Socialist Worker

Housing benefit cuts: this is the social cleansing of Britain

Pensioners will be priced out of their homes. Families in rent arrears will face eviction. And, the working poor will be among those shunted to the furthest corners of our towns and cities. <em>Mark L Thomas</em> unpicks government plans that even lead

Issue No. 2226

The government reacted with fury last week to accusations that its changes to housing benefit would lead to “social cleansing”. But the words stung because they are true.

This latest assault has exposed the lie that the coalition’s programme of cuts is “fair”, as George Osborne, David Cameron and Nick Clegg loudly proclaim.

Their plans to slash housing benefit will leave just 7 percent of privately rented properties in central London available to housing benefit claimants—down from 50 percent today.

The poor will be driven out of better off neighbourhoods and forced to seek accommodation in run down areas.

And while a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) “impact assessment” shows the capital will be hit hardest, the changes will hurt people across the county.

In London the assessment predicts 159,370 people will be worse off because of housing benefit cuts planned for next year. But the north west of England for example will see 130,900 worse off.

Only 5 percent of two-bed flats in central Manchester will be affordable for housing benefit claimants.

Everywhere will be hit.

In Darlington 9,280 households will lose money and those in one-bed flats will face an average cut of £10 per week or £15 a week for those in four-bed properties.

In Northampton 3,780 households will be worse off, losing an average of £11 a week for one bed homes and £16 a week for four beds.

Tory housing minister Grant Shapps admits “some people may need to move”. He denies it is tens of thousands, saying, there are “about 17,000 people in London whom the cap would affect”.

But only one person is allowed to claim for each household, so on his own ­figures 17,000 families will be driven from their homes.

And the real number will be far higher.

Shapps only takes into account the plan to cap rents nationally at £250 a week for a one-bed property and £400 for properties with four beds and more that will be introduced from April 2011.

But a second change from October next year will have an even bigger impact—as DWP figures reveal.

This is because housing benefit for those renting in the private sector is set at a different rate in each area of the country to reflect local market rates.

The current level is supposed to enable a claimant to cover the rent of 50 percent of available properties in an area. This will be reduced to just 30 percent.

And because this is tied to local market rents, it will have an impact right across Britain.

Squeeze

Overall around 775,000 households nationally will lose out from this measure alone. On average each household will have to find another £39 a month to make up the difference—or face moving out.

Government figures show the combined impact of just the changes planned next year will leave 936,960 households across the country as “losers”.

And other measures are planned that will further attack housing benefit claimants (see below).

One estimate is that 82,000 households will be left vulnerable to losing their homes in London alone as they will be forced to squeeze more money out of already tight budgets to make up their rent—or move.

That adds up to around 250,000 people who may be pushed out of the wealthier areas of the city, taking children out of schools they have settled in.

A large number of people will find themselves forced to commute further (and more expensively) from London’s outskirts into the centre for work.

No wonder one minister stated the housing benefit cuts were “our Highland Clearances”—referring to the forced evictions of poor people from the Scottish highlands in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Public

In public the Tories claim otherwise. They say landlords will reduce their rents—bringing the housing benefit bill down overall.

But most landlords won’t reduce their rents—they’ll evict tenants who fall behind, and hope to find other tenants who can pay.

A survey of landlords by London Councils—a think-tank representing local authorities in the capital—reported that 90 percent will move to evict tenants who fall short in their rent by £20 a week.

Shelter, the housing charity, says 65 percent of housing benefit claimants are already in rent arrears, even before the Tories’ changes are introduced.

The solution is not to reduce tenants’ housing benefit but to control private rents. They have risen as successive governments have sold off council homes and refused to finance the building of new council homes to replace them. Margaret Thatcher started the policy, but it continued under New Labour.

This is what lies behind rocketing private rents—not fecklessness and benefit “sponging.”

Between 1999 and 2007, average rents rose by 44 percent.

The Tories want to hound the poor out of wealthier areas, pushing tens of thousands deeper into poverty and insecure housing.

We need to build a mass campaign to stop them getting away with it.


Timeline

From April 2011

  • Housing benefit for private rents to be capped at maximum of £250 a week for a one-bed home, £290 for a two-bed, £340 for a three-bed and £400 for four-beds and above.
  • Removal of rule that allows claimants to keep up to £15 a week if they can find somewhere to rent at lower than the rate housing benefit is set at locally.

From October 2011

  • Housing benefit for private rents to be set at a level that covers the lowest 30 percent of local rents—down from current 50 percent.
  • Around 775,000 people will lose an average of £39 a month in their housing benefit.
  • 21,060 will lose an average of £74 a week.

Taken together, the changes in April and October 2011 will leave 936,960 as “losers”—according the government’s own figures.

  • The number of privately rented properties in central London available to housing benefit claimants will fall from 50 percent to just 7 percent.
  • Only 5 percent of two-bed flats in central Manchester would be affordable for housing benefit claimants.

From April 2012

  • Single people up to 35 years old (up from 25) will only receive enough housing benefit to cover sharing a property, not to rent their own home.

From April 2013

  • Cut housing benefit by 10 percent for tpeople on Jobseeker’s Allowance for a year or more. This will leave nearly 200,000 unemployed people losing £500 a year according to research from the TUC.
  • Increase the benefit by Consumer Prices Index (CPI) inflation rate, rather than estimate of local rents. Between 1999 and 2007 CPI increased by 15 percent but average rents went up 44 percent.
  • Housing benefit will be restricted for those deemed to be occupying a larger property than their household size.


‘How will we survive?’

Alice Holmes worked at Woolworths in west London for 23 years until she was made redundant in 2008, when the firm went bankrupt.

She has not worked since. She lives with her husband, who has a part-time cleaning job for 12 hours a week—on the minimum wage—and her three children in a two-bedroom flat in Brent.

“Our rent is an astronomical £315 a week,” she says. “We simply could not find anywhere else to live. When the limits come in I don’t know how we will manage.

“Either we will have to find an extra £25 a week from our very, very stretched money that comes in or we’ll have to move out. Two of my children may have to change school, and I could have to leave the area where I’ve lived since I was born.

“It’s really not my fault I can’t get a job. I worked hard at Woolworths and had moved up through the grades, but then I was just finished.

“Over half the old Woolworths stores are still empty. They have been thrown on the scrapheap and I feel a bit the same. It’s terrible having to tell the children they can’t have things they ought to have. All these changes to benefits make me feel very nervous.

“I can’t see any future for me or my husband or my children at the moment. I’m a good person at ‘getting by’, but this is a very hard time.”


It’s an attack on us all

David Cameron and Nick Clegg try to justify their attack on housing benefit by claiming that it’s “not fair” for claimants to live in properties that many who work could only “dream of”.

Most people who rely on housing benefit are generally in the cheapest and worst housing.

But the Tories want to turn people’s anger at high rents and low wages—and the cuts in general—onto those who rely on benefits to meet their basic needs.

Low wages mean that many people who work have to claim housing benefit. Around 160,000 of those set to lose out form the cuts to housing benefit are in work. Over 50,000 are pensioners.

And the reason there are 2.5 million unemployed is because there aren’t enough jobs. There are, on the most optimistic official estimates, some 450,000 vacancies.

Punishing the poor isn’t the solution. Driving thousands of people into areas with cheaper rents will only have one effect—it will raise rents for everyone who lives there.

And few workers can be confident that either they or someone in their family will not be sacked in the coming months and years. All of them will find it harder to keep their homes if the Tories get away with their plans.

David Cameron also said that housing benefit leads to “serious disincentives to work”.

The Tories want to see more people forced to take whatever work is available to cover their rent. That means more people chasing a dwindling number of jobs, pushing down wages for every worker.


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