Polly Neate: Welfare reform to end the ‘housing emergency’

Polly Neate

Polly Neate

November 19, 2019 | @pollyn1

At Shelter we see every day, in the lives of individuals and families, the incalculable human cost of the national emergency our housing crisis has become. So, Reform’s diagnosis of what needs to be done is extremely welcome and timely. You cannot end homelessness without homes. And they have to be homes that people can afford to stay in. Unfortunately, for years we have been moving ever further from this reality, with a chronic shortage of social homes being built and, for those forced to rent privately, housing benefit that is now completely unfit for purpose. The result is that families across the country can’t secure a stable, affordable and decent home.

Without social homes, the only option for families on low incomes is to turn to the private sector. So instead of investing in social rent homes, governments spend more and more on housing benefit that goes straight into private landlords’ pockets. It makes no economic sense, and ruins lives in the process. Reform’s report sets out how we got here and shows how recent cuts and the freeze to housing benefit for those in the private sector, or Local Housing Allowance (LHA), are impacting on people’s ability to afford a home. Shelter’s research shows that in a third of the country fewer than 10% of homes are affordable for those who receive LHA.

We at Shelter have extensively investigated the difficulties the cuts and freeze to LHA have caused in our report From the Frontline. People are having to borrow money to keep a roof over their family’s head, making impossible choices between food and rent, forced to accept overcrowded, cramped conditions, to the detriment of their children’s development, health and school work. Far too many are being pushed into homelessness and, as even further evidence that it can’t go on, latest figures show that councils spent over £1 billion on temporary accommodation last year.

Both Reform and Shelter agree that the most effective way to tackle homelessness is to immediately invest in replenishing the social housing stock. That will deliver significant savings in LHA over time. But in the shorter term, investment in LHA is also required to ensure that it can cover the cost of renting across the country. The government has announced that the LHA freeze will end next year but without a full uprating it won’t be enough to stop families becoming homeless by the day. LHA rates must be brought back up to cover at least the cheapest third of local market rents – this is the only way it can remain a reliable safety-net for those who need it.

We know these two measures are absolutely necessary to alleviate the housing emergency over the next few years. But we must go further. In our Vision for Social Housing, we call for 3 million more social rent homes over the next 20 years, and show how this will not only end the housing crisis, but pay for itself in tax receipts and housing benefit savings.

If politicians are serious about ending the housing emergency, they must listen to the increasing calls to make housing more affordable. We need to see the promise of real change in all parties’ manifestos. Without a safe home, politicians’ election rhetoric rings hollow.

Polly Neate is the Chief Executive Officer of Shelter 

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