An unaffordable city?

Deborah Padfield, 2015 Feb 07
One of the richest cities in the world
One of the richest cities in the world

Winter’s a bad time to be street homeless. It’s much less common in Saffron Walden where I work than in Cambridge, but even we had three street homeless clients around Christmas. We rang the homeless shelters in Cambridge, Braintree, Bishops Stortford, Chelmsford and Haverhill. All were full. We found temporary fixes, but it wasn’t easy.

We also found that the nearest privately rented two-bed flat that was affordable on housing benefit and willing to take benefit claimants without a previous landlord reference was on the east coast of Essex. Grim.

So I wasn’t surprised this afternoon when I spent an hour failing to find affordable private accommodation in Cambridge. Cambridge City, after all, has the highest private sector rents of any UK city outside London. We are overall one of England’s ten most unaffordable cities for housing.

How housing benefit works

The ‘bedroom tax’ reduces the Housing Benefit paid to social tenants ‘under-occupying’ their property. The private sector has long had an equivalent cap on maximum Housing Benefit according to region (‘Broad Market Rental Area’) and household size. The ‘Local Housing Allowance’ provides a single-room rate for single under-35s, one-bedroom property rate for older singles and childless couples, and so on up with additional bedrooms according to number and age of children, to a maximum of a four-bedroom rate.

Rents and housing benefit

In Cambridge city, there were two offers on Rightmove below the single-room rate (£79.72pw), and no others within a ten-mile radius. Within a five-mile radius there was a one- and a three-bed caravan below the relevant limits (£124.80pw for one bedroom, £166.78pw for three bedrooms). Nothing else. Within a ten-mile radius there was one one-bedroom, two two-bedroom and one three-bedroom property, plus the caravans, within the limit.

In most cases, the gap between benefit and lowest-priced property was large. People with no income save benefits, so receiving maximum Housing Benefit, would have to pay something like £40pw to make up their rent. Job Seekers Allowance for a single person is £72.40pw, and for a couple is £113.70pw. For significantly disabled people there’s an extra £28.75 or £35.75pw according to degree of need. Even people on full benefits now have to pay something also towards their Council Tax.

This doesn’t only affect unwaged people. Nationwide, employed claimants of Housing Benefit doubled to 22.5% of the total between 2008 and 2014. Not that there’s a hard line between employed and unemployed people. More and more are living with zero-hours, ‘labour-matching‘ or ‘key-time’ contracts or are self-employed, their pay continually fluctuating so their need of benefits fluctuates also. There’s always a time-lag between claim and payment. If nationwide a quarter of private tenants say they’ve had to cut back on food and heating to pay the rent, the proportion has to be higher in Cambridge.

It’s a nightmare; one that’s getting worse even though Housing Benefit takes the biggest chunk of the welfare bill after state pensions, plus further payments for Support for Mortgage Interest (payable after 13 weeks on means-tested benefits).

Trying to hang on to a home

We at Uttlesford CAB see a constant flow of possession actions for rent and mortgage arrears. It’s hard to advise someone that their only hope of housing is to move to a cheaper area, particularly when they have children in school, friends or relatives nearby, jobs or some knowledge of the job market locally. Our debt team struggle to help people make their income and expenditure add up.

If can be done at all, it generally means an indefinitely austere life, with minimal scope for emergencies or a little occasional extravagance (a birthday-meal out?); a life that a comfortable household would indignantly reject. Cambridge CAB clients are in the same boat.

We’re continually in touch with the Local Authority. We ask them as landlords to give the tenant more time to find some way forward. To grant a Discretionary Housing Payment to subsidise housing benefit. To use their equally discretionary help with a rent deposit to enable someone to take a cheaper place. The pressure on Local Authorities is intense.

Council strategies

I’ll talk in another article about social housing, owned by Local Authorities or Housing Associations. Clearly it interacts with the situation for private renting as Housing Association ‘affordable rents’ rise and the amount of council housing falls under central government policy.

Equally clearly, Cambridge City and South Cambs District Councils have for years struggled in the face of economic downturn and government policy. They’re in a hard place.

Cambridge City’s Housing Strategy 2012-2015 is unemotively chilling. The inadequacy of the Local Housing Allowance to meet local rents is spelt out, as is the impact of cuts in welfare benefit payments and other services. Attempts to find private landlords to rent affordably to homeless people have struggled; the City works with other regional Councils in Cambridgeshire to run the ‘Town Hall Lettings‘ scheme that acts as a lettings agent ‘with a difference’ for private landlords, but it’s uphill work.

Cambridge City also asks for households willing to let an empty room to someone in need. The City’s Single Homelessness Service offers help to those in ‘priority need’ and sleeping rough or at risk thereof, warning them that offers of accommodation will almost certainly be outside the City because of cost.

The City and South Cambs try to bring empty properties back into use; though we don’t have unusually high numbers of empties in national terms, there are apparently enough to “house the entire social housing waiting list of either council”.

Disrepair in the private sector is a problem, though. Cambridge City has a higher-than-national-average proportion of private sector housing, of Houses in Multiple Occupation and of pre-1919 housing. When the 2012-2015 Strategy was written, about 37% of private housing failed the Decent Homes Standard, 23% having ‘serious’ hazards related to extreme cold. In 2013, the City Council reported that 16.2% of City households were fuel-poor on 2010 data, an increase of 4.2% from 2009. In 2007-12, we had on average 31 ‘excess winter deaths’ each year.

A diverse city – work to be done!

Keep digging and more complexities emerge. We have an diverse ethnic minority population. Our biggest non-white group is Chinese, who include both the universities’ backbone of foreign fee-paying students and a local community who are, according to the 2001 census, most likely to lack central heating.

Travellers are the biggest ethnic minority in Cambridgeshire as a whole. Cambridge has relatively few, mainly settled, but there are concentrated pockets as in East Chesterton, one of the 30% most deprived areas nationally. If anyone’s interested in the City Council’s Minority Ethnic Housing Strategy, it’s a worthwhile read.

No easy answers. We’re a city with extremes of wealth and poverty. We’re a growth area and a beacon of economic success but an unaffordable place where the struggle to maintain housing diversity is up against intractable economic forces.

It’s good that people are active in working for a more habitable future. Plenty to be done.