The Tories’ planned cuts in housing benefit will cause hardship for hundreds of thousands of working-class families. Many will be left homeless and destitute.
Before April this year, housing benefit awards were based on the cheapest half of private rents in any given area. Under new rules they will be based on the cheapest third of rents. But even if people rent in the cheapest end of the market, benefit will still be cut if the rent is above a set limit for the property size. Initially this will affect families needing larger homes, but eventually, as capped amounts are unlikely to be able to keep pace with rent rises, this will affect everyone.
According to the National Housing Federation 48% of people receiving benefit for private sector accommodation already face shortfalls between their benefit and their rent, with the average shortfall being £23 per week. Now their benefit rates will be subject to caps ranging from £250 per week for a one-bedroom property to £400 per week for a four-bedroom property. And four bedrooms will now be the maximum entitlement. These changes have already hit people moving into homes after April 2011, and will affect existing tenants in the New Year.
A private tenant in south west London killed himself when he received notice from Wandsworth council that his housing benefit would be cut by £30 a month. The man, who was 44, lived with his wife and their nine-year-old son.
These cuts are not being made because benefit payments are “getting out of hand”. The average housing benefit award in the private sector is just £109.25 per week (and £72.60 for social housing tenants).
Private sector landlords pushing up rents, in the context of acute housing shortages, has resulted in a sharp rise in costs.
According to the National Housing Federation (NHF), around 1.5 million people in England are on waiting lists for social housing; the £4.5 billion currently being invested by the government in housing in fact amounts to a 63% cut. Consequently rents in the private sector are set to jump by 20% in the next 10 years.
Landlords have already begun to anticipate changes by serving eviction notices and refusing to accommodate those claiming housing benefit.
Being homeless will not longer entitle you to help. Under the Localism Bill, local authorities will no longer be compelled to indefinitely house families in bed and breakfast or other temporary accommodation. After a year, even this meagre safety net will be removed.
Landlords indicated that they would be unwilling to lower rents to cover the new thresholds.
Although some councils have indicated that they would negotiate with private landlords to bring costs down, and whilst housing organisations have stipulated that councils should use their reserve funds to make up for the shortfall, we cannot rely on any such benevolence. These are the same councillors who were so willing to implement cuts budgets across the capital.
When hired goons serve eviction notices to families and drag them from their homes, or when children who have grown up in communities are forced to move to glorified shacks hundreds of miles away, will campaigners and activists continue with their laudable but ultimately useless approach of letter writing and lobbying?
Writing in 1847 on a housing crisis facing German workers, Friedrich Engels said: “In order to make an end of this housing shortage there is only one means: to abolish altogether the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class.”
Socialist activists urgently need to work out the steps needed to mount a defence against government attacks on housing.
The basic demand for adequate shelter and accommodation does not seem particularly revolutionary, but against the backdrop of these fierce attacks they take on a new meaning. Against the interests of the ruling class we assert working-class interests. Through our collective action we assert the right to a dignified existence: no evictions, no to bailiffs terrorising our neighbourhoods and communities.
We need to campaign for councils to introduce mandatory purchase schemes when landlords insist on keeping their rents artificially high. We call for rent controls in the private housing sector, along with the complete reversal of these attacks on housing benefit.
We should call for an extensive and far reaching social housing building programme, based on need and put under the control of tenants’ associations.
We need to physically confront the bailiffs and hired thugs. Local housing action committees could be set up to draw in private residents who would usually be cut off from community organisations. Such committees could make coordinated occupations of the houses of families and workers facing eviction.
Demonstrations will need to be initiated in beleaguered communities, in order to stand up to the landlords’ enforcers.