The causes of the housing crisis are, in a nutshell, the unchecked power of landlords, the 40-year attack on social housing and stagnant wages. The consequences are people sleeping in tents and doorways and under bridges, children in A&E with constant chest infections, poverty, debt, mental distress, and endless moving.
One of the major causes of the housing crisis is the undermining and running down of social housing. Since the introduction of Right to Buy in 1980, 1.5 million council houses have been sold, 40% of which are now rented out by private landlords. Alongside Right to Buy there has been a campaign of slurs by media and politicians against people in social housing, with other people encouraged to despise or resent them for the high rent other tenants pay.
As well as Right to Buy, many councils are knocking down large estates and redeveloping the land as high-density private housing, often purchased as an investment not a home. Tenants are usually rehoused locally but there is a loss of social housing in the area which increases the length of the waiting list. On many council bidding pages now the number of flats on offer is in the single figures, while 1.1 million households are on waiting lists.
Around 80,000 families are in temporary accommodation, sometimes for years. Routinely people are placed miles away from work and school. Some councils such as Harlow and Croyden are moving families into unsuitable converted office blocks. Councils are responding to the shortage by making it more difficult to apply. Some councils have a five-year residency condition, when it is very difficult for people who have to move continuously to stay within one boundary for five years. People are ruled to be “intentionally homeless” and so not helped for actions like moving out of a private rented flat because they couldn’t afford it, or out of a place where they were not safe.
Deregulation of the private rented sector in 1988 and 1996 means that tenants in the private sector face short-term tenancies, evictions, appalling conditions of repair and very little legal redress. The Benefit Cap in the 2012 Welfare Reform Act also meant tenants claiming housing benefit often did not receive the full amount and were forced to make up the shortfall.
There are now 4.5m households in the private rented sector, 38% (1.7m) of those have children. Private sector tenants are often assumed to consist only of young people and students, while families and real adults all buy houses. This ignores the reality that home ownership is declining and many people are now spending much or all of their lives as tenants, with bad conditions damaging their health and wellbeing. Bad conditions include damp and mould, high rents, overcrowding, frequent moves and dislocations, and increasingly eviction.
The most common cause of homelessness now is eviction by a private landlord. The housing crisis, unlike in other countries such as Spain that experienced a wave of foreclosures, is a tenants’ crisis. The massive rise in the number of people forced to sleep rough (100 new rough sleepers are pushed onto the streets every week) caused the deaths of more than 700 people last year.
In response there is a wave of organising around housing issues. Campaigns have brought about some small changes in the law, including the abolition of letting fees.
However the ongoing brutality of the housing crisis has not abated. New groups often struggle to get going as volunteers can feel overwhelmed by the desperate situations people are in.
It is difficult to get to grips with the complex procedures needed to access help from the council, which vary from place to place and change quickly. It is also difficult to build up groups amongst people who are forced to move frequently, work very long hours or have language and health difficulties. However when groups are able to cohere they are able to offer vital solidarity beyond housing, and to empower members at a deep level.
It’s in these self-organised spaces where the nuts and bolts of mutual aid can be found.
~ Fingers Malone
Radical housing groups
- Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty
- Living Rent (Scotland)
- Brighton Solfed Housing Union
- Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth
- Haringey Housing Group
- London Renters Union
- Streets Kitchen
This article was written for the Winter 2019/20 issue of Freedom Journal.