition to be assessed for the first time. The headline measure of households accepted as homeless (unintentionally homeless and in priority need) rose 36 per cent between 2009/10 (the year before the coalition took power) and 2014/15 to 54,000.

But this figure is heavily influenced by other government policies, not just the coalition’s reforms of the system but the last Labour government’s too. For example, the acceptances figure was more than double what it is now in the early 2000s, before prevention and options approaches were widely adopted by local authorities.

As the UK Housing Review briefing pointed out on Monday, combined acceptances and prevention cases (not published yet) are likely to top 300,000 in 2014/15 compared to just over 200,000 in 2009/10. And even these figures take no account of hidden homelessness, whether it’s overcrowding or concealed households or single people and childless couples who do not have priority or rough sleeping.

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If the cap fits

Worried about the impact of the benefit cap, social landlords? You should be because what happens next seems to be your responsibility.

As housing organisations slowly wake up to the dire implications of reducing the cap to £23,000, Iain Duncan Smith was asked about it at work and pensions questions on Monday. Labour’s Clive Betts asked what consultations the DWP had done with social landlords on the effects of the introduction of universal credit and the benefit cap on direct rent payments to landlords. After the usual guff about roll-outs from IDS, Betts pressed him with a points raised by Tony Stacey of South Yorkshire Housing Association (and Placeshapers):

‘Currently, if a household is in rent arrears and gets housing benefit, the benefit can be paid directly to the social landlord. When universal credit is introduced, if the family also gets a welfare cap, it is the housing cost element that is squeezed by the cap. No longer will the amount of universal credit be paid directly to the social landlord to cover the rent. Can the Secretary of State not see that that could lead to a rise in evictions? Is he aware of the problem, and what will he do about it?’

The context for this was highlighted ahead of this week’s CIH conference in Manchester in a UK Housing Review briefing on Monday. After allowing for other benefits and tax credits, the £23,000 cap will leave a couple with four children just £33 a week to spend on their rent and a couple with three children just £110 a week. Here are the impacts by family size:

impact of 23k cap

Effectively that means larger families will be priced out of even social housing throughout the UK and a couple with three children will not be able to afford the average housing association rent anywhere in the Midlands or South of England. The impact will be felt far beyond inner London and the CIH estimates that four times more households could be affected than under the current £26,000 cap.

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Role model?

If we have a Living Wage, why not a Living Rent? Well, now we do.

With due respect to the Scottish campaign of the same name, the report launched this week by Savills, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and National Housing Federation addresses directly what I’ve long thought to be perhaps the most important question in housing policy: how to make homes genuinely affordable to people on low incomes.

Current policy gets nowhere near that. Employment may be at a record high but millions of people are trapped in low paid work, in part-time jobs and zero hours contracts, and average earnings have only just begun to rise again after years of decline.

Yet private sector rents are too high, leaving families reliant on housing benefit whether they are in or out of work and vulnerable to cuts to come: projections by Savills suggest that one in four of us will be private renters by 2019. ‘Affordable’ rents are only affordable in relation to a market artificially inflated by speculative investment and the aftermath of the financial crisis. Even social rents rise by an inflation-plus formula regardless of what’s happening to earnings.

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Blind spot

Fiscal myopia: that’s the telling phrase in a report out this week on the long-term value of social housing.

In a way the verdict of Capital Economics merely confirms what we know intuitively: building social housing at low rents costs much less in the long run than not building it and instead subsidising high rents through housing benefit.

But the report for SHOUT and the National Federation of ALMOs demonstrates just how good long-term deal social housing represents. Capital Economics compared a programme building up to 100,000 social rented homes a year from 2020/21 with existing policies. Among the conclusions:

  • Looking over 25 years, lower housing benefit costs alone justify government investment in social housing in most parts of the country.
  • However, that takes no account of the value of the asset created that remains after 25 years. Once this is done, investment stacks up in most of the rest
  • In a handful of cases where the sums do not add up (mostly larger homes in areas where private rents are the same or lower than social rents) there are still good arguments for investment (urban regeneration, positive impacts on health and education etc).
  • Tenants will also be better off: the report estimates that families would see their net incomes after housing costs rise by £942 a year.

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Fly in the ointment

Could the Conservatives really admit they got it wrong on the bedroom tax? Hard as it is to imagine Iain Duncan Smith admitting he was wrong about anything, pressure is growing for a rethink.

In the Times yesterday, David Cameron’s former speechwriter Clare Foges offered her ex-boss some advice a series of options on how to break with the party’s image as the nasty party, including this one:

‘Move on from the bedroom tax. It is not working as had been hoped and will remain a fly in the one-nation ointment. Have a mea culpa moment and move on.’

Note the lack of pretence that it’s really the removal of the spare room subsidy and that it’s all working brilliantly to save money and use social housing more fairly.

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Peer review

If the opening salvoes are anything to go by, we are in for a long battle in the House of Lords over the right to buy.

The Conservatives do not have a majority in the Lords. By convention peers do not vote against legislation that was in the government’s manifesto but that still leaves plenty of room for amendments. It’s also hard to see how the government could claim financial privilege to reverse Lords amendments, as it did with the Welfare Reform Act.

Tuesday’s debate was only a short one on that bit of the Queen’s Speech but it was also a preview of the key themes that will be debated over the next few months and some of the key peers who will be making the arguments.

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Death of the Ideal Home

Was this the week when the dream of home ownership in Britain was finally killed off by the greed of buy to let?

All this week the Daily Mail is telling its readers ‘How to Join the Buy to Let Boom’ and offering them a chance to ‘secure your family’s future’ by winning a ‘£260k buy to let house’. Here’s the top half of Monday’s front page (courtesy of @DawnHFoster):

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