Each year, around 10 per cent of the entire spending on welfare by the UK government is spent on housing benefit: for comparison, that’s 10 times the amount spent on unemployment benefits, and a quarter of what is spent on pensions, which represents the bulk of social security expenditure.
The vast majority of housing benefit is paid to private landlords, by people who are in work, but not earning enough to afford a roof over their head without government assistance.
Drilling down into the details shows a huge amount of waste: private rents don’t need to be higher than the rates for social and council housing, but landlords will charge as much as they’re able to. Knowing the government will help foot the bill, many private landlords hike their rents accordingly.
A further outrage is the fact many of these homes used to be owned by local authorities, and rented out cheaply, with long-term, secure tenancies to families, and are now – thanks to right to buy – for rent in the private sector, at exorbitant rates, with tenants evicted every few years to make way for people willing to pay yet more.
Leaving everything to the market has rarely worked anyway, but housing in particular has been a disaster in the UK: any area with job growth has seen house prices and rents rise far more steeply than wages can ever hope to. The amount of social housing in the United Kingdom has steadily declined, as homelessness, rent arrears and destitution have risen.
Walking through any large city, whether London, Belfast, Cardiff or Manchester, you will see dozens of people huddled in shop doorways under blankets each morning. Yet more people are “hidden homeless”: families in temporary accommodation, or sofa-surfing while attempting to scrabble together a deposit for a room.
Even relatively affluent young professionals find home ownership is out of their reach without considerable parental help: the question of what happens in turn when increasing numbers of people reach retirement age having re-mortgaged to help their children buy homes looms ever closer and further threatens our shaky economy.
Housing is working for barely anyone, bar the super-rich and private landlords: just as we have a right to good quality healthcare in the UK, so too should we have a right to affordable, good quality housing. The cost of homelessness, housing benefit and poor housing is incalculable: building more social housing cuts down the housing benefit bill, provides rent which is reinvested in the community by the local authorities that own the homes, and majorly reduces the financial cost resulting from poor mental and physical health when families are forced to live in poor housing.
A small outlay to rebuild our social housing stock will drastically reduce expenditure in the long term and, more importantly, provide stability and prevent the huge scale human suffering our current housing system inflicts on people.
Giving renters more rights immediately will also help improve housing immediately. Whenever rent controls or increased tenants’ rights are raised, naysayers wail that doing so will cause landlords to flee the rental market. Firstly, that is a canard: if a landlord charges £1000 for a room, and you tell him from now on he can only charge £900, he won’t decide to instead earn nothing. And in the unlikely event he decides to sell his property, it doesn’t evaporate into thin air: it becomes available on the market, and the government can easily legislate to make it easier for people to buy homes to live in, rather than rent out.
Small solutions can have a big impact, and with so many people affected by the housing crisis, inaction is a social crime. If we have a right to healthcare, we should also have a right to the most fundamental of human needs: shelter. A future government that chooses to Remain can begin a mass house-building programme, remembering the success of our post-war building boom, and easily legislate to ensure the rights of tenants and ordinary families are protected when it comes to housing.
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