Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K) (AH 103)

  We are concerned that both the ODPM and the ODPM select committee are focusing on shared equity and rather less on the issue of the affordability and supply of rented accommodation for low income households. So we offer this supplementary evidence.


  1.  Housing in the UK is in crisis. It is the poorest who carry the weight of it. Their incomes are too low and housing too expensive. That simple arithmetic is massively complicated by a benefit system that does not cope efficiently when households move in and out of it, or circumstances change for any reason; and the acceptance by New Labour of the Thatcher settlement with its na-­f belief that a free market settles every social problem with "trickle down". The deregulation of lending in the 1980s released a flood of money into a housing market in short supply thus exacerbating pressures that increase prices. [214]The market failed to produce enough houses. The problems have irrupted since then. They get worse every day.

  2.  They are further exacerbated by the mindset at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister disclosed in the definitions of "affordable housing" given in their initial evidence. They have nothing to say about incomes. They are therefore unable to encompass the obvious truth that housing is unaffordable when incomes are too low and housing too expensive.

  3.  They are in paragraph 40 of the Initial Evidence and in 41, which is only concerned with priority groups and not poor households. Even for the priority groups the definitions in paragraph 40 should be replaced by the following which provides clear parameters for policy making.

    The term "affordable housing" is widely used without any precise definition. We argue that it has no meaning other than as the opposite of "unaffordable housing" which is experienced when incomes are too low and available housing, whether for rent or purchase, is too expensive. We define "affordable housing" (in the Introduction to the Memorandum to the Prime Minister and with some later modification) as:

    "Affordable housing" means that once the cost of rent or mortgage (including any maintenance and service charges and local and national taxes) have been met from the income of a household, be it an individual, a family or pensioners, there remains sufficient income to sustain safe and healthy living, to support children's needs at school and to enable provision for the future and participation in the community. "Unaffordable housing" means that the remaining income is not sufficient to ensure these outcomes.

  4.  Four cases illustrate how this toxic mixture of official myopia, low incomes, complex benefits, expensive housing, short supply and excessive investment, which need integrated policies if housing is to become affordable, bears down traumatically on poor families. Members of Parliament will meet many similar cases in their surgeries.


  5.  The local council claimed there had been an over payment of £1,500 housing benefit to the Housing Association in 2001 and took the money back. The Housing Association then claimed £1,500 rent arrears, which they could not pay. They evicted the couple with two children adding £1,000 for repairs.

  6.  Forced into the private market in High Wycombe, where there is no affordable housing, they found a home at £180 a week. They received full housing benefit. Several changes of circumstances happened, with which the authorities did not keep up, involving unemployment, separation and coming together again, and re-employment; and they had a baby, the third child. They have a duty to inform the authorities each time. That can be a complex exercise for harassed parents. She is receiving treatment for depression. One of her children has emotional and behavioural difficulties. Child benefit and tax credits are dealt with by the Inland Revenue, Income Support by the Jobcentres, Council Tax and Housing Benefits by the Local Authority. They are connected by computers. If there is a mistake at the Jobcentre everything stops.

  7.  They are then called in for questioning under caution about fraud by the Local Authority, who claim they were not informed about one of the changes, so too much housing benefit had been paid. Special payments to encourage this questioning are being made by central government. There is no legal aid even though it can lead to a criminal conviction. I attended the interview with a letter from her doctor confirming the woman's depression and decided call a halt. It was done by a retired policeman with, it seemed, much experience of questioning hardened criminals. We have heard no more.

  8.  More rent arrears occur. They will be classed as intentionally homeless by the local authority if they are evicted—because of the arrears. The landlord seeks repossession. I go with them to court as a McKenzie Friend. They receive a suspended possession order on condition they pay £30 a week towards the arrears; our trust pays £500 as a donation to keep them housed.

  9.  The flat they rented had been bought to let by the landlord. He then decided to sell to take his capital gain. There is nothing they can do to prevent this eviction. Since then they have been placed in a hostel by another local authority, who again decided they were intentionally homeless—because of the rent arrears. But they had regularly paid the £30 a week ordered by the court. This was appealed with the aid of Shelter. They won and the council now has a duty to house them.

  10.  With the rent arrears they were worse off in work than unemployed. This was because their residual income after housing and taxation had been paid out of gross income was less that they would have received from unemployment benefits, all of which are below the government's poverty threshold. This is a common problem. The Royal College of Nursing is reporting that many of their members in London whose gross pay is above the benefit threshold have the same experience.


  11.  An unemployed lone parent with five children aged one to eight is living in a two bed roomed, damp flat and with a suspended possession order hanging over her. They can be evicted if she fails to pay £5.10 rent arrears every two weeks to pay off a total of £2,000. The local authority won't move her to suitable accommodation until it is all paid off. It will take 15 years.


  12.  A chronically ill and depressed woman inevitably lost control of her affairs; she would have been homeless had we not intervened a week before the bailiffs came to evict her and change the locks.


  13.  A man has a degenerative disease; the local authority applied for bankruptcy to pay off council tax arrears threatening him and his wife with homelessness.


  14.  A look at shows the harsh treatment that has been devised for homeless beggars. They are jailed if they break an Anti Social Behavior Order forbidding them to beg for years at a time, thus receiving a criminal conviction, which further damages their chances of employment. Single childless adults are the most vulnerable to homelessness lacking any statutory duty to house them—except in prison and receiving unemployment benefits that are half the government's poverty threshold. (Please see attached letter published by the Church Times)

  15.  If the house owning taxpayers sitting comfortably on appreciating assets, and enjoying handsome dividends from shares supplemented by the large state subsidy of low wages, are not moved by the injustice of these stories then perhaps the story of increasing housing benefit will make them stop and think. The average weekly benefits paid to housing association tenants rose from £23.20 a week in 1992 to £58 in 2003 and for private tenants from £40.70 to £71.60. The total cost of housing benefit rose from £5.4 billion in 1986-87 to £15.8 billion in 2002-03 and is planned to reach £19.7 billion in 2007-08. While in real terms the cost to the tax payer more that doubled the investment in new housing and renovation fell from £6.1 billion to £2.8 billion. [215]Total UK housing debt stood at £774 billion in £2003, the equivalent of 72% of gross domestic product, and increase from £53 billion in 1980 and 23% of GDP.

  16.  The ODPM parliamentary select committee is enquiring into housing supply and affordability. Who wins the next election seems uppermost in your minds. I fear policy will not be decided on who needs affordable housing most, they don't vote, but on which policy will offend the lowest number of current house owners, by maintaining the price of their homes, and also puts the largest number of voters on the housing ladder. Joint equity is front runner. (I am attaching a synopsis of the Z2K Memorandum to the Prime Minister on Unaffordable Housing to emphasise the holistic approach that housing policy deserves). The long term future for the poorest in the UK looks bleak—unless they register and start voting.

214   Please see our Memorandum on Unaffordable Housing to the Prime Minister May 2005 edited by Professor Peter Ambrose available on Back

215   See op cit Appendix 7. Back

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