Housing the homeless

The New Statesman doesn’t care about homeless people.

Their recent leader called for an increase in the number of homes being built in this country “For the sake of growth and our young people”. They didn’t mention the need to prevent homelessness once.

It is of course a pressing issue that the average age of a “first-time homebuyer without parental assistance” is now 37. But is it as significant as the terrifying increase in the number of homeless people?

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Over the past 5 years almost all boroughs in London have seen an increase in the number of people sleeping rough.

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The New Statesman is not alone in failing to link this problem with the challenge of how to build more homes. The recent, and in many ways comprehensive, Lyons review included just two paragraphs on “housing for vulnerable groups” and a couple of mentions on homelessness in a report that is nearly 200 pages long.

I’m not suggesting that homelessness is simply caused by high rents or a lack of affordable housing. I am suggesting that building more homes would reduce the number of people who have to spend even one night sleeping on the streets.

We are currently building nowhere near as many homes as Boris’ London Plan says are required.

4As long as we continue to build far fewer new homes than are needed it will be harder to prevent people becoming homeless, especially now the biggest cause of homelessness is people losing their private sector tenancy.

Many journalists and politicians do not consider preventing homelessness and helping overcrowded families as significant an issue as supporting economic growth or helping first time buyers afford a deposit.

Given that I have written numerous pieces on the need to increase the number of houses being built in Britain, it’s perhaps a bit churlish to criticize others who are calling for the same thing. The idea of building more homes is an excellent one, partly because it would make it easier for young people to buy their first home, but also because it would help prevent homelessness.

Can community development combat social exclusion?

Building open, inclusive, vibrant neighbourhoods is an important part of combating the worst symptoms of social exclusion. In fact, it is probably more important than supporting the development of charities and the voluntary sector in general.

People who launch initiatives to bring neighbours together are often accused of having a deaf ear for the problems of the most marginalised in society. Community development can be caricature as supporting retired, middle class people to run fetes or hipsters to set up incubation spaces.

However, effective community development can help neighbourhoods to be more welcoming places, where people who might otherwise feel excluded are able to meet people and build a support network.

This chart shows the relationship between the % of people in a local authority who say that they feel like they belong in their local area against the % of people receiving adult social care who are satisfied with their level of social contact.

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The more people feel that they belong in a given neighborhood the more likely people who receive adult social care in that area are to feel that they are satisfied with their level of social contact.

This chart plots the extent to which there is a ‘thriving third sector’ in a given local authority and the % of people receiving adult social care who are satisfied with their level of social contact.
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Whether or not an area is more or less supportive of charitable activity seems to have little to do with whether people who receive adult social care are happy with their level of social contact.

This shouldn’t surprise us, since lots of charities are not mainly or even tangentially interested in building open and welcoming communities.

It doesn’t particularly help someone with mental health problems to make new friends if there are lots of donkey sanctuaries in their area.

However, when organisations such as Civic Systems Lab are effective in bringing together people in a fun, creative and open way, they can help build neighbourhoods where more people feel like they belong and this in turn is likely to benefit people who are often marginalised or excluded.

This is significant since research has found that social connections are one of the principle components of recovery.

In fact, rather than replicating existing patterns of exclusion and inequality, community development, if done properly and effectively, can go some way to combating these problems.

Where is it better to live, UK or USA?

“England [sic] is just a small island. Its roads and houses are small.” – Mitt Romney

When it comes to housing, which country is best, the UK or the USA?

Here is a completely scientific and in no way impressionistic answer.

1. The number of people who own their own home is on the decline in both the USA and the UK

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Verdict: Draw

2. Far more Americans than Brits sleep rough

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Verdict: UK wins

3. Partly because there is so much more public housing in the UK than the USA

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Verdict: UK wins (showing my bias)

4. Compared to average wages, houses in the UK aren’t anymore expensive than in the USA (on average)

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Verdict: Draw

5. But American homes are a lot larger than homes in the UK (Romney was right about something)

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Verdict: USA wins

Final score: UK wins 2:1. 

Who should build our houses?

Why should the government loan money to small construction firms that build homes (at a profit)? Could this money be used in a different way to supports the development of a not for profit building industry?

These questions are prompted by the government’s decision to set aside £500 million to create a ‘Builder’s Finance Fund‘ in a desperate attempt to increase the number of houses that are built in the UK. We are still waiting for more details but it seems that the government will lend money to small and medium sized house builders.

This idea has wide support in policy circles, and has been broadly endorsed by the Labour Party and by Shelter but it is a limited idea with many downsides. 

It comes from the undoubtedly true twin observations that we are not building enough homes and that the construction industry is increasingly dominated by a small number of large house builders. These two facts are linked. These large house builders do not currently seem to be inclined to dramatically increase production.

Given this situation you can see why the government would want to create more competition between house builders. Hence today’s announcement.

This is a missed opportunity. The government could have used this moment to signal that they would support a different type of house builder. Not just small builders but value based builders.

Rather than giving cheap loans to small private house builders, the government could be doing much more to support not for profit construction companies such as housing associations or council owned construction companies (such as the one recently established by Newham council). 

Instead we are left with yet more state support for private industry.

Social housing in the UK: a Rolls-Royce achievement

Social housing in the UK is a Rolls-Royce achievement. There are a substantial number of houses and flats in the UK that are warm, have low rent and are often rented out to people with long term illnesses or who live in poverty.

Compare to other European countries the UK has a good number of social housing units

You may have read about the dramatic reduction in the amount of social housing in the UK. This has certainly happened. But there are still a substantial number number of units of social housing in this UK, especially if you compare us with other European countries.

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Social housing has low rents

On average these units are rented out at £83 per week, exactly half of the average for private rented accommodation. (Among those receiving housing benefit, private renters received an average weekly housing benefit payment of £115, whereas social renters received £73).

Social housing provides stability for tenants

44% of tenants in social housing have lived in same place for more than 10 years, something only 9% of private renters can say.

Most people who rent social housing are satisfied with their accommodation

84% of housing association renters and 80% of local authority renters were either very or slightly satisfied with their accommodation,

Social housing is  less likely to be damp or ‘non-decent’ than private rented accommodationchart1 (1)

Social housing benefits people with long term illnesses or who live in poverty

Social housing in the UK means low rents, secure tenancies and accommodation that general meets a decent standard. This benefits the many people who rent from housing associations or local authorities who live in poverty or who have a long term illness.

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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;

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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;

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‘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.

Kirby’s cunning plan

Paul Kirby, former head of the No 10 policy unit claims to have come up with a simple idea to solve the housing crisis

http://paulkirby.net/2013/12/31/a-simple-idea-to-sort-out-the-housing-market-and-make-the-economy-boom-for-the-next-5-years/

In essence he says we should start building social housing with a grant of £50,000 per unit. HMT would recoup this outlaw by insisting that any social housing that becomes vacant is sold on the open market. Kirby estimates that each unit will go for £120,000 per unit.

It sounds like a win-win with more housing being built and more money for the government to build garden cities and other goodies.

From another way of looking at it, this is a deficit financed growth strategy.

Kirby is probably right to say that you can build a new social housing unit for £50,000 per unit. The reason that this is possible is because the housing association or council that build the unit borrow the rest of the money, on the basis that they will pay back the loan from rents.

Council housing debt is certainly a form of government debt. Housing association debt is probably a form of government debt, since, ultimately, the government would stand behind housing associations if they were threatened with insolvency.

(It is also worth noting that much of the money for the rents will be paid for through housing benefit.)

This is the first way that Kirby’s plan is financed through deficit spending. The second way is contained in the idea that you would ‘build the new houses quicker than the old ones are sold off’. Kirby explicitly says that this means a Treasury ‘guarantee’ of £240 billion. ‘Guarantee’ here in effect means spending money that the government does not currently have but will have in the future. This is another way of saying deficit financing.

Perhaps there is nothing wrong with housing associations, councils and central government borrowing money now to build housing given that interest rates are low and there is lots of slack in the construction industry.
However, this form of deficit financed growth strategy is precisely the approach that the coalition government has rejected.