Housing Crisis

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2019 National Delegate Conference
1 January 2019

Conference recognises that high housing costs and affordability are among the biggest issues facing the workforce in the South East and nationally, and affecting where they can live, what they can access and what they can afford.

According to the National Housing Federation, there was a shortfall of over 85,000 homes in the South East between 2012 and 2016, the highest in the country after London. The average home is over £360,000, 12 times the average salary; and the average monthly rent is £994. Data reported by The Guardian found that 40% of houses sold under the Right to Buy are now in the private rented sector, tens of millions of pounds are being paid by local authorities to rent former council homes to house homeless families, and some councils have bought back their former homes at more than six times the amount they sold them for.

A report by the Office for National Statistics confirms that the South East has the worst affordability rating for median house prices compared to median earnings outside of London. A UNISON study also shows that saving money for a down payment on a property would take over 52 years in some parts of the South East, making it virtually impossible for a huge number of UNISON members to buy their own home.

Conference notes that the worsening affordability crisis is a result of funding cuts to the “affordable housing budget” and failed housing policies, which have meant that not enough social and truly affordable homes have been built, and have led to a drastic decline in the number of new social rent homes built nationally. As a result, private rents and house prices in many parts of the country have risen dramatically, often to levels which make housing completely unaffordable to our members. This has happened at the same time as welfare reform, which has reduced the support that working age claimants can receive with their housing costs. With rents outpacing wages in many parts of the country, public service workers are spending more than a third of their income on rent. As a consequence, low paid workers struggle to save for a house deposit, pay rent or other living costs. Many face financial hardship, poverty and even homelessness.

The shortage of genuinely affordable homes means that thousands of people are on social housing waiting lists. Thousands more are forced to live in overcrowded or unsuitable homes where they are exposed to health and safety hazards. For the people caught in the trap of ever increasing housing costs and stagnating wages, the stress put on all areas of life are all too real; the human misery of this expressed all too vividly by the scandal of homelessness doubling under the Tories since 2010.

Many towns and cities are out of reach for public service workers due to the rising costs of housing compared to wages. In the Private Rented Sector, where rents are unregulated and tenancies are insecure, research by Shelter shows that rents rose by 16% between 2011 and 2017 in England, compared to average wages which rose by only 10% over that period. The situation is worse in some areas, including Elmbridge, Surrey, where rents have risen by 21% while wages are down by 15%; and in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, rents are 19% higher while wages have dropped by 9%.

Conference is concerned that the high costs of housing, coupled with real term cuts to public service pay, tax credit and Universal Credit changes are blighting the lives of our members, as they struggle to find somewhere affordable to live. This is putting a further financial strain on our members, household budgets and eroding their living standards. More workers are spending a significant proportion of their income to meet housing costs, leaving less money for other household essentials and exposing them to hardship. Many workers face lengthy commutes to work, high costs of travelling and pressure on their work life balance because they simply cannot access social housing or afford a decent home near their place of work.

Conference also notes the impact of the decline in social housing on members affected by domestic violence. Research shows that in times of austerity and uncertainty, domestic violence is more prevalent. Anyone tied to their abuser due to the lack of social / affordable housing is not able to break the cycle of abuse easily. Far too often victims give up not only their homes but also their jobs to escape violence. Worse still, some remain in the abusive situation and put their lives at risk. It should be possible for victims of abuse who work in the public sector to be accommodated in neighbouring Council areas, both in respect of housing and their job even if this is on a temporary basis until longer term solutions can be found. However, the housing crisis means this is not possible.

Conference notes that in spite of the government’s pledge “to fix the broken housing market, it is not doing enough to help those on modest incomes access decent and secure housing. Conference is concerned that the government has failed to comprehend the ways in which social housing could be used to tackle the housing crisis. The government’s housing policy remains focused on promoting home-ownership and encouraging the development of costly types of housing, including so called “affordable rent homes” priced at 80 per cent of market rates which are expensive and beyond the reach of the low paid, and helping the privileged to buy their own home through schemes such as the Right to Buy and Help to Buy. The government needs to take urgent action to address the housing crisis to ensure that the low paid have access to homes they can afford.

The Right to Buy and barriers to new council house building have resulted in reduced democratic accountability with the housing sector. This stealth privatisation needs to be reversed as a matter of urgency and Conference believes a massive council house building programme is essential to achieve this. Recent measures to provide housing associations with longer-term strategic partnership funding from 2022, to build more “affordable homes”, including social housing, and the scrapping of the Housing Revenue Account borrowing cap, which prevented councils from borrowing to invest in new homes, are steps in the right direction. However, they are not sufficient to address the depth and scale of the crisis unless the Right to Buy is suspended, as in Scotland and Wales, and ultimately ended as soon as practicable, and councils are supported with significant grant funding to build more homes for people on modest incomes.

With household growth projected to be higher in the South East, London and parts of the midlands over the next decade and government funded social house building at an all time low, there is an urgent need for innovative, bold and radical measures to resolve the deepening housing crisis.

Conference calls on the National Executive Council to:

1) Continue to make the case for decent, secure, safe and affordable housing, particularly those provided directly by councils and housing associations, to ensure that there are sufficient homes for workers on modest incomes;

2) Work with Defend Council Housing, Homes For All and Axe The Housing Act to campaign for increased building of council homes;

3) Highlight the cost of housing in pay campaigns to ensure that our members have additional income to pay for their housing costs and campaign for £10 an hour minimum wage;

4) Produce a housing manifesto document setting out UNISON’s policies on dealing with the housing crisis and use this to galvanise support for UNISON’s campaign for improvements in housing policy.

Conference calls on the National Executive Council to lobby the Westminster Government and devolved administrations where appropriate to:

a) Give councils and housing associations increased financial flexibilities to enable them to build more social homes at scale;

b) Establish a new definition of “affordable housing” linked to people’s income not market prices, and scrap the so called “affordable rent homes”, which makes some social homes inaccessible to the low paid;

c) Reform the land market to make it cheaper and easier for local authorities to build new homes;

d) Set up a “Homebuilding Capacity Fund” to help councils to build capacity to deliver “a new generation of council homes”, to ensure that they have the resources to recreate architectural, design and engineering teams and modern direct labour organisations to boost house-building;

e) Introduce stronger measures to regulate the private rented sector, including indefinite tenancies, a system of rent caps to limit rent increases, and increased rights and protections for private renters to improve standards and affordability in private renting, as Scotland has done;

f) End the Right to Buy scheme as soon as practicable.

Further we believe that the above are only possible, provided that an incoming Labour Government makes a commitment to build 500,000 Council homes a year in conjunction, with other measures in the Labour parties Green Paper as part of a ten year housing plan, to resolve the crisis in housing once and for all.