photo IDuke/CC, photo Duke/CC

photo IDuke/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Jack Jeffrey, homelessness worker and Unite union rep

The government often claims to have housed 90% of homeless people during the pandemic through the ‘Everybody In’ scheme. Working for a homeless service in Westminster, I know this to be a lie.

The chaotic response by national government, and the culture created by years of its ‘hostile environment’ for migrants, meant many of those with immigration issues were wrongly turned away by local authorities. In addition, anyone who became homeless during lockdown has found normal services restricted, day centres closed, and only some of the soup runs and food drops still operating.

Everybody in… for how long?

Despite this, the ‘Everybody In’ project has helped many rough sleepers access accommodation. For many of my clients, it has enabled them to engage with physical and mental health services, tackle substance abuse, and start to practise self-care.

Who would have thought that the answer to homelessness would be so simple as to give everyone a home!

When this hotel scheme finishes, people will need continuing support and accommodation, or we risk losing these hard-won gains in their lives. To do this, we have to first properly fund support services.

Homelessness services are funded mostly through local government, and have been hit badly during austerity, losing nearly £1 billion a year in funding since 2010. This has led to a loss of 9,000 supported bed spaces, and an 18% cut in ‘floating’ support services to help people maintain their tenancies.

This is against a backdrop of rising homelessness – with an increase in rough sleeping of 169% since 2010.

Renters need (real)payment holidays

Any attempt to deal with homelessness also needs to address our broken housing system, which embeds insecurity into people’s lives. Private rental sector eviction has become the main cause of homelessness since 2012, overtaking relationship breakdown.

This is due to the combination of increasing precariousness in employment, including through zero-hour contracts and the gig economy, together with the housing crisis. Without radical change the problem is only likely to get worse.

In an effort to stop a wave of homelessness, the government placed an official stay on all evictions until 23 August. But all this has done is postpone the crisis – and never mind slum landlords who ignore the law. Research by Generation Rent found private sector arrears have more than tripled from 4% to 13% during the pandemic.

The government was quick to announce temporary mortgage ‘holidays’ for homeowners – which in this case means deferring repayments rather than cancelling them. Mortgage payments are finite and you own the house at the end – rent payments are indefinite with no claim on ownership.

So private renters need a real payment holiday, with their rents written off for the period they can’t afford, to avoid being pushed over a cliff edge. This has already happened in Ithaca, a city in New York State in the US, which voted to cancel rent arrears accrued during the pandemic. Compensation will be provided to small landlords or those in financial need, with large profitable landlords expected to take the burden.

Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour had a similar policy. However, Keir Starmer quickly changed this to forcing renters to pay back any arrears within two years.

This does nothing to address renters’ loss of income, or delay the eviction process. Research by ‘Open Labour’, a soft-left pressure group, found such a policy would increase rents for those in arrears by around 12%. With the Office for National Statistics reporting rents hitting record highs in June, it seems unlikely already-stretched private renters will be able to make this up.

Housing associations: help or hindrance?

The majority of housing associations have their origins in the state’s failure to deal with repeated housing crises through Britain’s history. With vast reserves of around £4 billion, you might think they could play a key role in solving homelessness.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Although it is harder to evict people in social housing, it isn’t through associations’ lack of trying. More than half of all eviction notices are served by social landlords.

Shamefully, in April, in the midst of the pandemic, housing associations raised rents by an average of 2.7%. They now behave like private companies, searching for profit, not organisations that care about their tenants.

This is also reflected in their executive pay packets. There is no way chief executives like London and Quadrant’s David Montague – on a salary of £335,704 – can identify with the life of normal tenants.

Any answer to the housing crisis involves moving away from the precarious private rented sector. However, we cannot trust housing associations to deliver this. Social housing should be accountable and run for the interest of its tenants. This structure already exists in local authorities – which despite years of making attacks on their own council housing stock, still manage around one million households.

Local authorities must fight back

Subject to a modicum of democratic control, councils also possess the power to build the 340,000 new homes a year – which is what the National Housing Federation states is needed to solve the housing crisis.

With the right to set local planning policy, and the ability to compulsory-purchase land, councils are also one of Britain’s biggest landowners. A Freedom of Information request by ‘Who owns England’ found local authorities in England alone own around 1.3 million acres of land. For perspective, London – a city of around nine million – takes up around 390,000 acres.

They can and should requisition many of the 500,000 homes currently sitting empty in the UK. And they can enforce quality controls for private landlords, and help establish democratic rent caps in the private sector.

Shelter estimates local authorities spend £1 billion a year on often poor-quality temporary accommodation. As foreign student numbers are estimated to collapse, and many study from home, couldn’t empty student housing be requisitioned to provide emergency accommodation?

And it will be many years before tourist, student and business travel return. Could not some of the hotels currently being used be turned permanently into hostels to address the need for supported housing?

Set no-cuts budgets and fight for the funds!

Councils have all the tools to solve the crisis. They only lack the resources to do so.

The Tories have repeatedly shown they don’t care throughout the pandemic. Labour still has control of many local councils in the UK. Rather than building homes working-class people can’t afford, such as the Meridian Water development in Enfield, north London, they could be the example of how to move forward.

Councils face a net shortfall of at least £6 billion this year, and eight out of ten are facing local authorities’ version of bankruptcy, research by the Centre for Progressive Policy has found. But while extra spending on services during the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated this, councils have spent a decade dutifully carrying out the Tories’ cuts.

Rather than sinking without a fight, councillors need to stand up and refuse to make ordinary people pay for this government’s austerity drive: set no-cuts, needs budgets to address the housing crisis!

Action like this was taken by Liverpool’s Labour council – led by Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party – when it refused to implement Tory austerity in the 1980s. From 1984 to 1987, the city built 5,000 quality new homes.

Liverpool Council did this by asking the city’s working class what housing it wanted, then building them, and leading workers in mass demonstrations and strikes to win more funding from Westminster to cover the costs. Today, councils have huge reserves and borrowing powers they could use to fund immediate social needs alongside launching a similar campaign for more funding from central government.

Councillors must commit to this fight – or step aside for working-class fighters who will.

Private renters organise to fight

“Hackney is building” but only a small minority of the new homes are for social rent. May 2020, photo JB   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The Socialist spoke to Andrea Gilbert, a housing and homelessness activist who is co-founder of her local branch of the London Renters Union, in Putney, south-west London.

What was the impact of coronavirus on private renters?

It’s been horrific, as many people – especially those in low-paid sectors like hospitality – lost their jobs. Even those who have managed to keep their job have often been furloughed.

When you’re struggling to survive each month, to suddenly lose 20% of your wages is a big hit. Lots of people I know have had to use food banks for the first time just to feed their families.

It feels like the pandemic has exposed inequalities in housing

This is so true. If you look at the statistics, those most affected by coronavirus have overwhelmingly been from the working class and ethnic minorities. This is because they are more likely to live in overcrowded, poorly ventilated, low-quality accommodation.

These are also the groups that have lost out the most over Wandsworth Council’s attempts at regeneration. Local projects in Roehampton and Winstanley were meant to help deprived areas, but have ended up just forcing local people out.

The projects average only 23% social housing, and the properties for sale are way out of reach of local people. A two-bed property in the Roehampton regeneration starts at £600,000!

Has the government done anything to help private renters during the pandemic?

Nothing beyond pausing evictions. It feels like the whole system is set up to subsidise landlords. They’ve agreed to allow mortgage holders to pause their repayments but have done nothing to help renters.

To be honest, I always expected this from a Tory government, but the person I am most disappointed in is Keir Starmer. There’s proven links between poverty, poor-quality accommodation and vulnerability to coronavirus. He should have been out there fighting for people.

Instead, with no consultation, he scrapped Labour’s previous plans to protect private renters during the pandemic – and now is saying any arrears have to be paid back over two years! If you’re already struggling to pay rent, where does he think people will get this money from to pay back arrears – when we’re due to face the biggest recession since the Great Depression?

For me, all the main political parties feel completely out of touch with private renters.

What have you been campaigning for in the London Renters Union?

We have been campaigning for cancelling rent and arrears accrued due to coronavirus. We’ve also been resisting evictions and exposing landlords who refuse to do basic maintenance and repairs.

What can be done to improve the private rented sector?

Longer, fixed tenancies, and more legal protection for renters would help, but as long as we have a system based on profit we’ll struggle to make big changes. I think the only real way to solve this would be a mass campaign of building social housing.

Everyone should have a secure tenancy at an affordable rent. Housing should be a right, not a privilege, and no one should have to face homelessness because of poverty.

Unfortunately, this government doesn’t seem interested, and I don’t have much hope in the current leadership of the Labour Party. So it’s going to be us who have to organise to change things!

Domestic violence: victims need homes and services now

Doncaster Women's Lives Matter protest June 2020, photo Amy Cousens

Doncaster Women’s Lives Matter protest June 2020, photo Amy Cousens   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Amy Cousens, Bradford Socialist Party

Austerity measures have cut off roads of support and means to escape. Austerity is directly responsible for women’s deaths. And as soon as the lockdown started, domestic violence rates soared.

During the first month of lockdown, three times more women were murdered by their partners than in the same month in 2019. One woman, Victoria Woodhall, was stabbed to death, in broad daylight, in her street, in front of her children, by her husband.

26 women and girls have been murdered since the start of lockdown, and counting. In Doncaster, four women were murdered in less than a month.

Domestic violence organisations entered this crisis with a lack of bed spaces and severely declining funds. Last year, 60% of applications to refuges had to be refused due to lack of space.

Wuhan in China saw a tripling of domestic violence cases in its first month of lockdown. So the government and councils must have known this was coming, and did nothing. 262 refuge bed spaces are currently closed, because the organisations have not been given extra funds to put measures in place to ensure they can open safely.

During the lockdown, the government has announced a variety of figures promised to domestic violence organisations to support their work. Initially the Tories announced a figure of £37 million, but the New York Times reported on 2 July that between them, the various organisations had received just £1 million of this.

The Tories are happy to provide handouts to big business costing the public purse billions, but will not ensure the safety of women’s lives. A mass campaign is needed to win back the money taken from our refuges, and to ensure that women and all domestic violence victims have the means and accommodation they need to be safe.

Reverse all cuts to domestic violence services – and wider council services. Social work, adult education and language services, among others, can all be crucial in helping women escape abusive relationships. Living wages and benefits and free education at all levels are also important to guarantee independence.

And most of all, victims need somewhere to escape to. Councils should seize empty homes now, and embark on a mass programme of council house building. Private accommodation must be subject to democratic rent caps and fully enforced quality standards.