Sunday, 8 January 2017

Homelessness and the Housing Crisis

At the Baptist church where I work, plans are afoot to make one of our halls available for rough-sleepers to be warm and safe when the freezing weather returns. It's called the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) and it will involve a major upgrade of our fire alarm system so that we have detectors to counter-balance the risk of human error if a fire occurs. There's a certain irony in being prevented - for the time being - from trying to stop people freezing to death in the streets, where it is freezing every year, because they might burn to death by fire in a building that has never had one.

As someone at the beginning of his sixth decade who has only ever lived in other people's houses - my parents', my colleges, friends' and private landlords' - the question of housing is an important one to me. The few people we see sleeping rough on the streets are not really the essence of the housing crisis, and many of them are there not because there is no space for them, but because they really don't want it, have never seen the point, or have made themselves so obnoxious to others that they are not welcome. The housing crisis is more to do with the immense expense of accommodation - 66% of my normal income is rent; for the next few months because of council tax arrears being taken from my wages, 82% - and the over-crowding this causes. Dwellings which were designed for two parents and two children to live comfortably are now commonly occupied by five adults; boxrooms have become homes; and routinely adults into their 30s and even 40s stay with their parents because they cannot afford to exercise their right to a home of their own.

And I do believe it's a right. For those with particular needs, it's a right which should be met to the highest and best possible standard. For those who work, it should be affordable (not the government's fake definition of "affordable" as 85% of the inflated market price. For those without identifiable needs, and who won't work, a decent basic minimum.

There are various reasons why this doesn't happen. The "right-to-buy-at-discount" scheme for council houses is a part of it, as is the embargo on councils using even the bargain-basement money they raise from this to build more. This means the social housing stock is much depleted, and in many parts of the country, there is no alternative than the private landlord - which for the owner, is money for jam, capital appreciation plus income, for negligble effort. But maybe a bigger element is the banks. Governments have tried to encourage "first-time buyers" (this is not a literal description, they need to be younger than me) to get mortgages, and the banks have quietly sucked up this donation of effortless profit thanks to the taxpayer. More council housing would put the money in the hands of the councils, not the bonus-makers in the banks.

And then there's the cultural and demographic shift. In the 1960s when my parents bought their first house, a man, on his own, doing an ordinary job, could pay a mortgage with one week's wages a month, and afford for his wife to stay at home and look after their children. This is no longer possible. A friend of mine in the 1970s, when she went to buy her first house, was required to bring a man - her brother - to stand surety for her. That's all gone. Now women can have mortgages, and given that most people become couples, the banks, and the estate agents, have astutely worked the market so that two incomes should be necessary to afford the price of a mortgage, and up go the prices accordingly - no extra work, but the percentage yields a bigger absolute profit on the deal. Once the mortgages go up, the private landlords, especially the buy-to-let characters, cash in on the deal like vultures.

Economically, the problem is that this is dead money. Most British people have next to nothing in the way of savings. They expect to retire at 65 or 66 or 67, and then be supported by whatever work pension they have, plus the state old age pension, unti they die 20 or 30 years later. For care in the frailty of physical decay or dementia, there is nothing set aside - because it's all going on bricks and mortar actually paid for years ago, which produce no income, and create no work. A home is not an investment, and the expense of a home stops most people from making proper investments in their future.

The problem is easily solved, but there is no political will to do it. "More council houses mean that more people will vote Labour", say the Tories. Labour doesn't have an idea in its head. Only the Greens have social housing as a commitment - and they have one MP. It would be a disaster for the banks if a government did address the problem - as happened in the early 1950s when Harold Macmillan as housing minister promised, and delivered, 300,000 new homes a year. And he delivered them. The Tories have changed. Why upset their friends the bankers? Although they could make new friends of the builders, who actually produce something useful, and the local authorities, housing associations, and almshouses, who make it available at a reasonable rate.

But even if a government were one day to see sense, and re-order our economy so that it meets the people's need for housing at reasonable levels of profit for providers, that won't solve the rough-sleeping problem. When I worked for the Oxford Night Shelter a decade ago, I came to understand that for most of our inmates, they weren't homeless in the sense that you or I would be if we were evicted and had nowhere to go. They had never known a home, never known in childhood the security of warmth and nourishment and a bed where you were safe from predators. The ethos of the place was to restore them to a bourgeois normality to which they were strangers. Sometimes it worked, more often it didn't, and all we could do was keep them warm and fed - which was all most of them wanted - for over £300 a week. I have never been able to afford £1,200 a month in rent, but that's what the state - then - forked out for the care we provided. Some only needed food and a room, others benefitted from personal attention to more serious and deeper needs.

If, as an economy, we squandered less on this over-priced, racketeered, commodity, there would be more to invest in the real needs of those homeless people who might be able to grow into what the ruling class consider more normal lives. And for the "gentlemen of the road" at least warmth and food. And adults in their 20s and 30s and 40s wouldn't be infantilised by having to live with the parents into their middle years, and anyone prepared to earn would be able to save for old age.

It's win-win - except for the banks, who must lose. But after what they did to us in 2007-2008, they deserve to, they are not our friends.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
January 2017

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