Time to end the freeze

Originally published on August 29 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The freeze on the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) is a £1.2 billion question for which the answer seems obvious.

The problems detailed in analysis by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) published on Wednesday are severe and they are getting worse.

LHA rates are midway through a four-year freeze that is the culmination of seven years of austerity. The result is that they have completely lost touch with the rents they were meant to cover.

The CIH analysis shows that 90% of LHA rates now fail to cover the rent of the cheapest 30% of private rented homes (bear in mind that this was itself a cut from the 50th percentile and that LHA was originally designed to enable tenants to ‘shop around’ for cheaper rents).

That leaves tenants facing rent shortfalls that grow larger with each year of austerity: outside London, two out of every three LHA shared accommodation rates have a weekly shortfall of £4 or more and half of other LHA rates are short by £10 or more; in London, the shortfalls for shared accommodation are more than £10 a week in every LHA area and at least £30 for all other homes.

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‘Housing week’ off to an uncertain start

For once this is a silly season that has some substance. If you can tear yourself away from the sun lounger or the latest pronouncement by the Etonian Katie Hopkins, mid-August sees a trio of government announcements that are crucial for housing and homelessness.

Last week featured another big benefits u-turn: confirmation that housing benefit will continue for supported accommodation removes a cloud that has been hanging over projects including homeless hostels and women’s refuges.

Monday saw the launch of the strategy that the government says will enable it to meet its target of halving rough sleeping in England by 2022 and ending it by 2027.

And what is billed as ‘housing week’ is set to continue on Tuesday with the launch of the social housing green paper – originally promised in the Spring, then before the parliamentary recess last month, but now appearing while most MPs are on holiday.

The timing does at least ensure some media attention, including an uncertain performance by James Brokenshire in the TV and radio studios on Monday morning.

After a lively appearance on Good Morning Britain, the housing secretary struggled on the Today programme when asked whether government policies are to blame for the relentless rise in rough sleeping and floundered when asked how much of the promised ‘£100 million plan’ is new money. (Somewhere between none and not much was the eventual answer).

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The rise of working homelessness

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on July 23.

Ever since 2010 the government has assumed that work is the solution to poverty and problems with housing.

It’s an assumption that underpins universal credit and it’s been nourished by a steady drip of propaganda from right-wing think tanks and newspapers about the alleged role of social housing in encouraging worklessness.

Anyone with experience of the benefits system knows that this is at best a simplistic and at worst a dangerously inaccurate interpretation of what is going on.

For all the government’s proclamations of a ‘jobs miracle’, work alone is not a guaranteed route out of poverty or poor housing or even, it now seems, homelessness.

A report out today from Shelter shows a 73% rise in the number of families who are in work but homeless and in temporary accommodation over the last five years: from 19,000 in 2013 to 33,000 in 2017.

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A plan to end homelessness

Originally published on June 12 on my blog for Inside Housing.

At times in the last year it’s seemed that all a politician has to do to end homelessness is say ‘Housing First’ three times, take a trip to Finland and announce a new initiative.

All three do feature in the plan published by Crisis this morning but alongside a 10-year strategy that challenges the politicians to take a harder road to a real destination – if they choose.

Everybody In: How to end homelessness in Great Britain was developed following an international evidence review of what works here and abroad, a consultation with over 1,000 people across Britain and newly-commissioned research to fill gaps in the evidence.

Crisis, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, warns that there are currently 160,000 people facing the worst forms of homelessness in Britain but that if we continue as we are this number will double over the next 25 years.

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Rough sleeping initiative deja vu

Originally posted on April 3 on my blog for Inside Housing.

If the new initiative to reduce rough sleeping sounds vaguely familiar it’s because we have been here before.

The package of measures announced by Sajid Javid over Easter includes a new Rough Sleeping Team made up of external experts, a £30 million fund for 2018/19 with further funding for 2019/20 targeted at areas with high numbers of rough sleepers and £100,000 of funding to support frontline workers across the country.

It’s a welcome news just as the Homelessness Reduction Act is about to come into force, and it comes on top of existing investment in homelessness programmes, piloting of Housing First and closer collaborative working inside and outside government.

But it also made me think back to the last time a Conservative government faced a rough sleeping crisis and announced a Rough Sleepers Initiative (RSI).

In 1990 the number of people sleeping rough in central London soared in the wake of a recession and benefit cuts that hit 16- and 17-year-olds in particular.

Then as now, ministers denied that benefit cuts were to blame. Then as now, the sight of people sleeping in doorways and makeshift camps got national media and political attention.

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April arrives with some rare good news

Originally published on March 29 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Sometimes it feels like I’ve written a blog at this time every year with the headline ‘April is the cruellest month’.

It’s not that I have a TS Eliot fixation nor (I hope) that I endlessly repeat myself but because ever since 2010 the start of the financial year seems to have meant yet another benefit cut or housing policy change to cope with.

This year is a bit different not so much because there is no bad news but because there is some good news as well. Here are some examples:

  • The u-turn on the withdrawal of support for housing costs for 18-21 year olds under universal credit announced on Thursday. This was a cumbersome policy that required significant exemptions and barely saved any money but it’s still a significant change to the original pledge to make young people ‘earn or learn’.
  • The Homelessness Reduction Act passed in 2017 applies from April 3. The legislation should be a big step forward in ensuring that more people get help earlier but despite a recent announcement on funding there are still well-founded concerns about whether councils have the money to implement it.
  • Claimants already getting housing benefit who move on to universal credit will from April be paid an additional two weeks of housing benefit. That may not be much consolation for the (in theory) five-week wait for their first universal credit but the payment (worth an average of £233) should ease the transition a bit –and it is not recoverable.
  • It will be unlawful for landlords to give new tenancies on the least energy efficient property from April 1 – all rented property will have to qualify for at least an Energy Performance Certificate rating of E so (in theory) tenants will no longer be stuck paying high heating bills for the worst F and G property.
  • More measures introduced against rogue landlords in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 come into force, including powers for councils to issue banning orders against the worst offenders and implementation of a database of landlords and letting agents convicted of some offences.

Bear in mind too that it’s not so long ago that I would have been writing about plans to apply a Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap to social and supported housing from…April 2018.

For all that good news, though, the suspicion remains that it will at best mitigate the impact of policies already implemented and still in the pipeline.

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One small step (backwards)

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on January 25.

More of us now rent from a private landlord than at any time since the first man walked on the moon.

Figures in the 2016/17 English Housing Survey published on Thursday show yet another rise in the proportion of households renting from a private landlord and decline in home ownership.

More than 20% of us are now private renters, the highest figure in any year since 1969, the year of Woodstock and one small step for man.

Owner-occupation declined slightly from 62.9% to 62.6% but that overall figure conceals two very different trends.

The proportion of households who own outright rose again to 34.1% while the proportion buying with a mortgage fell to just 28.4%.

To put that second figure in perspective, throughout the 1990s more than 40% of us were buying with a mortgage.

Social renting remained stable at just over 17% of households, but with the local authority share of that falling again.

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