The Covid-Induced Mass Homelessness Crisis
Lord Bird and Kevan James offer their views on the prospects of mass homelessness:
Lord Bird first:
The enormous amount of prospective homeless people and families dwarfs any other emergency that homeless advocates like me have ever seen before. The government must reinstate the eviction ban.
Homelessness could come to a home near you if we don’t respond effectively to the threats created by Covid-19 induced poverty.
The pandemic threw up novel ways of dealing with the business and social crisis. It motivated the Treasury to spend colossal amounts of money on the emergency. It was impressive to see a government who might have been tempted to take the austerity road to actually invest in alleviating crisis.
Alas the work is still unfinished. For waiting offstage is a very large contingent of people who could be made homeless, due to the loss of livelihood.
In spite of the government's eviction ban, a ban that has just run out, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports circa 400,000 renters have had eviction notices served, or told to expect them. Around a million tenants fear evictions. This enormous amount of prospective homeless people and families dwarfs any other emergency that homeless advocates like me have ever seen before.
This is mass homelessness from people who have often never been anywhere within the vicinity of need and a life of temporary accommodation. This is children separated from security and placed in a world of unsettling temporariness. This is frightening; and I am frightened.
What we have to try to achieve is ensure the government offers the support necessary to head off this mass impoverishment. To do this the Treasury has to move their thinking from emergency to recovery.
The important thing is to keep people in their homes. This is a cost saving exercise for the government; slipping into homelessness often doubles the cost to the Treasury. It would put untold strain on our stretched and recovering schooling system. It would exacerbate problems created by Covid in our health service, increasing the mental and physical problems thrown up by homelessness.
It will place untold pressures on our Justice system as the gel of family life and security is removed. An internal refugee ’ism will become the norm. Our streets will fill up again as they did in the early 1990’s with thousands of young and not so young people dispossessed of their chance to have a life.
If the Treasury does not grab this particular nettle it will eventually bring permanent instability into the lives of a vast army of formerly working, earning, tax-paying individuals. What can the government do to end this threat to a large contingent of renters and mortgagees?
They can reinstate the eviction ban for people who have been made Covid-created unemployed. Pay the rent or mortgage of this new group of the unemployed until they get out of the emergency. Pay off the rent arrears so that we don’t have impoverished landlords, most of them small providers. Create new jobs and skills that will enable people to move back into work. Invest in ensuring that new areas of the economy, like Green Jobs, digital and financial services are allocated for people desiring to return to work.
This is a great challenge that the government has partially responded to. All the advocates who have worked in homelessness are united in saying that an increase in homelessness would be catastrophic to children, parents, individuals and would destroy any advantages the government has inaugurated around ‘levelling up’ and ‘bounce back better’.
This is not an easy ask. But it is soundly based on the concept of cost savings, ‘spend to save’ thinking.
Coming out of the shadows of Covid must be done by placing a fence at the top of the cliff and not an ambulance at the bottom.
Lord Bird is a crossbench member of the House of Lords and co-founder of The Big Issue.
© Lord Bird / politicshome.com/thehouse 2021
Image - politicshome.com/thehouse
I have long held the belief that the housing market (for want of a better phrase) is broken, has been broken for decades and needs nothing short of a revolution in attitude, thinking and delivery.
Everybody needs somewhere to live; nobody can deny that, or argue against it. But the cost of having a home - rented or bought using a loan or even for cash - went beyond rationale and reason years ago.
As I wrote in my book, Comments of a Common Man Edition 3 (and in the first two editions) house prices are spoken of as if they are a living, breathing entity, over which we have no control. This they are not. House prices are an artificial construct, created by humans and they can be controlled by humans. The cost of having somewhere to live rises (or falls) by the actions of those involved - property developers, estate agents, those selling and landlords.
The cost of a home is motivated by one thing and one thing only - greed. Especially on the part of property developers, estate agents and landlords. Albeit in some cases to a lesser degree by landlords, most nevertheless acquire a house or flat to rent out in order to make as much money as possible over a short a period of time as possible.
There is nothing wrong, of itself, with making money. But renting homes is a business like any other. If one is going to be a landlord, with one house or a dozen, one has to deal with it as a business. So making an annual profit is necessary. But...and it is a huge one...if one accepts the premise that it is a business, then tenants are the customers of that business. And like all customers, they must be treated well. Many are not.
For far too long, tenants have been treated as mere serfs, to be played with, beaten down, trodden underfoot and thrown away when done with. Tenants have to put up with conditions that a mortgage payer would never imagine.
Conditions by the way, mean not just the physical condition of the flat or house - and some leave a lot to be desired, with ongoing maintenance issues left and left until they become hazardous, both to the building as well as the occupants - but also the conditions applied to being 'allowed' to rent a property. These are mostly entirely unnecessary and are usually extremely onerous. Again, a mortgage payer would never put up with them.
Granted the Covid-19 situation has put many renters into difficulties with sky-high rents and many more will face the same. But why are rents so insanely high to begin with?
They are because of the sheer, naked greed of those involved in supplying homes for rent.
John Bird is right; the government must reinstate the evictions ban and keep it in place. On top of that, Section 21 evictions - the right of landlords to throw tenants out without giving a reason - must also end. And more must be done to bring house and flat prices down to levels that people can afford to pay.
Neither the Conservatives or Labour have shown any sign of having the moral courage to actually confront and deal with a problem that is going to get worse.
© Kevan James 2021
Image - Kevan James
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