Radical Wales: A Home For Everyone

(Title Image: via Pinterest)

I return to the rolling “Radical Wales” series to look at another possible so-called “radical policy” – this time a universal right to housing/shelter.

What would “A Home For Everyone” mean?

It’s a bit depressing to frame a right to shelter as “radical”, but the truth is that despite all of the well-meaning policies introduced by the Welsh Government, and all of the promises and pledges made by political parties for decades, the housing market and housing system are fundamentally broken.

According to Stats Wales, in 2018-19 31,170 households sought help for homelessness or the threat of homelessness. Of those, 14,160 (45.4%) households received some form of assistance into housing or were subject to preventative action to stop them from becoming homeless in the first place. The latest rough-sleeper count (from November 2018) put the figure at 347.

But homelessness isn’t just about rough-sleepers even if they’re the most visible sign to society of housing problems. It’s not about individuals being down on their luck either, but how the housing system works in the first place.

There are issues like disproportionately high house prices, a general lack of affordable homes (and developers wriggling out of affordable home commitments), “hidden homelessness” (i.e. sofa surfing, squatting, B&Bs), welfare reform and the bedroom tax, the decline of social housing and council house building as well as a variety of issues in the private rental sector like the buy-to-let market. This could have a massive social impact in the future as at the start of 2019, 26% of under-35s still lived in their parental home – with higher rates amongst men.

There may also be a mismatch between the types of houses being built and housing need. Of the 31,170 homeless (or homeless-threatened) households listed earlier, 18,540 of them (59.5%) were single-person households yet the number of one and two-bedroom developments and rentals for the open market (as opposed to students) are thin on the ground (anecdotally-speaking).

Giving people a right to housing – as in a fixed address that a person (or family) either owns or are the named tenant of – might be a step too far in practical terms as things stand for a whole host of reasons.

However, a general right to shelter (as in having access to a safe and comfortable living space, including temporary or semi-permanent accommodation) would be the first step towards achieving it. Setting a goal of eliminating all unintentional homelessness and rough-sleeping within 10-15 years is realistic if we’re creative with the possible solutions and address the root cause of housing problems.

Right to Shelter: Case Studies

 

(Title Image: BRC)

A right to housing/right to shelter is supposed to be guaranteed via Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In practice though, housing isn’t a human right and is rarely legally actionable.

There are some examples where a right to at least basic shelter, or a progressive housing policy, has been introduced.

New York State, United States – In 1979, the New York Supreme Court ordered the state and city to provide shelter to the homeless following a lawsuit. A settlement was reached in 1981. Over the years this has lead to the homeless being put up in private rentals and hotel rooms as a temporary measure. More recently, the move has been towards opening modern shelters/temporary apartments which provide the homeless (including whole families) with easy access to social services. 11 such shelters (including the Landing Road development, pictured above) have opened by mid-2018 and each shelter accommodates up to 400 people. While it’s not a permanent fix to housing problems and homelessness remains at record levels, the number of rough-sleepers in New York City is a fraction of that of similar cities like Los Angeles.

Vienna, Austria – 60% of people in the Austrian capital live in public or co-operative housing. It’s not just the working classes either, with the upper-income threshold to qualify for public housing set at just over €45,000-a-year for a single person and €68,000 for a couple. This has created what’s described as economically-mixed communities, while publicly or cooperatively-owned housing isn’t allowed to be sold. Despite this, homelessness in Vienna hasn’t been eliminated.

Canada – An Act recognising housing as a basic human right was passed by the Canadian Parliament and became law during June 2019. The law contained several measures to hold the Canadian and provincial governments accountable, including the establishment of a National Housing Advocate/ “Housing Tsar”. The Conservatives recently proposed something similar for Wales.

Top 3 Arguments For A Right to Shelter

It could end housing discrimination – Housing is one of the few areas where men, in general, tend to have it worse than women, namely because where housing is rationed men are much less likely to be considered a priority need. There’s also a general societal expectation that men should live independently by default. Many statistics (pdf) put male rough-sleepers at more than 80-85%+ of the total figure and men are more likely to be in groups disproportionately represented amongst the homeless (addicts, ex-prisoners, ex-armed forces) – except for people fleeing domestic violence and refugees (groups which may include children). There’s also an element of housing discrimination or unconscious bias based on relationship status, with single men usually bottom of the pile and married couples towards the top. There may also be a racist element.

It could save taxpayers’ money in the longer-run – Figures from homeless charity The Wallich estimated that an intervention in a single homeless person’s life can save the state anything between £3,000 to £51,000 a year depending on the circumstances of the person. Adequate permanent housing provides stability, certainty and a point of contact so it’s perhaps easier for people with complex problems to get and maintain help when compared to living on the streets or being moved from place to place. You sort out housing and you can start to make big inroads into sorting out many other problems too.

Better planning practices and more mixed communities – A right to shelter and/or housing might force a reconsideration of how new communities are planned from the start. There could be a greater emphasis on the type of new dwellings required rather than the number, while putting social housing alongside private rental and owner-occupied housing could prevent the “ghettoisation” of certain communities or groups. As big developers continue to put profits first, smaller and more innovative local developers could be incentivised to come up with new ways to deliver smaller, niche housing developments (some of which I touch on later).

Top 3 Arguments Against A Right to Shelter

State dependency – The idea that you can house all people does have a utopian bent; even in the Soviet Union there were housing shortages despite housing costs rarely making up a large proportion of a household’s outgoings due to various subsidies. While I assume most people will argue that a guaranteed right to shelter is a good thing, a right to permanent housing could potentially give the government quite extraordinary powers over someone’s life. Right-wing libertarians and conservatives may argue it takes away someone’s responsibility for looking after themselves and participate in the housing market pyramid scheme.

A disincentive to address the root causes of homelessness – The threat of losing your home or finding yourself on the street ought to act as a big incentive to not put yourself in that position in the first place, but of course life doesn’t work like that. Making sure someone has a roof over their head may only be a sticking plaster. Homelessness (and the threat of such) is often the sign of a bigger problem: unemployment (and the impact of the free market generally), addictions, poor financial management skills, a lack of suitable housing stock, mental health and behavioural problems. Simply “warehousing” people in specialised housing settings or shelters isn’t, by itself, going to improve someone’s life if it doesn’t come with specialist support to address the reasons behind it. It may even make it easier for these people – often at the very bottom rung of the social ladder – to be hidden away and forgotten about.

Inefficiency due to potentially fewer market-driven developments – A right to housing or shelter could, ironically, lead to a shortage of housing if it’s accompanied by new planning rules which (rightly or wrongly) impact developers’ profit margins or discourages people from privately renting. The solution to this would be to boost the resources available to housing associations and local authorities to fill gaps left by private developers, but that’s easier said than done. You could end up with social housing being built in inappropriate places or on “infill sites” simply to be built as quickly as possible with no thought given to the required facilities or what it would be like to live there. Private developers do, usually, at least know where not to build.

Alternatives to a universal Right to Shelter

 

(Pic: Housing Today)

No housing, no release/discharge – A controversial measure would be to prevent prisoners being released, or people being discharged from the armed forces or social and/or psychiatric care, without accommodation being secured beforehand. This sounds like common sense, but it would probably be harder to achieve in practice and the obvious consequence would be people being held against their will. Prisoners and ex-forces are advised on housing before release but are often left to make arrangements themselves when they perhaps need a bit more help. Introducing new or specialist housing models might be one way to deal with it, including….

“Refuge villages” – I doubt many people want an ex-prisoner living next to them or near them, particularly if they’ve committed certain offences (i.e. sex offenders). In some American states, “haven” communities have been established to ensure single ex-prisoners have somewhere to live and rehabilitate themselves after release. Small villages could be built in isolated rural valleys to house people leaving secure accommodation who simply wouldn’t be able to integrate into mainstream society immediately, or would otherwise be at risk (or a risk to others). The “villagers” – perhaps overseen by the third sector, housing associations and a permanent rotating police and social service presence – could take on responsibility for running local services if they otherwise can’t work elsewhere or until they find alternative mainstream accommodation.

Bringing down the costs of construction: Prefabrication & “Tiny Houses” – This is another area in which Wales is starting to experiment for the first time since the post-war era, though prefabrication has been commonplace in other parts of Europe for decades – particularly Germany, where the Huf Haus concept is popular. At the moment, prefabricated houses tend to be aimed at the higher end of the market, but costs are coming down and smaller, basic homes – some of which are built to higher standards than the type of homes you see on modern estates – can often be built for under £80,000 (well within the “affordable” bracket).

Barebones developments – Housing developments in the future could see developers install the necessary infrastructure (roads, active travel, electricity, water, broadband, community facilities etc.) with households paying a down payment on a plot (with the land itself perhaps being kept in public ownership with a ground rent) then building/installing a customised prefabricated home on the land itself. This could be one way to address young people leaving rural Wales without simultaneously impacting the second home market, especially if construction was restricted to permanent residents and key workers. I’m not talking about Grand Designs-style houses, but more basic models as mentioned above.

Legal protections for rough-sleepers seeking shelter in public places – If a homeless person isn’t causing a safety-critical issue in a public place, such as blocking a fire exit, then they should be left alone by the authorities, business owners and the public. All of this would probably require the repeal of the Vagrancy Act 1824. Likewise, there could be greater protections for their property to prevent confiscation without due cause (i.e exceptions for drugs and alcohol). Some local authorities run emergency shelters during severe weather (alongside third sector operated shelters), but ideally that would be a year-round thing with nobody turned away on condition that they actively engage with authorities to seek temporary or permanent housing.

Rent controls, buy-to-let limits and long-term secure tenancies – There are advantages and disadvantages to setting rent controls. Caps could be applied (to both social and private tenants) based on average house prices and average incomes in a given postcode area, though the cap could exclude (freshly regulated) leasehold and ground rent fees. There could also be restrictions applied to buy-to-lets for landlords who aren’t registered social landlords and rent more than one property – though there’s always a danger of creating loopholes. The disadvantages could include landlords cutting back on routine maintenance or withdrawing investment which could lead to more properties being left empty.

Intervention before eviction – A Pre-Action Protocol for Possession exists for social landlords and mortgage lenders, but seemingly not for private landlords. A blanket “no evictions” policy would be unpopular with private landlords, but there’s no reason to dismiss it out of hand except for cases where the owner of a property is seeking to use it themselves. The Welsh Government recently announced that the notice period for “no-fault evictions” is set to be extended to 1 year. Similar to the Pre-Action Protocol, for those cases where someone is at threat of eviction for being at fault (i.e. rent arrears, anti-social behaviour), the first recourse should be intervention to figure out what the problem is and how it happened before a landlord can start possession order proceedings. There could be enhanced legal protections for all tenants, meaning a possession order/eviction notice can be suspended if the tenant agrees to a mediated series of conditions or in order to give them enough time to secure alternative housing.

Ban “No DSS” notices by private landlords – This tends to happen because of mortgage rules for buy-to-lets (or it’s a convenient excuse), but there’s probably a healthy amount of class prejudice too. There have been moves from within the industry (such as by Rightmove and Zoopla) to block advertising under “No DSS” terms.

How could Wales introduce a Right to Shelter?

 

Slum of the future? Or potential housing solution? (Pic: BBC Wales)

Politically-speaking, the idea has a lot of support.

As mentioned, the Conservatives recently launched a 10-point plan to end homelessness, while at their recent party conference Plaid Cymru agreed to a policy of ending homelessness within ten years of forming a government.

The Welsh Government/Labour has expressed a desire to follow a “rights-based” approach to housing and a “housing first” approach to homelessness – whether they’ll follow that through or not depends on politics and money. Labour has long set lofty goals and made the right noises on the big issues of the day but either doesn’t follow things through to conclusion or waters down proposals after being put under pressure to do so by civil servants, task and finish groups and alike.

The two avenues to introduce this would be legislative/constitutional and policy-based.

A written Welsh Constitution could guarantee a right to shelter for everyone, which can be contested in the courts if it isn’t upheld in the right spirit; you assume housing charities would act as the “watchdog” while a Welsh Supreme Court (or equivalent) would interpret what a right to shelter means in practice.

As mentioned, the Welsh Government want to follow a rights-based approach to housing and whether that requires an update to Welsh housing law is a political matter. You would also assume that a proven local connection would still be required for people to access public housing – though this could be waived for protected groups like refugees, asylum seekers and travellers (providing an appropriate number of traveller sites will have to be factored in too).

In terms of practical policies to ensure all people in Wales have access to shelter (particularly in terms on increasing housing supply), some of them have been covered in the alternatives listed above. One possible solution was raised recently by the Local Government & Housing Minister: converting empty student apartments into social housing  – see also Student Flats: From Boom to Bubble? There’ve also been calls for more to be done to bring empty housing back into use and some councils have introduced stricter empty property and second home policies.

It should be relatively straightforward to modify the interior of student apartments. That could be to create studio apartments for the people most at-risk of becoming homeless (mainly single middle-aged men) or semi-permanent housing for families as an alternative to bed and breakfast. It would have to be done to a high enough standard so that people could potentially live there for some time, maybe even permanently, if there’s no alternative housing elsewhere.

This would effectively create a new planning category for housing (you could call it long-term transitionary housing) and developers could be required to include housing in this category within new developments on top of their contribution towards affordable housing targets (which itself needs to be properly enforced).

You could easily picture such developments being run by housing associations, with some areas used communally alongside on-site access to specialist help for those who need it, or dedicated space set aside to be used by visiting specialist services. There a clear argument for some conversions to be either sex segregated (for singles, domestic abuse victims) or mixed (refugees, other families and couples-only).

While you would hope such housing would have a mix of residents at the bottom of the housing ladder – students, young people starting their careers, smaller families and singles otherwise at risk of homelessness or remaining in their parental home – there would be a genuine risk that if these conversions weren’t socially mixed from the start they would become high-rise slums similar to the tower blocks of the 1960s and 1970s, not Viennese-style social housing.

A “one size fits all” approach wouldn’t necessarily work; converting empty student flats might be good enough in terms of numbers, but you would expect domestic violence refuges and housing for people with ongoing mental health problems and alike to remain relatively discrete and smaller in scale.

There are examples in my area like Ty Ogwr (vulnerable adult homeless), Vesta Court (homeless with addictions), Cornerstone House (bed and breakfast alternative) and Cefn yr Afon (mental health rehabilitation) developments in Bridgend town centre.

Price Waterhouse Cooper, on behalf of Shelter (pdf p420), estimated that it would cost £534million (at 2017 prices) to end homelessness in Wales, broken down as:

  • £18million to end rough-sleeping.
  • £370million to ensure people weren’t living in sub-standard housing, tents or squats.
  • £101million to ensure nobody was living in emergency accommodation.
  • £3million to ensure nobody leaving a state institution or care ends up homeless.
  • £42million to ensure everyone immediately at risk of homelessness gets help to prevent it from happening.

In 2015, an average en-suite student apartment was said to cost £35,000 to build at the lower-end, so you would expect a single development of 300 or so to cost maybe £12-15million depending on what facilities are on-site and what sort of cost overruns you would expect. Based on average Cardiff supported social rents in 2019-20 (£114-a-week; £456-a-month), you would expect such a development to raise (if fully let) at least £1.64million in rental income a year.

The single biggest factor – which hasn’t been explored here in any great detail – is reversing welfare reform or developing a new system for supported housing costs. Housing benefit has been gradually phased out for non-pensioners and the non-disabled and replaced with a local housing allowance – linked to universal credit – which only part-covers a household’s rent and has been blamed for driving homelessness.

That’s an entire topic in its own right which deserves to be given full consideration another time – but I’m putting it here to state that it hasn’t been overlooked. Just think of this article as “Part I” (of sorts).

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