Workers in the UK are suffering a severe housing crisis that is only set to get worse. Laurel Fogarty, Kingston Socialist Party, explains how a landlord-friendly Tory government is turning this crisis into a disaster for millions of households.
The UK’s housing sector is teetering on the edge of a catastrophic collapse, reflected in the desperate shortage of good quality, affordable homes.
What began in 1980 with Margaret Thatcher’s decimation of social housing stock, has reached fever pitch as Cameron’s Tory government pushes forward with its myopic Housing Bill.
The bill, passed in January and now headed to the House of Lords, extends Thatcher’s disastrous ‘right to buy’ policy, adds a ‘pay to stay’ policy for council tenants, eliminates secure council tenancy, and makes it easier for landlords to evict vulnerable tenants.
19% of English households now live in privately rented accommodation, rising to an expected 25% by 2025. Among the under 40s more than half will be privately renting by then.
As the amount of social housing available declined over recent decades a growing number of people on low incomes, those receiving housing benefit and those who have been homeless, are forced into the private rental market.
As reliance on renting from private landlords rockets, the quality of the homes being rented is falling. Around 30% of privately rented homes do not meet the government’s decent homes standard with 16% of those homes posing serious risks to tenants, according to homelessness charity Crisis.
The private sector is spectacularly failing to supply the people who need it most with high quality, low cost, secure housing.
Those who cannot afford to buy and are not in the shrinking number of secure council tenancies are stuck paying over the odds for insecure rented accommodation.
In 2014 nearly 42,000 families were evicted from their homes – 115 a week. Many of these evictions, especially in London, were motivated by the landlord’s desire to sell housing estates or to build luxury (and unaffordable) housing developments to be sold to wealthy investors.
The housing bill makes this easier by creating new ‘fast track’ evictions that can be used when landlords claim a property has been abandoned.
Landlords are not required to prove abandonment in court and are required to send just two letters to the property when tenants fall behind on rent.
Tenants who fall behind on rent, regardless of the reason, will have no way to challenge greedy landlords who want them out and may face eviction and homelessness with little notice. This is open to extreme abuse by landlords who want rid of tenants who get housing benefit to help cover their rent, and who might fall behind in rent because of benefit delays or sanctions.
Despite the need for over 300,000 new homes a year to meet the housing needs of low and middle-income workers, the 2010-2015 Con-Dem government achieved just over 100,000 houses (public and private) a year. Fewer houses were built in 2010 than in any year since World War Two.
But Labour’s track record is as bad. The Blair and Brown Labour governments only built 7,870 council houses over the course of 13 years. Considerably fewer than under Margaret Thatcher’s tenure.
Determined to keep up its abysmal record, the Tory government’s Housing Bill will force councils to prioritise building what Cameron describes as ‘starter homes’ over increasing the supply of social housing.
These starter homes will cost up to £450,000 in London and £250,000 elsewhere. They will be completely unaffordable for households on the minimum wage in 98% of council areas around the UK, and in the south of England starter homes will be unaffordable for anyone on or below the median wage of £22,000 a year.
The bill extends Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’, a scheme that decimated the supply of social housing in the1980s. Now housing association tenants as well as direct council tenants will be able to buy their houses for a discount.
The discount will be funded by forcing the sale of valuable local authority properties. Although the government has yet to define ‘valuable’ properties, the scheme is unlikely to cover its cost.
Crisis estimates that 20-40% of houses sold under right to buy have become privately rented properties. These mainly cater for low-income households but at increased rents. In turn, this higher rent means that more tenants need housing benefit to cover their costs and stay in their homes.
Everyone should have a right to good quality, safe and secure housing. The solution to the housing crisis is clear: freely available secure tenancy in high quality social housing that is run for social good, not for profit.
We desperately need a massive campaign of social housing building to provide much needed homes and a genuine safety net for those faced with eviction and homelessness.
The private sector is run for ridiculous profit at our expense and must be regulated. Democratically set caps on rent must be imposed immediately to curb the greed of buy-to-let landlords and to allow families to live in housing that is fit for purpose and affordable.
It was positive that Jeremy Corbyn in his leadership manifesto pledged to scrap the Bedroom Tax, lower rents and introduce rent controls on private landlords, extend security for tenants and ensure good quality housing.
But to achieve this we need a militant mass struggle for housing rights that unites housing campaigners and workers, backed by trade unions.
Occupations, eviction resistance and mass demonstrations will be crucial in challenging the housing crisis.
In the fight to eradicate homelessness and poverty, we need a socialist government for the millions, not the millionaires. Such a government, as part of an overall democratic plan of production, would nationalise the banks and major construction companies to fund and build the homes we need.
What we say:
- Kill the Housing Bill
- Rent controls
- Mass council house building
- Councils should stop cuts and build council housing like Liverpool’s socialist council did in the 1980s
- Lifetime tenancies
- End social cleansing
- Axe the bedroom tax
- Nationalise the banks along with major building companies and land