Fears about the incoming bedroom tax are growing, along with speculation about the likely consequences. Some tenants might stay but not pay the difference between their local housing allowance and their actual rent. They face eviction when discretionary housing payments, limited to six months, run out in October. Mass evictions due to arrears seem certain. Government advice for tenants with a “spare” room is ill-informed or callous. Suggesting part-time workers do a few more hours work to cover costs is deluded when an extra 63 hours are required in certain circumstances .
Tenants might attempt to downsize, which isn’t easy, not just because moving is expensive (van hire to pay for, deposits to find etc). No: there is another glaring problem. Private developers build – and control – most newbuild one and two bedroom flats.
I used to live in one such flat, which I named dovecots (elsewhere – Euroboxes, or more rudely twat-flats). They were built in every city, aimed at a desirable, and perhaps mythical societal group: renting young professionals, not yet owner-occupiers. Some newbuilds often had comedy aspirational names – something unconvincingly edgy, such as “The Edge”.
Private landlords everywhere are reluctant to house claimants, indeed some are forbidden to do so by mortgage providers and insurers citing an unsubstantiated increased risk of default and vandalism. But why did private developers build those smaller flats?
Steve Turner, speaking for the National Federation of Housebuilders, told me: “The private sector must build what is viable.” Developers claim the high cost of land compels them to cram as many units as possible into vacant plots, if they are to maximise profits. This explains their love of low-rise intensive developments.
Private-sector rents far exceed those of social housing, so anyone who could move into a small newbuild will ultimately add to the benefit bill. But these flats are often unsuitable for children, being far from schools, nurseries and health centres. Childless, claiming tenants (often in work, remember) might be able to relocate to a one-bed within their benefit limit. But if they subsequently have children, they might then rejoin the queue for social housing, needing (and being entitled to) a separate room for their baby. They could wait for about 50 years. And around we go.
Meanwhile the social housing sector is, through no fault of its own, unable to cater for changing demographics, reflected by the lack of one-bed homes fit for new archetypes such as empty-nesters, divorced-dads and vulnerable singletons. Even disabled tenants who have paid for special adaptations are affected (and if there’s one thing the private-rental sector avoids more than claimants, it’s disabled claimants).
Gill Payne, director of campaigns and neighbourhoods for the National Housing Federation, explains that housing associations don’t have enough smaller homes available to house the 660,000 people across the country who will be affected by the bedroom tax:
“For decades, housing associations have been encouraged to build bigger family homes so that families settle in one home for their entire lifetime, creating happy and stable communities. Now the housing policy has changed and those very same residents are being penalised.”
Social housing providers could buy some of these empty newbuilds and cut their waiting lists. Unfortunately, thousands of these developers’ flats were declared unsuitable for social housing because they were notorious for shoddy building standards, raising the question: who passed them as fit for habitation in the first place?
I am currently writing a PhD proposal about life in private rented housing developments: why tenants stay, why they leave, who they are and what they need. My research may confirm that some residents cling to their rare, one-bed social housing flats because newbuilds lack storage. Cupboards were eliminated by “value consultants” employed by developers to cut costs. They also omitted fripperies such as lounge doors.
And so a cliche looms: the dreaded “perfect storm”, where tenants with nowhere to move, rejected by the claimant-averse private sector, face eviction. Where will they live?
This will end very badly indeed.
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