Paul Kershaw, Unite LE1111 housing branch
All the indicators of homelessness are on the rise. The number of children living in temporary accommodation has risen by nearly 10,000 in the last 12 months. One in 25 children in London are now homeless. Most councils believe this trend is set to continue. But homelessness statistics show just the tip of an iceberg of misery and insecurity as people struggle to find somewhere decent to live and to pay for it.
A series of grassroots housing campaigns against social cleansing and in defence of decent rented housing have caught people’s imagination – for example the campaign of the residents of the New Era estate in Hackney, east London. They give a glimpse of the growing anger at the housing crisis and the potential for housing campaigns based on action by working class people.
The mainstream parties have to respond to this anger and talk about housing but they have no solutions – their commitment to cuts and big business policies make that impossible.
The housing workers branch of Unite the Union has produced a short housing manifesto summarising Unite policy. It starts with opposition to the cuts and points to a real solution, including building council homes, capping rents and nationalising the banks.
The branch is encouraging its members to challenge election candidates to support it. TUSC has endorsed the manifesto. Unfortunately – despite Unite’s massive funding of Labour nationally – these demands are a long way from Labour’s policy. At a local level Unite conference policy pledges to support Labour councillors who oppose cuts – sadly most act as little more than a transmission belt for government cuts.
Far too few new homes are being built. One of the first actions of the Con-Dem coalition government was a 60% cut in the social housing grant. None of the major parties calls for reversing this cut.
It is estimated that at least 240,000 new homes per year are needed just to keep pace with the growth of new households, let alone dealing with the backlog. Labour has set the aim of building just 200,000 homes per year by the fifth year of a new government.
So even if this was achieved, the housing shortage would still be getting worse after five years. Members of the Lyons commission – set up to by Labour to advise on its housing policy – have been reported as doubting whether even this is possible in the context of austerity.
Scandalously, rather than supporting more genuinely affordable and secure housing, Labour councils have been behind ‘regeneration’ schemes which result in reductions of social housing.
Time and time again this ‘regeneration’ is carried out without proper consultation and in a way designed not to benefit local working class people but to drive them out of areas they have inhabited for generations. Most of the anti ‘social cleansing’ campaigns have had to fight Labour councils – a grim warning of what to expect from a Labour government.
Nothing to offer
If there was any doubt, a host of Labour luminaries contributed to the recent IPPR think tank’s report ‘City Villages’ which advocates working with property developers to redevelop inner city estates. The report ignores the question of what homes Londoners can actually afford.
The recent ‘Strategic Housing Market Assessment’ demonstrated that 52% of households in housing need cannot afford market rate homes – Labour has nothing to offer them.
Unite – and TUSC – policy of supporting a massive programme of council house building is essential. The ‘big four’ property developers are sitting on enough land to immediately build 1.4 million homes. Their profits have risen by 557% since 2010. The wealth, including land, of the super-rich 1% should be nationalised and used for common good such as social housing, with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need.
As increasing numbers are forced to live in the private rented sector permanently, rather than a temporary staging post, affordability and security are more important.
Homelessness due to the end of ‘short hold’ tenancies (the most common private renting tenancy) is on the rise, now accounting for 30% of all homeless ‘acceptances.’ That is an increase of 26% since the end of 2013. As an immediate measure, we need rent control in the private sector.
People need homes – and that means people will fight for them. There have been occupations and demonstrations by angry tenants and strikes by angry workers. Those campaigners need a voice at the ballot box.
If a mass party campaigned on policies to change things in favour of the 99% rather than supporting big business, banks and property developers, it would get a massive echo. This May only TUSC can be a platform for what working class people are fighting for on estates and outside town halls across the country.
The Tories want to sell off housing association homes in a repeat of the council house ‘right to buy’ policy. Begun under Tory Prime minister Thatcher and continued under Labour, 1.78 million council homes were sold and not replaced. We need more social housing not less!
Children living in bad housing are more than twice as likely to suffer poor health and almost twice as likely to leave school without any GCSEs
- 43% – income on average spent on rent by private renters
- 1 million empty homes in England
- Children living in bad housing are more than twice as likely to suffer poor health and almost twice as likely to leave school without any GCSEs
- 1 in 12 families in England on social housing waiting lists
- 39% of new builds sold in 2013 were to live in, the rest for investment
“We’re really struggling”
Nancy Taaffe, TUSC parliamentary candidate for Walthamstow
The stories of Sandra and Laura Sharpe sum up the effect of the housing crisis on every generation.
I first met Sandra in 2013. She’s a disabled woman living in Leytonstone, east London. When the Con-Dems announced the introduction of the ‘bedroom tax’ – cutting the housing benefit of social housing tenants deemed to have too many bedrooms – the Socialist Party sprang into action on Sandra’s estate.
She told me about her family’s history of fighting to hang on to their homes – she remembers her mum barricading them in against the bailiffs when Sandra was young. That spirit had stuck with her and she was prepared to do the same and refuse to move.
Sandra was always willing to move to a smaller house which was more suitable for her needs, but was desperate not to leave her community and the support network of friends and family it contained. Then the council started threatening her with eviction because of the arrears she’d accrued by refusing to pay the shortfall on her rent created by the bedroom tax.
We’ve been with Sandra from the start and never given up. I’ve gone to the housing office with her numerous times, we’ve organised protests for her and made sure she’s been at meetings where she can challenge local politicians. After all this campaigning, she’s now in a nice new flat close to her old estate and the arrears are not being chased.
I also put her in touch with Wally Kennedy, the TUSC candidate for Ruislip Northwood & Pinner. Wally helped get Sandra re-categorised for council tax benefit and now she doesn’t have to pay any for a year.
Recently, Sandra introduced me to her daughter Laura. Laura now lives in Ilford, with her partner and four year old daughter. In January 2014 she started a new part time job in Westminster. Her partner was working full time.
Because of cuts to her housing benefit, she had fallen into rent arrears on her privately rented home in Walthamstow and was evicted in July. She had to take time off work to take documents to the council and to move house. Because of this time off while still on probation at the new job, Laura was sacked.
Laura said: “even before I lost the job and got evicted we were struggling. My daughter was entitled to 15 hours of free childcare but that wasn’t enough. I had to find a nursery around the corner from my mum’s. I would drop her at mum’s in the morning, my mum would take her to nursery at 1, pick her up at 4 and then I’d pick her up after work. If it wasn’t for my mum, what would I have done?”
Laura went to Waltham Forest council who put her into temporary accommodation – which she’s still in eight months later. The rent is £190 a week and the property is managed by letting agents Whitworth’s.
The house has a blocked drain, bad mould in the toilet, the toilet leaks, the garden is a mess and the back fence is falling down. Whitworth’s said this would be sorted as soon as Laura and her family moved in but they’re still waiting. The day before I visited, her partner had lost a day’s pay to stay home waiting for a promised visit to carry out work – nobody came.
After contacting the letting agent about the repairs, Laura was told by the council that she’s in rent arrears again – around £400. She told me: “they only told me when I called about something else. If I hadn’t, when would I have been told? It would have just got higher and higher until I definitely couldn’t pay.”
It’s still not clear how the arrears have come about as Laura’s housing benefit was calculated at £190 a week – enough to cover all her rent.
“We’re really struggling, especially with me not working. We’ve had to borrow money from friends to try and get by. Now the landlord’s put the rent up.
“When I first went to the council they said they could help me get a part rent-part buy place. How’s that going to happen when I don’t have money for a deposit, I’m not working and they don’t accept housing benefit? And I can’t afford to go back to private renting – if I could then I wouldn’t have lost the one bedroom place I had before. We need a council house.”
The Socialist Party will do our best to highlight Laura’s case and help her like we did her mum. But what about all those people who don’t have our help? We need urgent action to provide enough decent, affordable homes for all those who need them. That’s part of what TUSC is fighting for in these elections.
Fighting exploitation at universities
In universities up and down the country one issue is coming to the fore among the myriad of problems facing students – finding adequate housing.
Spend a day at any university asking students about their experiences when it comes to housing, I can say with confidence that they can produce a multitude of horror stories either for themselves or friends. Students are seen as walking pound signs by unscrupulous landlords and rogue letting agencies.
However students are getting organised and fighting back. Student groups at Birmingham and Edinburgh universities have set up housing cooperatives to create a fairer alternative.
At Coventry University our housing campaign is calling for a student union-run letting agency (which York Socialist Students has already won), a mandatory accreditation scheme for all housing providers and a student-run tenants union. The campaign, led by Socialist Students, has been a pole of attraction for students looking for a platform to voice their grievances and students attracted to socialist ideas.
All students, like everyone else, need a roof over their heads. Tenants unions, housing cooperatives and advocacy groups empower tenants to take action. If coordinated action is organised on the campuses we could see landlord exploitation of students and others being overturned.
Kristian O’Sullivan, Coventry Socialist Students
Vote for decent homes
The local election platform of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) includes pledges that candidates will:
- Use councils’ powers to compulsorily register private landlords and set-up council-run lettings agencies, as the means to tackle repair standards, high rents, over-occupancy, extortionate letting fees etc for private rented homes.
- Build council homes now. By using councils’ borrowing powers for capital spending to build council homes, while campaigning for the government to divert its subsidy for private developers to finance a mass programme of public housing.
The Socialist Party demands:
- Rent control now! Democratic rent councils to decide fair levels in each area
- A mass programme of council house building and renovation to meet demand
- Hands off our homes! Bring all ex-council housing association stock and housing services back in-house
- Housing benefits that reflect the real cost of renting
- Councils should use their compulsory purchase powers on long term empty properties and use them as council housing
- A new mass workers’ party to fight for affordable housing for all. Support TUSC’s candidates in May’s general and local elections to fight for these policies
- Nationalise the banks and biggest corporations. For a democratic socialist society that puts the needs of the majority, including decent, affordable housing, before the profits of the tiny minority