Sunday, April 14, 2019

British Slums

There are the new slums of Britain – a tenure of unsafe and unaffordable housing with few routes out. The people trapped here would have once have had the chance of moving into relatively spacious, well-equipped council homes at genuinely affordable rents. But, due to the failure of successive governments to build enough social housing, that is an option open only for a vanishingly small minority of people in the most extreme circumstances. According to housing charity Shelter, there are there are more than 1.1 million households on social housing waiting lists in England. Fewer than 273,000 homes at social rents, which are typically half of market rents, were made available in 2017/18 – a difference of more than 840,000 homes. Under the government’s current affordable homes programme, which runs until 2022, only 12,500 new social rent homes are planned. 

Research into the private rental sector by Julie Rugg and David Rhodes, shows that 90% of the 1.4 million households renting on low incomes in England are being put at risk by harmful living conditions and/or pushed further into poverty and possible eviction by rents they cannot afford. 

Nearly 30% are living in non-decent homes, 10% are living in overcrowded properties and 85% are in “after housing cost poverty”, which means their rent pushes them below the poverty line.

“Worryingly the evidence tells us there is a growing residual slum tenure for private rented-sector households on low incomes, whose needs are being neglected by policymakers,” says Rugg, from York University. “Poorer renters are much more likely to be living with damp, disrepair and sometimes life-threatening hazards – as well as rents they can only pay by cutting back on essentials like food or heating.”

Rugg and Rhodes – who carried out a major government-backed review of the sector in 2008, with an update last year – blame welfare reforms, which have pushed housing benefit and the housing element of universal credit below even the cheapest private rents on offer in 90% of the country. This, coupled with ongoing cuts to most working-age benefits and shortages of social housing, leaves renters with little option but to accept whatever they can get from landlords.

“Tenants moving in and out of low-paid jobs, dependent on an increasingly ungenerous benefit system, have few choices,” says Rugg. “They cannot vote with their feet because they cannot afford anything better and even then they are getting into arrears and living with the threat of eviction...Low-earning families with children and vulnerable individuals are better placed in social housing, where rents are affordable and landlords have a greater social responsibility,” Rugg says. “We cannot expect a commercial, profit-driven sector to cater for their needs.”

Rugg and Rhodes’s research also shows that all the low-income households in the private rented sector have recorded one or more vulnerabilities, including long-term health conditions or dependents. Just under half have children and just over half are entitled to means-tested benefits. Around one in 10 is disabled and 18% are migrants.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, explained “Councils and housing associations cannot at the moment build the homes needed to help all those trapped in the insecure and unaffordable private rented accommodation.”

Weston-super-Mare typifies many of these problems. Just over 44% of the homes in the town’s two most deprived seafront neighbourhoods are privately rented and there is a concentration of 163 dangerous and poorly managed bedsits. More than 32% of the rented housing in these wards are classed as non-decent, with more than 18% containing the most harmful hazards such as extreme cold, unsafe electrics and fire risks. Hundreds apply to North Somerset council for social housing every month. They join an ever lengthening waiting list that currently stands at 3,370 families. Yet only 600 homes become available each year. This is unlikely to improve as no new homes at social rents have been built in North Somerset since at least 2015. Despite well-documented problems with the town’s rental sector, North Somerset council decided not to introduce a licensing scheme for all landlords in the two worst affected wards in 2016. Nor has the Conservative-controlled authority prosecuted a single landlord for housing offences since 2015.

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