The benefits of housing benefit

I feel the same way about housing benefit that Millwall fans feel about their football club, no one likes it and I don’t care.

On the left wing of politics housing benefit is called “‘taxpayers’ subsidies to landlords” while the right talk about how spending on housing benefit is ‘out of control‘.

Despite arguments by some, the fact is that housing benefit is here to stay. Because;

  • It stops people who lose their jobs from being evicted
  • It pays for the rent of people who rely on state pension or disability benefits for income
  • It funds a big chunk of the cost of building new social housing (because housing associations or councils borrow for part of the cost of this housing against future rents, which partly come from housing benefit)

Perhaps most importantly, the reason house benefit is hear to stay is because it accounts for a significant proportion of the income of poorer households.

This chart shows the percentage of poorer people’s income that comes from housing benefit;

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 8.09.51 PM

You might say that housing benefit isn’t really income because it goes to the landlord. This doesn’t really make any sense. It’s like saying my wage isn’t really income because it pays for my mortgage. People are getting something for this money.

None of this is to say that the current housing benefit system is perfect. Far from it. Just look at this chart which shows how much, on average, poorer people pay on rent even after housing benefit is taken into account;

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 8.15.11 PM

‘Net rent’ (ie rent costs on top of the amount paid for by housing benefit) still accounts for over 10% of the incomes of poorer people.

There are a number of problems with the current housing benefit system, including;

1. Low take up

In 2009 to 2010, the number of people that were entitled to but not claiming Housing Benefit was between 0.75 million and 1.14 million. The total amount of Housing Benefit unclaimed was between £1.85 billion and £3.10 billion.

2. Stigma

In a recent survey, 4 out of 5 landlords said they would not accept tenants who receive housing benefit. This gives even more power to landlords who do have tenants on housing benefit, because they know their tenants are not going to be able to easily shop around.

3. Paid in arrears

Like most benefits, housing benefit is paid in arrears. This can cause problems for tenants, especially if there are any delays or complications, if they can’t afford a deposit or if any other of the number of things that can go wrong with administration of a complex benefit go wrong.

These problems with housing benefit are not being addressed in contemporary political debate because housing benefit is so unloved. Perhaps it’s time to change that, for example by proposing a ‘basic income‘ for all citizens.

There’s room for everyone but will everyone benefit?

There are more and more people living in inner London. Some residents are benefiting more than others from this trend. The principle question this raises for public policy is how to ensure that any new wealth that is created is shared more equally.

You might be surprised to hear that the population of inner London is increasing. Surely the poor and those on middle incomes are being priced out by foreign billionaires! Some articles on this topic remind me of the old joke about New York, no one drives, there are too many cars.

Robbie de Santos‘s piece for Changing London is too nuanced to fall into this trap. In it he argues that, in rapidly gentrifying areas, more should be done to provide housing that households on £30-45,000 per year can afford.

Dave Hill at the Guardian has already pointed out that it might be controversial to argue for increasing spending on shared ownership housing when the amount being spent on social housing has been cut so dramatically.

In addition to this we need to remember that the population of inner London is increasing. As a result there are now actually more people on middle incomes living in inner London than previously.

This chart (all data from the 2001 and 2011 census) shows the significant increase in the number of people in ‘intermediate occupations’ living in a few inner London boroughs.

chart7

 

Here is a similar chart for people in ‘higher managerial’ jobs;

chart6Here is a similar chart for people in ‘routine’ jobs

chart8

 

This is what the overall picture looks like.

chart9

 

Although some people on middle incomes may be being priced out of inner London, overall the number of people on middle incomes living in inner London is increasing, as is the number of people on high incomes, and on low incomes.

How is the increased population of inner London being housed? Robbie will be glad to see that there has been an increase in the numbers living in shared ownership, although this still accounts for a very small number of people.

chart2 (3)

 

There has certainly not been a general increase in the number of people who own their own home (although those that do have, on paper, in general made a lot of money).

chart1 (10)

 

And there has been a noticeable and much commented upon decrease in the number of people who rent from housing associations or local authorities.

chart3 (1)

 

Most importantly, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people who rent privately (lots of these will be houses that have been split into flats).

chart4 (1)

 

This chart puts the rise in private renting into perspective.

chart5 (2)

 

The story then is not so much that people on middle incomes are being prices out of the inner London boroughs (although some may be and more may be being priced out of certain neighbourhoods within these boroughs).

In fact, there are more people on middle incomes living in the inner London boroughs but they are more likely to being renting privately than people on similar incomes would have been a decade ago. This means that rising house prices do not benefit them and in fact probably harm them, since their rents go up.

Robbie’s argument is not only that people on middle incomes are increasingly being priced out, but also that this has a negative impact on community life and the diversity of businesses in an area. This is an interesting argument. I am not sure that the splits between tenures by itself, can guarantee much about community life, which is as much a result of interaction and institutions as it is a result of population composition.

However, if we look that the situation in terms of how the new wealth that has been created by the increased population can be shared more fairly perhaps we get different answers (some earlier thoughts from me on a related topic can be found here). For example, we might start thinking about how newly built houses can be part of community land trusts, so that increased housing wealth is invested in the community and does not just go into the hands of the owners. Similarly, there may be a case for more flexible local property taxes and co-operative ownership of local businesses.

Who knows how long the current increase in population in inner London will last. As long as it does the key questions are how we can build enough houses so that rents do not force people into poverty and overcrowding and how we can spread the newly created wealth so that everyone, not just home owners, benefit.

 

Gentrification is not for everyone

Something, like nothing, happens anywhere, Larkin once wrote.

He wasn’t writing about gentrification but perhaps the sentiment applies.

Many writers are tempted to suggest that examples of gentrification and displacement in certain London neighbourhoods tells us a lot about what is happening throughout London.

For a classic example of this genre see this recent piece in the NewStateman.

A recent piece in The Atlantic makes quite a different argument, claiming that in 22 of the 55 biggest cities in America, including San Diego, Charlotte, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Detroit, gentrification affected 5 or less percent of all neighbourhoods.

What’s the situation in London? How widespread is gentrification?

Here is a map of London in 2011. Neighbourhoods that are dark red have a higher percentage of residents that work in routine or semi-routine occupations (all data from the census).

routine2011

Here is a map of London in 2001.

2001routine

The picture is pretty clear. In large parts of East and West London and parts of North and South London there are lots of neighbourhoods where a large number of people work in routine or semi-routine jobs.

However, in inner London, near the Thames and to the West, there are neighbourhoods in which there are very few residents who work in routine jobs.

In contrast, here is a map of London in 2011. The neighbourhoods that are coloured darker blue are home to a higher percentage of residents that work in senior management positions.

managers2011

Here is a map of London in 2001.

2001managers

Again, the picture is pretty clear.  In Inner West London and bit of suburbs in the North and South there are neighbourhoods in which there are quite a high percentage of residents who work as senior managers. In large parts of East and West London there are numerous neighbourhoods in which very few residents work in senior management positions.

In both cases, what is striking is not an image of constant change but of continuity.

So what? It’s probably no surprise to anyone that Barking and Dagenham has lots of residents that work in routine jobs and Kensington & Chelsea has lots of senior managers.

A few observations follow;

  • Even if you believe that attracting new rich residents to your neighbourhood is the best way of regenerating it, ultimately this strategy cannot work for most neighbourhoods in London because there simply aren’t enough rich people to go round.
  • Gentrification is a curious mixture of the global and the local. International developments such as the march of the knowledge economy interact with specific neighbourhood traits such as transport infrastructure. This probably means that well resourced Local Authorities are best positioned to be the principle public agency that manages the process of gentrification (not national or city government) and to ensure that any wealth created can be shared equally.
  • Perhaps most importantly, we need strategies of neighbourhood improvement and community development that rely on building on the strengths in working class neighbourhoods since these will always be a large part of London life.

Crowded house

In the rush to condemn the so-called ‘Bedroom tax’ some commentators have been tempted to down play the problem of overcrowded housing in England.

Using the so-called ‘bedroom standard’ (more details on that measure here) there were, at the time of the last census, over a million households living in overcrowded accommodation.

This is a serious policy problem. Living in overcrowded accommodation is bad for your health and your wellbeing.

There are at least three things worth bearing in mind about overcrowding in England.

1. Overcrowding is a massive problem in London

This map (made from the census data here) shows overcrowding in different neighbourhoods of London. The darker the colour the more overcrowding there is.

London

In some areas of Newham nearly a third of households are overcrowded and the problem is not restricted to East London.

2. Overcrowding is a problem in many other cities of the UK

While people often claim that there is only a housing problem in London and the South East, this is not the case with overcrowding. This map shows overcrowding in England.

England

You can just about see that there are darker coloured sections in most towns.

For example, here is a map of overcrowding in areas of Birmingham.

Birmingham

And Sheffield

Sheffield

And even Stoke-on-Trent (which has quite affordable housing by English standards).

Stoke

As you can see from these maps, while cities outside of London do not have as systemic a problem with overcrowding as the capital, it is still a problem for a sizeable number of people in different neighbourhoods of our major cities.

Over 20% of households in Washwood Heath in Birmingham are overcrowded and 13% in Hanley Park in Stoke and Burngreave in Sheffield.

3. In most overcrowded areas there are a number of under used houses, although these are mostly privately owned

A large part of the solution to this problem, as to quite a few housing problems, would be to build more houses.

Having said that, there are a large number of under used houses, even in areas with a large number of overcrowded households.

chart1 (9)

In Green Street East in Newham over 10% of houses have 2 or more spare bedrooms, while 35% are overcrowded.

In Washwood Heath in Birmingham 23% of households are overcrowded while 17% have 2 or more spare bedrooms.

In Hanley Park in Stoke and Burngreave in Sheffield there are more houses with spare bedrooms than there are overcrowded houses.

The problem for those who have proposed the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ as a solution to overcrowding is that most of the houses with spare bedrooms in are not social housing they are privately owned, as this chart from Savills makes clear.

underooccupancyIf we want to solve the problem of overcrowding without building new homes in inner cities but instead by making sure all the bedrooms in larger houses are used, we would need to think about how we can encourage home owners to use their spare bedrooms.

Organise don’t mobilise

Shelter say that there will be more than 80,000 children homeless this Christmas. What should we do about it? I’m starting to think that maybe, just maybe, British comics don’t have all the answers.

You see, Russell Brand says we need a revolution in human consciousness, whereas Robert Webb says we should all vote Labour.

I suspect that neither, by themselves, would be enough. In addition, there is a need to continue to bring people together to press for and campaign on this and other housing issues.

What then is the best way of bringing people together? I am going to suggest that we should follow the example of Mumsnet and not the example of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). Why? Because the TUSC mobilises (or at least, tries to) whereas Mumsnet organises.

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, for those of you who don’t know, is a political alliance of, amongst others, the Socialist Worker Party and the RMT trade union. You can find a list of their policies (including support for building more council housing) here.

From what I can make out, their approach to bringing people together is to mobilise people who already belong to various socialist groups or trade unions and to campaign on issues by running for election.

In the 2013 Eastleigh by-election their candidate, Daz Proctor, got 62 votes just 10 short of David Bishop, the candidate for the ‘Elvis loves Pets’ party, and over 13,000 votes short of the winner.

Mumsnet do not run candidates in elections but they have a far greater influence than the TUSC. For example, after a dinner with Justine Roberts of Mumsnet  Nick Clegg came out against Conservative plans to let childminders look after a greater number of kids at any one time.

How does Mumsnet achieve this influence? By bringing people with shared interests together in a decidedly modern way. They aren’t mobilising existing groups, they are creating new networks. On the back of this network politicians seek them out and beg to be given the chance to take part in live chats on Mumsnet.

In fact, the very process of bringing people together in this way has a transformative effect on people. It’s not just that a problem shared is a problem halved, and that Mumsnet can help people feel less lonely and isolated by putting them in touch with other people who are going through similar situations. Also, according to a recent survey, 40% of people who use Mumsnet are more likely to think of themselves as feminists since they joined.

The lesson from this is surely that one of the ways to reduce the number of homeless and overcrowded families in the UK is to find new ways of connecting those families with each other, to build their power, and to connect those families with others, to show the impact that poor housing can have and, thereby, to radicalise others.

What’s wrong with rising house prices?

The government’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme could raise house prices by 20% in the next couple of years, according to a report by Fathom Consultancy.

This is not being heralded as good news by everyone (although The Express has followed its time honoured tradition of solely reporting on speculation about house prices with a very positive story)

But why would it be a bad thing for house prices to go up? We don’t worry so much when share prices go up, why are house prices any different?

Three of the most important reasons for concern about booming house prices are;

  • It could be a bubble followed by a housing crash leaving people in ‘negative equity’

  • Rising house prices can make it harder for first time buyers to afford to buy (especially if they do not have help from the bank of mum and dad)

  • Less commented on, but still important, richer people might benefit disproportionately from rising house prices since they own more property wealth than the rest of us

So, as Lenin famously once said, what is to be done?

There is a healthy debate in think-tank land about so-called ‘de-coupling’, the idea that as the economy grows middle and low income people do not benefit because their wages do not keep up. This has lead to proposals such as living wage zones and representation of low paid workers on remuneration committees.

Perhaps we need a similar debate around how we can ensure that everyone benefits from rising house prices.

This could involve ways of re-distributing housing wealth including;

- A land value tax

- A ‘mansion tax

- Or even more technical reforms of how we tax land and property which can be found in the Mirrelees Review

The money that these measures raise could then in turn be used to benefit those who do not have the good fortune of owning expensive properties that have gone up in value.

This could happen, for example, through;

- Funding a programme of housing associations or council built starter homes

- Funding part of the state pension as it becomes increasingly contributory

- Paying for part of a new universal adult social care system

Of course, as with so many questions of public policy, there is a possibility that any attempt to both take the heat out of the housing market and distribute gains more fairly, could be self defeating if they dampen the market too much.

However, this does not take away from the principle, that, currently, wealthy people disproportionately benefit from rising house prices and that we need to think about how we create a system in which more and more people, especially those on low and middle incomes, can benefit.

Housing wealth

There has been lots of discussion recently about how much more the ‘1%’ earn than everyone else. There has been less attention paid to how much more they own.

In fact, wealth (what people own) is more unequally distributed than income.

Wealth vs income distribution

 

This chart gives you an idea of just how unequally distributed wealth is in the UK.

Wealth distribution

Wealth includes things like pensions and stocks. If we just concentrate on housing wealth (Total housing wealth in the UK stands at something like £3,375 billion) we see a similar picture. Here is how housing wealth is distributed.

Distribution of housing wealth

 

House prices have increased significantly, even adjusting for inflation, since the 1970s as this chart shows.

House prices adjusting for inflation

 

However, this has not uniformly benefited all homeowners.

Rises in house prices for mean and median

 

But has hugely benefitted those who own expensive houses.

Rise in value of prime accomidation

 

Many of whom are not born in the UK.

Country of origin of prime accommodation buyers