Issue 171 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
Having a home is a fundamental requirement for anyone to live a decent life. The current housing crisis has been created by Tory policies that have sought to profit from that need, throwing thousands onto the street, and hundreds of thousands more into unsafe temporary shelter. Here are some of the facts behind the scandal.
The sale of council houses under the Tories' Right to Buy schemes generated £28 billion in receipts by the end of 1992, more than the privatisation of British Gas, electricity and British Telecom put together. None of this money has been reinvested in building new council homes.
The Tories' drive for home ownership saw more money given out in mortgage interest tax relief, which helps the better off, and less money given out in housing benefit, which helps the worse off. For the year 1989-90, £4.2 billion was allocated to housing benefit, while £6.5 billion was handed out in mortgage interest tax relief.
Housing subsidies to local authorities have been capped by central government, reducing both building and repair programmes and forcing up local authority rents. The deregulation of rents in the private sector under the 1988 Housing Act has replaced the concept of fair rent with that of market rent and allowed private landlords to charge more or less what they like, reducing enforceable legal obligations to keep the property in good order.
A report published in May 1993 showed that there are 24,961 empty homes owned by government departments like the Ministry of Defence. That is 13.9 percent of their housing stock. There are 706,000 empty homes held by the private sector. Housing associations have 13,700 empty homes and local authorities have 74,400 empty homes. The number of private sector empty houses is sufficient to house the total number of registered homeless families four and a half times over.
The drive to home ownership during the 1980s was forced by the reduction of affordable rented accommodation. However, paying a mortgage instead of rent has brought about its own miseries. Last year mortgage lenders took 68,540 properties into possession, 352,050 households had mortgage arrears of six months or more, and county courts authorised 55,265 possession orders with a further 64,642 suspended orders. The figures for 1993 are expected to be worse.
Every working day on average more than 1,000 households apply to local authorities for help on grounds of homelessness. Over the past ten years well over one million households have been registered as homeless. Large numbers of homeless, especially the single homeless, are excluded from registering and therefore excluded from government statistics.
Homelessness is growing fastest among young people, particularly aged 16-18. Shelter estimates that about 156,000 young people in Britain become homeless each year. A study carried out in Birmingham earlier this year showed that 14,000 under 25s are either homeless or in imminent danger of becoming homeless in just one city.
Shelter estimates that there are 2,000-3,000 people sleeping rough in London and up to 5,000 in the rest of England. The average age of death for people sleeping rough is 47, compared to 73 for men and 79 for women in the rest of the population.
Tory authorities like Wandsworth are discharging their duty to house the homeless by offering people deals with private landlords. Rents are high and depend on payment of maximum housing benefit which effectively means that you need to be on income support, trapping you in poverty. After six months the landlord can end the tenancy and put up rents. If your circumstances have changed within that six months the council may no longer consider you qualify for rehousing.
Black people are disproportionately affected by the housing crisis. Far from being offered new affordable homes they spend longer in temporary accommodation waiting for rehousing. Of people living in temporary accommodation, 29 percent are black. That means the black population in Britain is nearly seven times less likely to be permanently rehoused promptly than a white person.
In the last ten years the use of temporary accommodation in England to rehouse people has increased six fold. Over 62,500 families are living in temporary accommodation. An additional 10,000 are classified as 'homeless at home' which means they remain in existing unsatisfactory accommodation while permanent accommodation is found.
At the end of December 1992 there were 7,510 households living in bed and breakfast hotels in England. Shelter estimates that this represents 21,500 individuals. Department of Environment figures released in June this year showed that this figure had increased by 2 percent. The annual cost of keeping people in temporary accommodation is £321 million.
The average annual cost of building a new home to rent is £7,000 compared with £13,150 to keep a family in bed and breakfast for a year. Ending bed and breakfast could save up to £46 million a year while replacing private sector leased housing with new homes could save a further £174 million a year.
Bed and breakfast accommodation is dangerous for kids. In a report on poverty in the borough, Hammersmith council wrote, 'The children of families living in bed and breakfast are especially at risk... many hotels are overcrowded and have poor furnishing, inadequate washing facilities, and hazards such as unsafe windows, gas rings and electrical appliances. They are often unhygienic, allowing diseases to spread rapidly.'
A new law announced on 5 November directly attacks those who occupy unused empty housing. Squatting has become a criminal offence with maximum sentences of six months jail plus £5,000 fines for failing to vacate property within 24 hours of a court order. Court orders will be made whether squatters appear in court or not. CHAR, the campaign for the homeless, says that 74 percent of squatters occupy local authority housing that would otherwise remain empty. At the moment a quarter of all possession orders fail because it is discovered that the occupier has rights of tenancy. If cases are rushed through under the new law, then people who have tenancy rights could be thrown on the streets.
Tower Hamlets recently won a legal action which means local authorities must check people's immigration status before offering them housing. Having a home while pursuing your right to residency is an advantage, so this law is likely to increase the number of deportations and further discriminate against impoverished refugees.