When I started working as a housing officer in Westminster in 2006, I finished my first week of visits feeling relieved. There were few signs of antisocial behaviour, no gangs of youths intimidating residents in dark corridors, no evidence of overwhelming deprivation. Which isn’t to say that the tenants’ lives were easy: most were living on low incomes, some had mental or physical health problems, others had learning difficulties, some were addicted to drugs or alcohol, others were simply struggling to bring up their children in small flats with poor sound insulation and tired neighbours complaining about the noise. But they were, for the most part, getting by. And with tenancy for life, low rents and housing benefit, as long as they kept to the terms of their tenancy agreement they had a secure home in an area where they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to live.
That security has now gone. The changes to housing benefit and the terms of social housing tenancies will only apply to new claimants and tenants, but they’ll have an effect on existing claimants and tenants too. One family I saw fairly often were a couple with three children living in a three-bedroom flat, at the housing association rent of around £100 a week. The downstairs neighbour complained repeatedly about the noise from their two-year-old running about in the evenings. The complaints turned into threats, and culminated in the neighbour physically attacking the father. If the family tried to move to a new social housing tenancy under the new rules, they wouldn’t be able to stay in Westminster (where social housing is already scarce anyway). Social landlords will be able to set rents at up to 80 per cent of the market value. For a three-bedroom flat in the same area, that would come to around £430 per week. Housing benefit will be capped at £400 per week.
A lot of the tenants I got to know best were single men and women living in one-bedroom flats, many of them unemployed, for a wide variety of reasons, from lack of qualifications to mental health problems. Iain Duncan-Smith has told them to get on the bus (never mind the increases in public transport costs) and find work. What if they find a job that’s more than a few bus rides away? (Finding any job at all in the current climate is unlikely, but still.) Assuming they are lucky enough to find a council or housing association flat in the new place, once they move not only will they be paying a lot more rent, but they will lose their security of tenure. This means they could be forced to move again in five years if their new landlords consider that their ‘circumstances have changed’ and they no longer deserve social housing. If, in the meantime, they lose their job and start claiming housing benefit again, the cap could mean they’ll have to move out, or wait to be evicted – so they’ll be not only unemployed, but homeless too. And the government says that the current social housing system traps people in poverty.
When Aneurin Bevan told the House of Commons in 1949 what he hoped council housing would achieve, he spoke of ‘the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and farm labourer’ all living on the same street. Never mind the same street: a lot of the tenants I worked with (many of them unemployed, many more of them working for low pay in casual or temporary jobs) will no longer be able to afford to live even in the same borough as Westminster’s professionals, bankers and trust-fund heirs – unless, that is, they’re living on the streets.