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Deborah Garvie
 
I’m a Senior Policy Officer at Shelter, working on the Localism Act and policies for the delivery, letting and management of social housing. I started off in Shelter’s Campaign for Bedsit Rights, publishing research on the appalling living conditions of refugees and successfully campaigning for legislation to license private landlords and protect deposits. My work is informed by the years I worked with tenants as an inner London housing officer.

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By Deborah Garvie

Renters to take the strain of benefits freeze

In yesterday’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference, the Chancellor proposed freezing working age benefits for two years and a reduction in the overall household benefit cap from £500 to £442 a week.

The freeze is likely to apply to a wide range of benefits, from jobseekers allowance and income support to tax credits and Local Housing Allowance rates. Disability and pensioner benefits are likely to be excluded.  The rationale is that people claiming benefits shouldn’t see their income increase more than those in work, and there has been little or no wage growth for many people for years.

But this somewhat misses the point, because 41% of working age (16-64) LHA claimants ARE working taxpayers.  With many families now limited to renting privately and private rents still shockingly high in many areas, people in low paid work need LHA to bridge the gap between their earnings and their rent.  But the failure of LHA to keep pace with private rents means that it’s becoming more and more difficult to do so.

A further freeze would compound the broken link between real rents and benefits.  LHA has already been subject to a series of cuts:

  • set to the 30th percentile of local market rents;
  • frozen for 2012/13;  
  • increased in line with CPI rather than RPI inflation from April 2013;
  • limited to 1% rises from 2014 to 2016.

Last year, Shelter warned of the impact that the 1% limit would have on ordinary families.   We gave the example of the two bed LHA rate in Solihull, which was £147.40 pw last April. With a 1% cap, this will increase to just £150.36 by next April.  If LHA rates had increased by CPI inflation, they would be £4.20 a week higher at £154.56.  But rents usually rise even faster than CPI.  So by April 2015 the rate paid will be £11.88 below where we expect rents in the bottom third of the market to be.

This all means it will become more and more difficult to find a landlord willing to let to people on LHA.  We’ve already seen landlords publicly evicting all their tenants on benefits for this reason.

Even if you find a landlord willing to take you on, the lower benefit rates may well not cover the rent, which means having to cut back on bills or food.  Recent Shelter research shows that 625,000 low income households have missed a recent essential household bill and are falling through the safety net.

For those who can’t find an affordable private rented home, turning to the council for homelessness assistance is the last resort. But even being accepted as homeless and receiving council help does not mean the end of your problems. The ending of a private tenancy is now the cause of 30% of all homelessness cases, yet councils are increasingly having to send homeless people back to the private rented sector, raising the prospect of a revolving door of eviction and homelessness.  The use of expensive B&B for families is already at its highest level for 11 years.

A reduction in the overall household benefit cap will also apply to temporary accommodation for homeless families.  In order to find affordable places, councils will have to look further and further afield.  Last week’s homelessness statistics show that a quarter of those placed in temporary accommodation are sent to another area – the highest level since records began in 1998.

For larger families caught by the cap, there is simply no affordable accommodation. A couple with three children will have £176 a week to cover rent and council tax and those with four children only £111.  Short term funding for discretionary housing payments, temporary assistance for those struggling with shortfalls, is beginning to run out, leaving councils to bridge the gap from their own stretched budgets.

The failure of successive governments to build enough genuinely affordable housing has pushed more and more families into private renting, with housing benefit taking the strain.  But existing restrictions mean too many are now falling through the safety net.  If these new proposals take effect, many more families will feel the strain and councils will be left picking up the pieces.  As the election looms, the parties have a challenge getting to grips with fixing the welfare system. The question the public will rightly ask themselves is whether the proposals currently on offer are fair.

Zorana Halpin
 
Zorana Halpin is a Policy Officer at Shelter

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By Zorana Halpin

The illusion of home

Yesterday, the Chancellor announced a proposal to remove housing benefit for 18-21 year-olds. Based on previous plans to remove housing benefit for under 25s, we can expect exemptions for families, care-leavers and disabled young adults. The exact details are not yet public, but the proposal gives us a number of very worrying concerns.

Young adults who don’t meet the exemption criteria will seemingly no longer be able to get any help with the rent. If they don’t have anywhere else safe and secure to stay, they will face homelessness.

Sadly, this is not a mistake.

A mistake would be imagining every young adult has a safe parental home to go back to.

A mistake would be imagining that this policy in its current form could work without leaving young adults with no choice but the streets, or a dangerous home environment.

Limitless exemptions?  

We’ve argued before that targeted exemptions can’t protect everyone who needs and deserves support, because some young adults will always fail to tick the right boxes.

Even seemingly straightforward cases could be challenging, because there are so many complex reasons young people may need to move away from their family, and may need government help to do so.

What happens to the young man who heroically tries to escape a life of gang violence by leaving their home town? Or the young woman fleeing a violent household where the perpetrator hasn’t yet been convicted? Or the young person kicked out by their parents because of their sexual orientation?

The list of exemptions would need to be endless, rendering the policy meaningless. Even then, how would these young people officially prove that their case was a genuine one?

Full disclosure?  

Some people under 21 will be able to satisfy the exemption criteria.  But as housing benefit changes into Universal Credit, and moves out from local authority control, it’s not clear who these young adults will need to make their case to.

The Department for Work and Pensions has struggled to identify claimants at risk of getting into rent arrears.  How will they spot that a young woman is at risk of being forced into a marriage by her parents? The system is simply not set up to deal with complex and sensitive issues like this.

Our helpline advisers know that people often don’t come forward until crisis point, and sadly this means we’re sometimes unable to prevent them becoming homeless.

For a vulnerable young adult, having to disclose their tale of abuse to JobCentre Plus could feel like an insurmountable barrier to getting help.

Bureaucratic transparency?  

Without housing benefit, pressure will grow on other parts of the system that can help to accommodate young adults in specific circumstances.

Sixteen and 17 year olds already sit outside mainstream housing provision, and our frontline services often find that this can cause confusion locally between social services and housing departments.  The potential for confusion will now be extended over thousands more cases – is the young man orphaned at twenty to be eligible for help, or turned away with nowhere to go?

Removing government help to pay the rent will not change the situations of these young adults. They will still need a safe and secure home .

Shelter opposes removing housing benefit from under 21s, because every young adult deserves somewhere safe and decent to live.

 

Deborah Garvie
 
I’m a Senior Policy Officer at Shelter, working on the Localism Act and policies for the delivery, letting and management of social housing. I started off in Shelter’s Campaign for Bedsit Rights, publishing research on the appalling living conditions of refugees and successfully campaigning for legislation to license private landlords and protect deposits. My work is informed by the years I worked with tenants as an inner London housing officer.

View all posts by Deborah Garvie

By Deborah Garvie

Cold comfort for homeless families

The weather is turning and the nights are drawing in.  It’s the time of year we begin to look forward to returning to a warm and comfortable home.

But there is cold comfort for the increasing number of families who have only one room in a B&B to return to.  Today’s homelessness statistics show that, while the overall number of households accepted as homeless has slightly dropped again this quarter, the number in B&B has increased to an 11 year high.

As Shelter’s 2013 investigation into families living in B&B illustrated, the strain of living in one room, and sharing a kitchen and bathroom with a steady stream of strangers can be intolerable. It can put relationships under severe stress and put bewildered children at risk of witnessing the fall-out of other peoples’ homelessness.  As the festive season looms, not being able to tell your children where they’ll be waking up on Christmas Day is a gut-wrenching prospect for any parent.

Sadly, living in a B&B room is just the start of it. The number of households placed in temporary accommodation in another council area is at the highest level since records began in 1998.  And a quarter of temporary accommodation is now out of area.

 

For children, this means not just the loss of a home, it means the loss of a neighbourhood, friends, playgrounds and familiar faces.  It means having to set off at 6 in the morning and standing at a succession of chilly bus stops in order to get to school – arriving for the school day already tired and hungry.  For households pushed to their financial limits, living ten or fifteen miles from school, family and friends requires a back-and-forth trek on expensive and often infrequent public transport – highlighted earlier this week by Sir Peter Hendy, head of Transport for London but even worse in rural areas.

So why is this happening?  Why is it that ordinary families can no longer find a home in our towns, cities and villages?  Why are councils having to spend so much on expensive B&Bs, and to source accommodation in areas outside their jurisdiction?

The answer lies in another aspect of the statistics:  loss of a private sector assured shorthold tenancy is now the cause of a third of all homelessness acceptances.  Private renting is now the only hope for many families in need of a home – and for councils attempting to assist them.  But rents remain shockingly high while wages are failing to keep pace.  For those having to turn to welfare payments to bridge the gap, the limits on Local Housing Allowance mean that fewer landlords are willing to let to claimants.  The days of ‘No DSS’ are back – despite councils offering sweeteners like ‘finders fees’ and deposit guarantees.

The statistics are clear that the end of a private tenancy is increasingly the cause of homelessness. What the stats can’t tell us is how many of these households have actually been homeless and had help from the council before.  Shelter’s advisers hear more and more stories of families trapped in a revolving door of short-term tenancies and homelessness.

As our summer investigation showed, in London increasing numbers of families are experiencing longer and longer stretches in temporary accommodation, never knowing how long they will be there, and unable to make long-term plans for themselves and their children.

And these statutory statistics are just the tip of the iceberg.  The number of households accepted as homeless – 52,270 in 2013/14 – are dwarfed by the 227,800 cases of homelessness prevention and relief dealt with outside the statutory framework, over half of which involved assistance to obtain alternative accommodation.

So what can be done?  We must build the homes that families need and can afford, particularly in London where the housing crisis is in epidemic proportions.  We must address the problems ordinary families face in finding a decent, affordable and stable family home to rent from a private landlord.  And, in the meantime, councils must continue to use their budgets to secure decent temporary accommodation for homeless families to avoid the use of B&Bs, and prevent families being shunted out of their own neighbourhoods.

Toby Lloyd
 
I'm Head of Policy at Shelter, and have worked on housing issues in the public, private and third sectors for nine years. I'm a Londoner, a cyclist, father of two young daughters and member of the Hackney Co-housing Project.

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By Toby Lloyd

If Shelter wrote party leaders’ conference speeches…

As we enter the party conference season, here’s what Shelter hopes will be the political parties’ leaders’ speeches. If the leaders make the right commitments now it will help shape their parties’ final election offer to those at the sharp end of our housing crisis – families stuck renting, waiting for years in temporary accommodation, struggling to buy a home or finding it difficult to keep up with their rent or mortgage. Housing has consistently ranked as a top 5 voter issue for months – and politicians are beginning to take note.

So what should the party leaders be proposing?

First, and most importantly: we want to hear every party commit to credible plans to build many more homes in every tenure – especially homes for social rent and for part-buy, part-rent. Successive governments have failed to build the homes we need – and that failure has had far-reaching consequences. Overcrowding, poor conditions, endemic instability, and homelessness: every day our advisers see the real life consequences of the lack of decent, affordable homes. In recent years, party conference speeches have often featured positive aspirations about building more: now we need firm plans for making it happen.

Earlier this year in partnership with KPMG we published a report, ‘Building the homes we need’ which provides a blueprint for the next government to sustainably increase the rate of home building. Sadly there’s no silver bullet: we need a programme of investment and reforms to tackle the high cost of land, create a diverse and sustainable house building industry, drive more long term investment and devolve power and budgets to those cities that want to grow.

But what more can we do to fix our housing crisis?

The only way we’ll solve the housing crisis for good is by building more affordable homes. But for many families the problem is holding onto their home right now. As we highlighted last month millions of working families are having to cut back on essentials like food to help pay for their home. Lots of families wouldn’t be able to cope with a financial shock – like a fall in their income, or an unexpected bill. High housing costs coupled with cuts to the housing safety net (by which Shelter means housing benefit, access to social housing, homelessness legislation and advice services) have created a dangerous situation in which an unexpected financial shock like losing your job or falling ill can leave people at risk of losing their home. Every year Shelter helps thousands of families in just this situation – and we know that only a strong public safety net can stop them becoming homeless. And if the worst happens and families do lose their home, government help is crucial to help them get back on their feet and find a new home.

So what do we want to hear from politicians to make our safety net stronger?

Firstly, there needs to be adequate support to prevent families being at risk of homelessness in the first place. That means that help to meet housing costs (housing benefit / local housing allowance) must better reflect actual rents.  The only sustainable way to reduce the total housing benefit bill is to provide more, lower cost social rented homes: reducing housing benefit rates without tackling the shortage of homes will only push more people into arrears and potential homelessness – which will end up costing the public purse more. Shelter is also opposed to further restrictions on who can get housing benefit. In particular, we are concerned about rumours that the support available for under-25s might be reduced – not everyone has parents who can house them if they become ill or lose their job. And we don’t want to see further proposals to cut help for those who rent and are out of workbecause losing your job shouldn’t mean losing your home, and getting back into work is so much harder if you’re homeless. And of course we would like to see an end to the bedroom tax, which penalises social tenants for having a spare bedroom even if there is no smaller accommodation for them to move into.

If the worst does happen, homeless families need somewhere affordable to stay until they get back on their feet. That’s why temporary accommodation should be exempt from the benefit cap, enabling local councils to adequately house homeless families.  The housing crisis, coupled with an inadequate safety net mean this support is now under threat.

We’re also keen that the Support for Mortgage Interest scheme carries on – it’s far from perfect but with interest rates widely expected to rise and this support due to  be reduced in March 2016, it needs to be extended to stop more families from losing their home.

Of course all parties will be keen to deal with what the public see as the failings of the current housing safety net. Our own research, published in June, shows that the majority of the public see the housing safety net as an essential part of a civilised society, but also that many worry that some people are unjustifiably receiving support, or that the system is failing to incentivise work. That’s why Shelter is working to put forward a vision of a future safety net – one which addresses those underlying concerns and is able to win wide public support, but which also gives people enough help to pay their rent or mortgage if something goes wrong.

Last but not least, what should politicians offer England’s nine million private renters?

Politicians should think about how renting needs to change, now that it’s providing a home to millions of people for the long-term. There are now 1.3m families with children living in private rented homes – and it’s clear that renting is no longer a stepping stone to something better, as people find themselves priced out of ownership and unable to get a council or housing association home.

Shelter has long campaigned to fix private renting, and it’s great to see politicians of all parties are now starting to come up with policies to help renters. As the election gets closer, renters will want to know that what concrete improvements and increased rights the different parties will offer them.

We’ve worked tirelessly to get more local councils to root out rogue landlords over years. This government has offered councils support and funding – which we’d like to see continue.

But the key reform we need is to bring in longer tenancies with predictable rents – where rents can’t rise faster than a pre-agreed rate, such as inflation. Two years ago Shelter first proposed a new model of renting, our Stable Rental Contract.  It showed how we can end short term contracts and unpredictable rent increases which force families to leave their homes at just two months’ notice. The Stable Rental Contract offers renters five year tenancies, with limits to prevent unexpected rent hikes during that period.

Since 2013, we’ve called for a ban on letting agency fees like the one in Scotland, and we’re keen to see further regulation to deal with poor practice from letting agents across the board. We also called for the regulation covering estate agents to be extended to letting agents. This would require letting agents to have client money protection and professional indemnity insurance, providing far greater protection for both landlords and renters.  

In recent months we’ve called for an end to revenge evictions to ensure that renters do not lose their home when they complain about poor conditions. Currently, the fear of complaining means that too many renters continue to live in unacceptable conditions or are forced to leave their home without repairs ever being made.

Right now, speechwriters are putting the final touches to their bosses’ speeches for the party conferences. Housing is steadily rising in political importance, but with 1 in 4 voters still unsure about which party is the strongest on housing, there is still room for all politicians to seize this ground. Let’s hope those speechwriters are helping their party leaders set out a great offer for all those hit hard by Britain’s housing crisis.

 

Tom McCarthy
 
I’m a Campaigns Officer at Shelter, having joined in early 2012. I’m most interested in digital campaigning and the ways this can be used to change both public and political perceptions. Outside of work I’m a keen musician, playing several instruments. I also like walking, cycling and old pubs– preferably in that order.

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By Tom McCarthy

Banking on Mum and Dad?

The housing shortage is a thing that leaves no-one untouched. It impacts on us all, often in very different ways.

For a family renting the crisis is lived out through expensive housing costs. It is the pervading worry you could be evicted from your home, forcing you to uproot your lives and children.

For many of us it can be even more precarious. An unexpected job loss, or a serious illness could be the thing that tips one of us into a negative spiral that ends with losing our home – and everything we know.

When it comes to many parents though, the housing shortage is lived out through their children. They see the burdens the next generation have to deal with: the high rents, the frustrations that brings. And for some, they face a decade of their twenty something kid, now an adult, living at home again.

For these families, if they are just about managing themselves, the housing shortage for them breeds guilt and frustration. Guilt that they can’t help their child secure a home of their own, through providing them with enough financial support for a deposit.

The bank of mum and dad is helping in any way it can. We know that 40% of parents have helped out their kids with their housing costs. And that those helping their children onto the property ladder are handing over £23,000 on average.

Yet many are doing so with huge personal costs for themselves. In a sign of the increasing strain being placed on the Bank of Mum and Dad, new research by Shelter shows 1 in 4 parents had to cut back on their own spending to help their kids; and 64% raided their own savings to help with their children’s housing costs.

And with times tough, and high house prices meaning huge deposits, many parents can’t help at all. Over half of parents we surveyed said they were unable to save any money for their children’s future.

The problem isn’t improved through making the required first time deposits smaller either. Just reducing the deposit needed on a high house price means the buyer needs to pay a bigger mortgage. If those parents who are acting as the Bank of Mum and Dad already find it hard to raise the money to help with their child’s deposit, I’m not sure it will be any easier to help them pay more expensive and ongoing mortgage costs.

And previous Shelter research proves this. 88% of homes for sale in England are unaffordable for families with a 95% loan, as higher monthly mortgage costs push even more properties out of reach.

This concern is now front and centre for parents across the country. And it is playing out in their voting intentions. Housing has consistently ranked as a top 5 voter issue for months now. Increasingly voters want to know which party will be the one to tackle the housing shortage.

And there’s plenty of space for any party to seize this ground. 1 in 4 voters don’t know which party is strongest on housing – suggesting huge opportunities for whichever party makes a big pitch for this area.

The housing shortage is our national crisis, fuelled by decade after decade of politicians failing to build the homes we need. It’s put the Bank of Mum and Dad in crisis. And it’s left parents crying out for action. The only solution now is to build more affordable homes.

Follow the @Bank_MumandDad on twitter

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