I’ve been paying rent for twenty-seven years. By the age of twelve my son had moved home with me six times. The first time he was barely six months old, we were evicted just before Christmas because the landlord had reneged on his mortgage. The longest we’ve lived together in a property is five years, but that ended when our landlords decided to sell.
This is the reality of private renting. It is incredibly insecure.
The last place we rented privately almost caught fire because of damp in very old, dangerous electrics. The estate agents and landlord were impertinent. I spent two years complaining about damp so severe water dripped through a light bulb, but they were concerned only for their costs, not our health and safety. So when we were offered a council flat I felt enormous relief – some security, somewhere we could finally call our home, at last.
The recent news that council rentals will be restricted to two to five year contracts comes as a massive blow. There is a housing crisis, an enormous shortage of social housing thanks to Right to Buy and years of successive Government neglect. I could buy my council flat (I’m not saying I could afford to, I’m saying I have the right to) but I choose not to even investigate this option. I disagree with Right to Buy on principle, and believe my home should be available for the next family in line if/when we leave for whatever reason. The Government have just imposed Right To Buy on housing association properties (against everyone else’s better judgment). They encourage renters to buy their council/housing association homes (in my opinion there’s another agenda at work, as many councils seemingly can’t afford to keep their homes fit for purpose). This reduces the number of properties available to let – they are, for the most part, not being replaced. Yet the Government are using the housing shortage to justify short-term lets, robbing council tenants of the stability and security that’s always distinguished council homes from the private sector.
David Cameron believes restricting the rentals to five years maximum will help ‘increase social mobility’. He’s applying the same misguided logic his Government use to justify benefit cuts and the spare room subsidy (bedroom tax), that it will motivate people to work, find a better job. He’s assuming people in social housing don’t already have jobs? That we don’t aspire to own our own home? I can only speak for myself, but, if I were to a) earn a better salary or b) win the lottery, I’d jump at the chance to get my boy and me a little two bed of our own. His argument is ignorant, myopic nonsense.
There is a glimmer of common sense/hope in the suggestion that local authorities can review a tenant’s situation as the end of the fixed term nears, but enormous waiting lists indicate that tenants will have a battle on their hands. It will be the most vulnerable who won’t be able to fight their corner. And the new rules also mean tenancies can’t be handed down to live-in relatives, such as children, if the main tenant dies.
Now, to the two to five year maximum contract. This is unhelpful and unrealistic on so many levels. It cost me around £1,600 to move into our flat. I count my blessings – I was in a position to borrow and repay this money, not everyone is. I had to buy carpets, curtains, decorate (everything, including ceilings), install a phone line, aerial and so on. Then there are the moving costs. It took about two years to pay back the money I’d borrowed. As council properties literally are a shell, most tenants invest a lot of cash and graft to make their homes habitable. The new fixed term contracts make that investment pointless. You may then face the challenge of finding a private rental that not only meets your needs, but accepts children, people on benefits, and is close enough to school and or work. Imagine having to change your child’s school every couple of years, as well as their home. How does that impact on them, their education, their friendships? You also have to raise the funds for a month’s rent and bond in advance, ready to move into private accommodation.
The purpose of social housing is that it offers security and stability, and in a climate of such insecurity that is even more valuable. A climate where private tenants can be evicted for no reason or face ridiculous rent increases. Where the sign ‘No DSS’ is still used. Where a complaint about a leaky roof can result in eviction. Where millionaire landlords like Fergus and Judith Wilson can make people on benefits homeless, yet feel they are hard-done-by because of the credit crunch and property taxes. Where 100,000 children will be homeless this Christmas.
(Please really think about that last one).
Restricting council tenancies will not solve a social housing crisis. It will exacerbate an already dire situation that should not even be an issue in a first world country.