First published in Huffington Post
The complexity of the homelessness problem is undeniable and its causes are multiple: families evicted from their homes into B&Bs, people falling foul of the benefits system, or on the run from an abusive partner; youngsters leaving the care system, or people discharged from mental health wards or thrown out of their asylum accommodation on being granted refugee status. These are just some of the reasons people find themselves homeless. According to former shadow housing minister John Healey, nearly 80,000 families in England could be made homeless by 2020. In Scotland nearly 30,000 households were made homeless last year. In Northern Ireland 20,000 households are affected.
While building enough houses for people to live in really is something we should have mastered by now, the homeless problem has always been about more than just bricks and mortar. Difficulties in people’s lives that cause them to become homeless may have nothing to do with the wider housing problem as such, except in the sense that as a consequence of those difficulties they have nowhere to live. It is their non-housing related circumstances, in other words, that have brought them to a housing crisis.
Nevertheless, if they are to find somewhere to live we need to get beyond the current housing policy impasse. It is still dominated by a late Cold War era battle of the tenures. The left argue for social housing as the best way to accommodate the poor and needy; and the right call for the sale of those state-owned properties in favour of increasing home ownership. Nobody much likes the private rental sector – ironically enough given that it’s what most people live in. According to PwC, in 2000 60% of Londoners owned (or at least the bank owned) their own home. This is projected to fall to 40% by 2025 if current trends continue. But both policies and their associated visions – of a council house for life vs. the home-owning democracy – have failed. Instead we have impossibly lengthy waiting lists to a run-down and residualised stock; and impossibly high house prices (and spiralling rents) that increasingly few can afford.
And so we are left with posturing and tinkering at the edges. The Communities and Local Government Select Committee has produced a report concluding that the homeless are ‘badly treated’ by local authorities who – they argue – should have a legal duty imposed upon them to support and advise those looking for somewhere to live. Likewise, John Healey argues that there is a need to ‘strengthen the law to help prevent homelessness happening in the first place, as Labour has done in Wales’. Which may sound reasonable, but local authorities rightly respond that they don’t have the resources or the powers to do this anymore. You can’t legislate against homelessness by forcing councils to provide stock that they don’t have and can’t build. Inevitably what’s left is highly undesirable.
Homeless charities and others call for a ‘strong housing safety net’ and ‘preventative help’, which sounds fair enough. But it won’t solve the problem; it will only provide a temporary buffer for those at risk of losing their homes. Likewise the mantra that we need more affordable housing can hardly be objected to; but it is pretty meaningless in today’s hyper-inflated housing market. Building more houses and lots of them is our best chance of solving the affordability problem – and that should be done across the tenures. Otherwise all that is left for the state to do is interfere in people’s personal lives – something it won’t hesitate to do. There is a lot to recommend ‘sustaining’ people in their homes, helping them with their rent or brokering their relationship with their landlords. But why stop at people’s relationships with their landlords? One reason people become homeless is because of problems in their relationships with each other. The official figures show that sharing and marital breakdown is the single biggest cause of homelessness in Northern Ireland. Surely it’s not housing these people need, its relationship advice? So the logic goes.
No. Instead of tinkering and meddling we need bold policy. We should free developers from the unnecessary constraints imposed by planning law, and free-up planners to plan more and better housing. Local Authorities and Housing Associations should be encouraged to build instead of their stock being diminished by a state imposed ‘right to buy’; and the local state (with its PSPOs) should get off the backs of the homeless too. So let’s loosen the constraints and target resources where they are most badly needed. That way we might both get more houses built and start to address the difficulties faced by those in desperate need.