Between 2013 and 2014 I worked as a community organiser on a social housing estate in South London. If you’ve never seen “First World” poverty, you probably think it’s not that bad to be poor in the West. London is an expensive place to live, so if you have a low-paying job, along with the housework, your job and raising however many kids you have, you have to be incredibly organised and careful with your money to be able to make all your payments and claim all the benefits to which you’re entitled.
The old social housing of London is falling to pieces. Since the Thatcher government encouraged renters to buy their own council houses in the 80s, the stock of social housing has fallen, and the money the government received from council house purchases was not ploughed back into building more social housing units to replace the old stock. Since the 80s, governments have worked on the assumption that the private sector could meet this demand.
Except that it can’t. Private companies want to make a profit, and in the short term, the profit margins on social housing are tiny. Instead, the private rental sector has boomed, and the government’s housing benefit bill has shot up. Instead of housing these people themselves, as the government used to, it is now channeling money into the hands of landlords. Some of the politicians who have supported these policies are large private landlords themselves.
Across London, the cost of living is rising, especially for renters, and many are sinking beneath the poverty line, unable to keep up. This has been exacerbated by the Bedroom Tax, which cuts 25% of a social housing tenant’s housing benefit if they have two or more unoccupied rooms. At one public meeting I went to at Brixton Town Hall, one woman related that she had her benefits cut after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, all because her daughter left to go to university and she now had a spare room. Her housing association was offering her new accommodation in a city hours away from London.
This is happening all across London, in a move people are referring to as “social cleansing“. As money flows into areas close to central London, those on low incomes are pushed out as rich investors buy up properties in those districts—many as a kind of “international reserve currency” through which they launder illegal money. This problem is widely acknowledged, with dodgy foreign government officials from dictatorships across the world sinking their ill gotten gains into huge property portfolios, many of which sit empty.
Much of the anger at the consequences of gentrification is aimed at local councils. This has frustrated councillors I have spoken to who believe that this anger is misplaced. Cash-strapped councils must make tough choices, they say. And in the absence of any mechanism for rent controls, there is little that councillors can do when an area becomes desirable and private renting costs start to spiral.
It’s not surprising therefore, that the Trussel Trust, which helps manage a network of about 1,300 foodbanks across the UK (which they estimate to be around 40% of the UK’s food bank total) have seen a massive rise in the numbers of people using them. According to Trussel, the total number of uses of the foodbanks they support increased from 25,899 in 2008-9 to over 1 million in 2014-15.
Now, energy company nPower is working with the Trussel Trust to provide vouchers to people living in fuel poverty so they can heat their houses in the winter. Trials of fuel banks have so far helped around 750 people who have already been referred to foodbanks. NPower sees this initiative as part of its corporate responsibility and Energy Company Obligation, under which it spent £65 million last winter on improvements to insulation and boiler repair.
However, this assistance is only available to private renters or homeowners. I saw for myself how fuel poverty affects many living in social housing because of the high cost of heating apartments with no insulation. Often the private housing association wants to demolish old blocks to build new apartments, some of which could be sold as ‘buy-to-let’ in order to subsidise the low-cost units they are obligated to provide. Tenants are left for years not knowing if or when their houses will be demolished, or if they will be adequately re-housed. Housing, food, and fuel insecurity all go together, making the lives of those living in poverty unbearable.
Adrian Curtis, the Foodbank Network Director of the Trussel Trust says that his organisation’s goal is not “to replace the welfare system,” and that the Trust seeks to influence policy only through its publication of data on food bank usage. But whether the new Tory government is able to identify, let alone tackle the root causes of poverty is highly debatable. Their current policy is to continue selling off social housing and hope that private companies will build more “affordable housing”, which can cost up to 80% of market rate.
But this would not help a lot of people who live in poor-quality housing. Tony Blair’s New Labour government pledged a “Decent Homes” standard, which required local authorities to make sure all their social housing met minimum levels by 2010. This promise was never realised.
If successive governments had bothered to invest in low-cost housing, there wouldn’t be so many people on low incomes who are struggling to pay rent. London is now such an expensive place to live, it might as well be an amusement park for oligarchs with signs warning, “You must be this rich to enter”.