Housing - Now What?


As many people will know, housing is a difficult subject for those who struggle with rents. Many families have to rely on more than one source of income - including housing benefit - to pay for rents that can sometimes make up a third of a family's income. Those who struggle tend to be from poorer backgrounds, including BME families, who form a significant proportion of those who use social housing.

Long waiting lists for social housing, particularly in over-subscribed, densely populated areas where housing stock is at a premium, result in some families waiting for years for adequate accommodation. Another major issue is that the large waiting lists for social housing, which many people have to wait on for years is particularly over-subscribed in council areas where housing stock is at a premium.

This is a problem that all people agree needs to be fixed; however, there are fears that a proposal could become government policy, potentially causing more problems than it solves.

The noted think-tank Policy Exchange has published a report that suggests a way to solve Britain's housing issues is to sell the most expensive social housing in affluent areas in order to fund house-building projects elsewhere. While such an idea from a think-tank known for its closeness to the Conservative Party leadership may be welcomed by some, there are some reasons for social housing tenants to be concerned by this idea.

Firstly, the proposal does seem to be heavily influenced by harmful stereotypes and mis-conceptions regarding social housing and its tenants. The myth of most council tenants claiming tens of thousands of pounds to live in houses many people who do not claim cannot afford is one such stereotype.

Those in favour of such a policy may say that those on Housing Benefit claim up to £20,000 a year, but the average claim is just £4,700 a year. This inflation of the figures feeds into the idea of those who claim benefits as scroungers, leading to greater vilification of those who do claim in public discourse, legitimising the passage of policies without proper consideration of its potentially harmful effects.

The most damaging effects come about when one looks at the effect this will have on communities across the country, but in particular those socially, economically and racially mixed parts of inner cities. These areas are noted for their vibrancy, with people from across many backgrounds living in and taking pride in the same areas.

The sale of council property in the most 'desirable' areas of London will disrupt that balance, creating whole areas dominated by particular demographics, facilitating greater segregation between groups. When one considers the fact that many of the council areas which have the largest number of Housing Benefit claimants are some of the most racially diverse parts of London (of the top 5 areas for Housing Benefit claims, only Cornwall was outside London) the segregation that may come about from such a policy could risk taking on racial dimensions, with a significant number of BME families being made to leave areas they are connected to in order to free up space for wealthier tenants.

This removal of benefit claimants also risks "ghettoisation" through placing the poorest families in one area, requiring state help to live in the area. As the situation in Paris tells us, separation of cities based on socio-economic and racial background can lead to greater social problems as the politically active middle-class and the areas they populate receive most attention from politicians, abandoning estates to negative stereotype and low expectations.

The problems that arise from the process seen in cities across France and the United States could cost more to government as the problems bred by social exclusion take hold. Of course, this is just a hypothesis, but one that has precedence in other countries when social stratification has taken place.

If the government wants to fix any problems with regards to housing, then it needs to do so in a way that doesn't resort to lazy stereotype or risk creating social divides which disadvantage benefit claimants, particularly those from BME communities. Crucially, housing policy also needs to be seen to work, and the jury is still out as to the effectiveness of such a controversial and potentially divisive policy.

Robert Austin