Look beyond the rate rise for the real housing squeeze

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on November 2.

Today’s first rise in interest rates for a decade is an important symbolic moment but it will make little or no immediate difference to the housing costs of millions of home owners with a mortgage.

The increase from 0.25% to 0.5% could see average mortgage payments rise by around £15 a month but it will not apply straight away to people with fixed rate mortgages and in any case it only restores the base rate to what was a record low between 2009 and the aftermath of the referendum.

Compare that with the continuing squeeze on benefits and tax credits/universal credit that the Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasts today will help to increase the percentage of children in relative poverty after housing costs from 30% now to 37% by 2022.

And contrast it with the latest overall benefit cap statistics also published today: as at August 68,000 families were hit by the lower cap that came into effect a year ago and nearly a third of them are losing between £50 and £100 a week. The cap is now £26,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere.

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Crisis warns of surge in homelessness

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on August 10. 

If the true scale of homelessness revealed in a report for Crisis is shocking enough now, try looking at the projections for the future.

The report by Professor Glen Bramley of Heriot Watt University estimates that what it calls ‘core homelessness’ affected 160,000 households in 2016, an increase of a third since 2011.

That means that at any one time:

  • 9,100 people were sleeping rough
  • 68,300 households were sofa surfing
  • 19,300 households were living in unsuitable temporary accommodation
  • 37,200 households were living in hostels
  • 26,000 households were living in other circumstances, including:
    • 8,900 households sleeping in tents, cars or on public transport
    • 12,100 households living in squats
    • 5,000 households in women’s refuges or winter night shelters.

The report estimates that these include 57,000 families including 82,000 adults and 50,000 children, so that the total core homeless population is 236,000.

However, the total is forecast to rise by 76% in the next decade. After a steady rise to 167,000 households by 2021 the total is expected to accelerate over the to 238,000 by 2031 and 392,000 by 2041.

As the graph shows, the increases are expected to be especially sharp in unsuitable temporary accommodation, which includes bed and breakfast accommodation and out of area placements.

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The election, housing and poverty

Originally published on June 6 on my blog for Inside Housing.

What will the main political parties do to improve the housing system for the poorest people?

The answer ranges from something to not much at all, according to a study of their manifestos launched by a group of experts this week.

Academics Stand Against Poverty conducted a poverty audit of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat plans on their policies on everything from disability to international development and education to health. Each of these was marked out of five, with 5 representing very high confidence that the policies on offer would tackle poverty and 1 very low confidence.

As the graphic shows, Labour came out best overall with an average score of 3.6, including 5 for its plans for disability and 4 for other areas including health, education and social security.

The Lib Dems came a close second with 3.2, matching Labour on education and ranked as the best party on the environment and sustainability.

The Conservatives scored worst on every topic, with no individual mark higher than 2 and an overall mark of 1.5.

That represents a significant improvement for Labour on its score in 2015, when more parties were assessed. Back then the Greens led the way with 3.9, followed by the Lib Dems with 3.2, Labour in third with 2.6, the Conservatives in fourth on 1.7 and UKIP trailing in last with 1.4.

Looking at housing specifically in the 2017 audit, Labour leads with 3, followed by the Lib Dems with 2 and the Tories with 1. That mostly applies to England given that housing policy is largely devolved but the combined score of 6 out of 15 is the lowest for the 11 different policy areas assessed.

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Is the customer always right?

Originally published on October 24 on my blog for Inside Housing 

Whether we are talking about benefits or housing, a new Ken Loach film and a BBC documentary expose a system that’s failing. In the face of growing demand and shrinking provision, the safety net has gaping holes. Rising homelessness and the queues at foodbanks are the symbols of this. The basics of life – shelter, food and warmth – can no longer be taken for granted.

Seen from the outside this is obvious and so are the answers. Return to provision based on need. Build more social housing. Abandon the divisive rhetoric of strivers and scroungers. Follow the founding principles of the welfare state.

Most people working on the inside will agree with this. But they also have to work within the system as it is and they know that there is little chance of real political change any time soon. This dual reality is perhaps most obvious in the social/business divide within housing associations but it exists right across the public and voluntary sectors too.

Watching I, Daniel Blake and No Place to Call Home over the last few days, these divides were obvious. One is a documentary, the other a film, but both would claim to be revealing truths about life when the safety net fails. But they also beg a less obvious question for people working within the system: how do you know when you’ve crossed the line between doing your best in an impossible situation and making that situation worse? One answer, I’d suggest, lies in the language we use.

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10 things about 2015: part 2

Originally published on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

My look back at the year in housing on my blog concludes with five more big issues including the future of social landlords, welfare reform and poverty. For Part 1 go here.

6) Wrong or right to buy

Nothing sums up how just much turned on the election result as what happened with the Right to Buy. In February I blogged about the clarification that meant even fewer homes sold under the existing policy were being replaced than previously thought. April brought a buccaneering Tory pledge to extend it to housing association tenants and fund it by forcing councils the sell their ‘expensive’ stock. It was hard to see how it could possibly stack up except as a political gimmick but that was pretty much the point. It was an eye-catching election promise by a party desperate for victory and it seemed designed as a manifesto commitment that could be traded away in coalition negotiations.

Except that it worked. The Tories were unexpectedly elected with an overall majority and the mash-up of think tank proposals written on the back of an envelope somehow had to be implemented. The results would be disastrous for local authorities and the government faced a long battle in the House of Lords. And then everything changed all over again as the most vociferous opponents of the policy decided to accept it voluntarily.

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Under new ownership

Originally posted on October 7 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Forget social housing, any kind of affordable rented housing is living on borrowed time in the wake of this year’s Conservative conference.

In his speech on Wednesday David Cameron announced ‘a national crusade to get homes built’ and go from ‘Generation Rent into Generation Buy’.

The headline policy of starter homes does not look any better than it did the first two times he announced it (in December 2014 and again when he doubled the target in March). The original policy had potential because it offered the prospect of additional homes on sites that would not have got planning permission before. Though there were potential problems, what would amount to urban exception sites looked like a good idea, especially if the uplift in land values could be captured to pay for infrastructure.

But the idea has looked worse and worse the more it has evolved. Research by Shelter has shown that even at a 20 per cent discount the homes will not be affordable in most of the country. Despite an advisory committee on design, there’s not much to stop housebuilders cutting costs by making them starter hutches rather than homes and no mechanism has been suggested so far to check that the discount really is a discount. And even if there is a deal to be had for Generation Rent some of the benefits will go to people who could have afforded to buy at the undiscounted price.

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Cuts, caps and goalposts

Originally posted on July 22 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing 

Looking to gauge the effects of the latest benefit cuts on housing? The official impact assessments are at best a starting point.

Documents published for the second reading of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill on Monday evening (available here) do give the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) view on what to expect, but there are several reasons why it is a severely blinkered one.

First, they only cover what is actually in the Bill and many of the main housing benefit changes in the Budget do not require primary legislation.

So there is an impact assessment of the five-year freeze on most working age benefits but it does not include the freeze of the local housing allowance. Similarly, we do not get the DWP view on ending automatic entitlement to housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds because that will be done by regulation rather than primary legislation.

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