by Natalie Bennett
Two excellent speakers yesterday at the Camden Green Party members’ meeting, Grace Livingstone, tenant activist at Holly Lodge, and Robert Taylor of the Camden Federation of Private Tenants.
One foci of the discussion was the coming changes in housing benefit. Grace said that we were facing homelessness and insecurity on a scale not seen in our lifetimes, with the poorest and most isolated most vulnerable. A campaign of vilification that sought to brand all benefit recipients as “scroungers” was making people even more reluctant to come forward and make their case, yet more than 90% of recipients in Camden are in work, being in private rental housing with high rents. “The obvious solutions are either to put a cap on rent, or to provide more social housing.” (The facts behind a celebrated case of demonisation were highlighted by Camden member Alan Wheatley.)
In a report dated September 2010, Camden Council stated that out of 29,485 Housing Benefit claimants, 3,135 people claimed Local Housing Allowance (LHA) and the changes will affect 2,241 of these who live in private rented homes.
The housing benefit will be reduced to the 30th percentile of average local rents (from the 50th). There will be a cap on total benefits that would, Robert said, hit households south of the Euston Road particularly hard. (The limits will be 1 bed £250, 2 bed £290, 3 bed £340, 4 bed £400 = maximum for any size of property.) Also the single home rate (rather than payment for a room in a shared house) will start at age 35, not 25, as it does now. Additionally, while rental inflation is now 8-10%, housing benefit will only raise by the CPI rate, usually 2-3%.
The reductions have begun now for new claimants, and will start to effect existing claimants from January 2012 (hitting people on the anniversary of their claim). Then from October 2017 the benefit is planned to be rolled into the new “universal credit” – and will be determined centrally, rather than by council.
Another key issue in the discussion were planned changes to council housing that would make council tenancies almost as insecure and uncertain as private rentals, allowing rental terms of just two years, and allowing only people most in need to even join the waiting list.
Grace said: “This is further stigmatising council tenants. The coalition – and Labour also did it too – like to talk about tenants as ‘the underclass’. One MP likes to say that 70% of council tenants are unemployed, but in fact more than half of those are pensioners, about 35% of the total. Of the remainder, one third are unemployed, but a lot of those are disabled people and carers; only 6% are on Job Seekers’ Allowance.”
The current Localism Bill, before parliament, allows councils to only have two-year tenancies for their housing, but it will be up to councils to decide if they want to use the provision. Cambridge and Islington councils have already pledged not to, and Grace said she very much hoped Camden would do the same. “One urgent task is to let the public know what impact these changes will have.”
Grace noted that in the 1970s one-third of the households in England lived in council housing, but that’s now only 7%, with 19% in social housing ( and housing associations have higher rents and less security. The government is now making housing associations more like private companies and wants to introduce rents of 80% of the market rates.) According to the English Housing Survey 2009-10 figures: 67.4% of households are owners, 17% social renters, 15.6% private renters.
Robert noted that in Camden the official figures showed that the number of private tenant households (27%) had just overtaken the number of council tenants (26%). “But officers say that figure could be up to 35% – it is clear that this sector is getting considerably bigger. It is not going to go away and has to be dealt with.”
On the national scale Camden has the third-highest number of private tenants, after Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea.
He said there was a cultural problem. After WWI 90% of households rented, but the culture of home ownership had gradually developed. The government saw private rentals as part of a ‘housing journey’ on the way to becoming an owner. The same idea was being applied to council housing, something supplied in a crisis from which people moved on.
Consequently the structure of assured shorthold tenancy provided for contracts of six or 12 months, which could then be renewed or not; it isn’t seen as a permanent housing solution. (And landlords like annual contracts because they expect to raise rents every year.) “Also, if there is a problem with the landlord, rentors just move on, so the problem never gets dealt with.
“If you stay in one place for some time there should be accrued rights, but now the landlord need only issue a Section 21 notice, then the tenant has only two months to leave and it can’t be contested. Older tenants in particular are often terrified by the insecurity. And if they complain, ‘retaliatory eviction’ is a very real concern.”
“About 30% of Camden’s population changes on an annual basis. How can services be planned on that basis? And people don’t put roots down; don’t feel part of the community. (As this research shows.)
“And there’s been a big change in the past 10 years, with most lettings now done by agents rather than landlords. They like to charge fees for everything, including breathing. You can have to pay out a couple of hundred pounds before you even get to the rent. There is no regulation or licencing of letting agent. Housing management is a profession job, yet anyone with a phone and an office can set up in the business.”
Among the other issues raised was empty homes. Robert noted that Camden council has only one empty housing officer who has to deal with a number of very complicated situations to bring a relatively small number of empty homes back into use.
Camden Green Party agreed to push for a Camden policy not to use the powers in the Localism Bill for new tenants to have limited security of tenure. Green Cllr Maya de Souza added: “Our discussion also highlighted the fact that the housing benefit changes could force poorer residents out of Camden, into the fringes of London. This will mean the low-paid will have to live further from their jobs, making their lives extremely difficult.”