The housing safety net is in tatters – it’s time for a rethink

Thanks to a combination of low pay, high house prices and the growth in insecure private renting, just about anyone can now find themselves in struggling to keep their home. We all need to know that a safety net is there to keep a roof over our heads if life takes an unexpected turn. 
Today, Shelter has published new analysis of the state of the UK’s housing safety net. The analysis identifies the number of households who are receiving some form of housing support (defined by the research as housing benefit, support for mortgage interest, or a tenancy in a social rented home). It also calculates the number not getting the help they need. 

The results are compelling, and very worrying: 

  • One quarter of all UK households (6.4 million) now receive some form of support from the housing safety net.
  • Of those already receiving support, almost 1 in 10 are in chronic need of further assistance. This means that, despite receiving some support, their housing costs are unaffordable, are on a low income and are struggling financially to the extent that they are missing payments on essential bills – such as gas or electricity.
  • A further group of 125,000 households are in the same situation, yet receive no support at all.
  • In total, over half a million (625,000) households are in chronic need of a housing safety net, yet fall through the one we have. 
  • A further 2.8 million households live in a precarious position, on a low income in housing that is unaffordable. Around a half receive some support from the safety net but remain in this state.
  • Altogether, 3.4 million households don’t get the support they need to begin to get back on their feet.

So how have we arrived at this juncture? 
It’s undeniable that policy changes over the last four years has resulted in the housing safety net now providing less support to fewer people. Changes to the maximum amount of housing benefit paid to private renters or the introduction of a benefit cap have hurt thousands of families. 
But while these cuts have been had a deep and visible impact, they are a small part of a much longer trend that has seen the housing safety whittled down by successive governments. For example, the number of affordable rented homes has been dropping since the 1980s, and has fallen by 400,000 in the last 10 years alone. 
All the evidence points to these trends continuing into the future. The Chancellor has pledged to find a further 12 billion pounds in welfare savings over the next two years. Other political parties are drawing up their own plans to reduce the welfare bill.  
Cuts are opening up holes in the net that more people are falling through, but the system is also failing people for more fundamental reasons. Simply put, the housing safety net was not designed to deal with the problems of the world today. The housing market, population and labour market have undergone major changes since the welfare state was constructed. For example, an increasing number of people receiving housing support are now working, but are reliant on state support to bridge the gap between housing costs that are rocketing ahead of wages. Our research shows that even some households with two full time incomes, can’t afford their housing costs and don’t receive the support they need.

Some households have been left high and dry by recent cuts. But others are poorly served by a safety net designed for a different era. In order to support these people better we might need something different – not just more of what we had. 
Shelter will continue to campaign against any further cuts to the housing safety net, which would only expose more people to the risk of losing their home. But we also need to tackle the structural weaknesses that mean it is no longer meeting its purpose. A strong housing safety net requires new ideas to ensure it can support everyone through difficult times. That is the challenge for anyone who cares about ending homelessness.

By Jenny Pennington