The government’s housing policies are aimed directly at people with the fewest resources and the lowest resistance, says ELLEN ROBOTTOM – which means community campaigns such as hers are more vital than ever.
In his discussion of the Housing and Planning Bill 2015, Dr Quintin Bradley explored an increasingly familiar characteristic of ‘welfare’ policy: namely, that it functions simultaneously as both economic intervention (crudely, shifting vast quantities of public money and assets into the private, mainly corporate sector), and as ideological intervention – replacing collective values with a notion of ‘fairness’ defined as paying one’s own way in the private market.
Welfare policies in general achieve this through the construction of categories of social actors (‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’) who stand towards each other in a relation of ‘unfairness’ which the policy purports to rectify. For example, welfare-to-work policy has created an apparatus which not only gifts vast sums of public money to corporate work programme providers and disability assessors, but simultaneously brings into being its own justification in the image of the parasitic claimant whose preference for fraudulent dependency must be disciplined in the interests of ‘fairness’.
Such an analysis provides a useful starting point for exploring the challenges faced by campaigners for social housing provision. The current Housing and Planning Bill aims to complete the residualisation of social housing, enforcing sell-offs and removing mechanisms for providing new social homes in favour of huge publicly-funded subsidies for private ownership, depicted as a symbol of virtuous aspiration. Means testing and the phasing out of secure tenancies invoke a contrasting notion of social housing as a potentially unfair subsidy to tenants whose ‘deservingness’ must be constantly under suspicion.
At the same time, viciously iniquitous policies like the bedroom tax and the overall Household Benefit Cap are justified by depicting tenants and claimants as receiving excessive levels of subsidy at the expense of the ‘hard-working tax-payer’. An important task of the housing campaigner is therefore to counter the demonisation of tenants and the wider assault on values of collectivity of which this is part.
No easy win
The Leeds housing campaign group Hands Off Our Homes began life in 2005 as a campaign against PFI and private regeneration schemes, but the introduction of the bedroom tax under the Welfare Reform Act (2013) brought in a new wave of campaigners, encouraged by what was then perceived as a possible ‘easy win’ at a time of widespread disorientation amongst the left. Comparisons were made with the successful 1980s campaign against the Poll Tax, and we were enthusiastic about the possibilities for supporting tenants to self-organise in their neighbourhoods to resist the tax.
It rapidly became obvious that this comparison was misguided; unlike the Poll Tax, the bedroom tax specifically targeted those with least personal resources. Our own research, based on interviews with 60 tenants, confirmed that two-thirds of affected households had a member with a significant disability or long-term illness, half of these having significant mental health issues; and many also had multiple carer responsibilities.
All those suffering from mental health issues (and some with physical conditions such as epilepsy or asthma) reported that the worry of paying their rent had worsened their conditions. In short, for most the fear and anxiety resulting from the perceived risk of losing their home limited the scope for resistance; instead, the tenants interviewed stated without exception that they had reduced their food intake and/or gone without heating in their attempt to avoid arrears.
Despite an initial phase of militancy which saw lobbies of councillors and MPs and a 1,000-strong protest in Leeds in April 2013, our work eventually revolved around supporting individuals, for example by helping them to apply for scarce discretionary housing payments.
Our experiences made clear how easily the removal of the means to meet basic needs can lead to a redefinition of tenants as personally problematic and obstructive, justifying judgemental and disciplinary attitudes on the part of many (not all) housing officers, and a downward revision of the minimum physical and social well-being which they are deemed to be entitled to.
Many tenants spoke of being intimidated by frequent texts and phone calls from rent officers, of threats made against them (such as, “you’ll be out on the street if you don’t pay”), and of inappropriate suggestions about saving money (for example, selling personal possessions of modest monetary value, or a very unwell tenant being told that a mobile phone was a “luxury”). In the pressure to downsize, activities which most people would consider a normal part of life – grandparents supporting unwell or working parents by sharing childcare, for example – were re-framed as inessential.
Although it’s now some two years out of date, our report provides a foretaste of the misery to be expected on a far larger scale as policies of running down social housing and cutting essential benefits converge on social and private tenants, and on the increasing numbers waiting in vain for housing. If there’s a positive side to this alarming situation, it’s the real possibility it presents of drawing in a broader range of campaigners.
On 12 March, Hands Off Our Homes convened a regional Housing Summit in Leeds which attracted not only tenants and campaigners, but also a number of housing association professionals, mental health workers and other providers of support services. Conspicuously absent, despite invitations, were most council officers and councillors – just one Labour councillor, Kevin Ritchie, attended.
After a concise explanation of the Housing Bill by Quintin Bradley, we heard from Joe Halewood, an experienced housing consultant whose blog is an invaluable resource for the housing worker or campaigner. He began by unpacking the myth of the social tenant as scrounger – for every 100 social tenants, 43 are in work, of whom 17 claim housing benefit due to low pay or zero-hours contracts. Of the remainder, 27 are unable to work due to sickness or disability, 24 are pensioners, and only six claim Job-Seekers’ Allowance.
Focusing on the effects of lowering the overall Household Benefit Cap to £20,000 (outside London) – expected to take effect in October – Joe estimated that around 3,600 households containing around 12,000 children would be affected in Leeds alone, with an average cut to Housing Benefit of £76 a week. Viewed from the perspective of the local authority, this policy amounts to a Housing Benefit cut of £14.2 million a year, added to a cut from the bedroom tax of £4.7 million a year. Set against a Discretionary Housing Payment allocation of £1.89 million, it is easily apparent that evictions will follow, with renters in the expensive and insecure private-sector being particularly at risk.
Joe went on to discuss the proposed policy of limiting Housing Benefit for social tenants to the maximum levels payable in the private sector (currently due to apply from April 2018 to all tenancies commenced from April 2017). Despite the government’s insistence that the policy is about ‘fairness’ to private sector renters, the actual effect of this policy would be to render much sheltered and supported housing – for frail elderly people, for example – unaffordable to those on Housing Benefit.
Hostels for homeless people, domestic violence refuges and many residential services for people with mental health issues, or physical or sensory impairments, will lose the Housing Benefit income they need to remain viable. To give but one example, Joe estimates that the YMCA alone stands to lose £40 million a year from this policy, resulting in certain closure of many hostels despite paltry sums made available to local authorities to address burgeoning street homelessness.
What is to be done?
So, what to do? It was evident at the summit that these facts are not widely understood, and there was a consensus that we need to do all we can to disseminate them. In particular, we plan to pressure our local councils to write to all residents and to call public meetings, clearly explaining the potential impacts of these policies and how the council plans to address the shortage of affordable housing and the coming crisis of uncollectable rent arrears. Hands Off Our Homes is inviting all Leeds residents to contact us for help in organising a group lobby of their local councillors
Social housing provision should be a major issue for trade unions. Jobs are already being lost in the social housing and support work sectors (the 1% year-on-year cut in rents alone is resulting in 15% staff redundancies in the housing association sector, and the lost rent revenue due to benefit cuts is likely to result in further shrinkage). Workers in all industries need homes, and housing costs are a major determinant of the real value of a worker’s wage.
The Housing and Planning Bill is receiving a pounding in the Lords as I write, and there is still time to make it thoroughly toxic to the government. Nevertheless, it is clear that the struggle for decent, affordable social housing is a long-term one, and we must ultimately be prepared for direct action – stopping evictions, non-cooperation with rent-rises, occupation of empty homes and pickets of private-rental agencies to challenge unfair charges and revenge evictions are all possibilities.
On any account, an important first step is to bring people together to form campaigns and build solidarity in their local neighbourhoods. Hands Off Our Homes plans to work with existing community groups to bring local people together, and at the same time to seek to build a unified and broad-based campaign through our union branches, political parties and other networks.
Ellen Robottom is from the Leeds campaign group Hands off our Homes.
This is a version of a talk she presented at the ILP’s Unbalanced Britain seminar on the housing crisis in Leeds on 5 March.
Hands Off Our Homes can be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or tel. 07504017322.
A report of the ILP’s Unbalanced Britain seminar on the housing crisis is here.
‘The Housing Crisis Weaponised’, a version of Quintin Bradley’s presentation, is here.
‘Rethinking Housing’, by Simon Jose, editor of Fabian Hamilton MP’s Building Homes for Britain report, is here.