Government Tries to Destroy Social Housing – Let’s Hit Back!
The government has introduced a series of measures clearly designed to destroy council and housing association housing and force working class people to pay vastly inflated rents for their accommodation. Families going into these types of housing (‘social housing’) are to be robbed of their security of tenure. Some who would have been given social housing before this Act may be forced into private accommodation. They may be forced out of London and other areas with high rents to live in private accommodation far from their place of work or their children’s school. The combination of cuts in entitlement to social housing and benefit cuts is creating an intensifying crisis of poverty and homelessness. Meanwhile the right-wing press furiously promotes the lie that this is all justified by a non-existent subsidy to council housing. Scandalously, many Labour councils are implementing Tory attacks on security of tenancy, despite the fact they are not even under any legal obligation to do so.
The attacks on social housing became law last year under the Localism Act and they are now being put into effect by local councils under new lettings policies. The attacks include:
● Newly let council properties can be let on five year (occasionally two year) ‘fixed term secure tenancies’.
● Councils can now discharge their duties to house the homeless by insisting they take fixed term tenancies in council or housing association accommodation-or private accommodation, with no security of tenure at all. Previously, homeless families had to be offered the choice of a social housing tenancy, albeit often following a period in temporary accommodation.
● Housing Associations can now charge up to 80% market rents on newly let properties.
(See Shelter 2012, Local Decisions on Tenure Reform)
The letting of council properties on five year tenancies forces families to endure the constant stress of not knowing if they will have a home to live in after the fixed term ends. Take the example of parents in the London Borough of Haringey who are given a three bedroom house to bring their children up in. Under their proposed tenancy strategy, the council will renew the five year tenancy as long as the children remain at home. But when they move out, the parents will be deemed to be ‘under-occupying’. This means their tenancy will not be renewed again. If they are not in priority need (e.g. seriously disabled), they can legally be evicted and only provided with totally insecure private housing. As well as Haringey, Labour councils such as the London boroughs of Lambeth and Newham have also brought in five year tenancies, or are proposing to do so. The government did not even tell these councils they had to bring in this policy, it was a local decision. If the Labour Party was a genuinely working class party, its leadership would have demanded that these councils reverse this decision immediately. However, Labour is a phony workers party and merely exists to provide a diversion for the workers so the leadership has done nothing.
Allowing councils to discharge their responsibilities to the homeless by giving homeless people properties in the private sector, rather than permanent social housing, is one of the most serious attacks the working class is facing. Private housing gives no security of tenure, families can be asked to leave with only two months notice, with only very limited options for a legal defence available. There is a particular problem in high-rent areas like London where land speculators and greedy landlords have been able to force rents up to astronomical levels. Housing benefit will not cover the high rents due to government cuts. Families are therefore being forced to move to areas far from work and school, even to different parts of the country entirely. Lives are being seriously disrupted. Some families are being forced to live in bed and breakfast accommodation where parents and children may only have one room to live in, with other facilities shared.
Encouraging housing associations to charge up to 80% market rent will create similar problems. Until now housing benefit has always covered social housing rents. Now there is the benefit cap of £500 a week. If parents who are paying a near market rent to a housing association have more children, then the extra benefits they receive for these children, combined with the benefit they need to cover the rent, could easily push the family above the benefit cap limit. With no means to pay their rent, they would be looking at destitution and homelessness.
Even if housing association tenants are in work, they can still be penalised. The Minister for Employment, Mark Hoban, is proposing that under the new Universal Credit scheme those who work but need benefits to top up their income will be made to take steps to retrain and increase their earning power or face benefit sanctions. (See: https://www.gov.uk/govern- ment/speeches/improving-employment-outcomes).
This will include those in housing association properties who work but who are on low wages and cannot meet the full cost of a near-market rent. What makes this prospect frightening is the arbitrary and draconian way benefit sanctions are being applied at the moment. Huge numbers of jobseekers are losing benefit for the most unfair reasons. It has emerged that jobcentre advisors have unofficial targets they must reach for the numbers of people they sanction. (See Guardian 28.03.2013 ‘Jobcentre Scorecard Shows How Areas Are Performing on Stopping Benefits‘)
If a similar regime is applied to working people claiming Universal Credit who live in high-rent housing association properties, then they will be in a hellish situation. Unable to cover the rent themselves, due to its inflated level, they will face the constant threat of benefit cuts from jobcentre advisors who are being forced to meet arbitrary benefit sanction targets. Those sanctioned will then face eviction for rent arrears.
Of course we are told people in social housing deserve all this because they are ‘subsidised’. The right-wing press routinely runs stories about ‘immigrants’ or ‘benefit scroungers’ living in ‘subsidised’ council housing. This is absolute nonsense, as the figures for council housing show. A report by the Council Housing Group of MPs in 2009, showed that in actual fact council rents more than cover the cost of services that council tenants receive. This rent surplus amounts to a third more than the cost of the services provided to tenants (see Council Housing: Time to Invest, p.20-21, http://www.defendcouncilhousing.org.uk/dch/dch_newsitem.cfm?ID=1692).
As the report shows, the reason for the historic council housing debt (calculated at £19 billion at the time of the above report) is because the system is deliberately rigged against council housing. The problem is the huge discount on the right to buy. If Council Homes were not sold off so cheaply, the proceeds could have been used to pay off the whole debt by now.
Additionally, we might say, if the homes had not been sold at all, then the rent surplus charged for these homes could, in all probability, have paid off the debt by now. 2.5 million council homes have been sold in Britain under the right to buy, representing a huge loss of rental income. (see: Evening Standard 18.01.2009, ‘2.5 Mill-ion Council Homes Sold Off’ http://www.standard.co.uk/newsheadlines/25-million-council-houses-sold-off-6762229.html).
The fact is that all the talk of ‘benefit scroungers’ and ‘immigrants’ living in subsidised council housing is a Goebbels style ‘big lie’. The capitalist media and the Tory and Labour scum just want working class people to fight one another rather than fight their true enemy-the system of capitalism that threatens working class people with poverty and homelessness. It is not immigrants or benefit scroungers that are responsible for the homelessness problem but rather it is the capitalist ownership of land that allows greedy speculators to make a killing by driving up property prices for ordinary people. The working class should organise themselves to occupy land and luxury flats owned by banks and property developers, demanding the provision of permanent, rented social housing. We must resist evictions of those unable to pay their rent. We must take the fight to the rich parasites who profit from the housing misery being imposed on working class people. We must demand the provision of housing as a legal right and fight for a socialist system of the allocation of housing according to need.