‘We won’t back down!’: Mothers resisting homelessness in the capital expose the indignity of our housing system

Common Weal head of policy Ben Wray charts how mothers - often the hardest hit by the benefit cap - in Edinburgh are organising against the injustices in the housing system

AS winter comes in, and the nights get cold and icy, the spectre of homelessness for people all over Scotland becomes that little bit more frightening. This winter is set to be bad. A combination of cuts, increased cost of living and an acute housing crisis is taking its toll, forcing people into destitution.

In north Edinburgh, a group of mothers are fighting back. The All About Me group is organising to defend families threatened with eviction from their homes due to the benefit cap stripping them of their means of paying the rent. 

The group has been setting up meetings, protests and lobbying efforts to press home their message. The benefit cap restricts the amount of welfare support one family can receive. It is, therefore, a cut which targets children in large families. Ninety per cent of all Scottish households affected by the cap have children (11,200 in total). 

The benefit cap restricts the amount of welfare support one family can receive. It is, therefore, a cut which targets children in large families.

The cap hits single parent families particularly hard, of which 85 per cent are female. It therefore specifically aims to discriminate against and impoverish children in large families, single parents and women.

In 2016, the cap was reduced from £26,000 to £20,000. This has caused a mushrooming of families hit by it in Scotland, with those in private rented accommodation at particular threat of eviction. Shelter Scotland has had legal cases where single parents have had their housing benefit reduced to 50p per week.

There are no figures as of yet on the number of people in Scotland made homeless as a direct result of the benefit cap, but All About Me has highlighted the problem in the north of Edinburgh and revealed a growing scandal of families made destitute. 

News reports of women and children forced out of their homes and living out of boxes in dirty, unsafe hotels have revealed the dark reality. Ann Wedderburn, 33, was put in a hotel considered the "worst in Scotland, maybe Europe" with her three children, she told the Daily Record

"Mentally, it was awful," she said. "I was crying, the children were crying. It didn’t feel real. I kept thinking something would happen, that the nightmare wasn’t real – but it was."

All About Me has highlighted the problem in the north of Edinburgh and revealed a growing scandal of families made destitute. 

This is a problem everywhere, but Edinburgh is a city where the crisis for those hit by the benefit cap and faced with homelessness can be especially severe. With rents rising by 25 per cent since 2010, and an unusually large shortage of social housing, the situation is becoming desperate in the capital.

The following statistics show the extent of the problem in Edinburgh:

- The Scottish average for social housing homeless provision is 60 per cent - in Edinburgh less than one in three are put up in social housing, with the rest put in bed and breakfasts, hostels and other places

- Social housing homelessness accommodation has fallen seven per cent in just a year in Edinburgh

- Edinburgh City Council is paying out £120,000 per week on hotels, bed and breakfasts and for temporary homeless accommodation

- The Winter Care Centre run by Bethany Christian Trust has seen a 132 per cent rise in usage in Edinburgh since 2012/13 – some nights it is too full to take people

- Each social rented property in Edinburgh attracts an average of 147 bids (notes of interest) from people who are homeless, living in overcrowded accommodation or who have medical priority

- The average waiting time for homeless applicants to secure a social rented property is 12–18 months

- Until early 2015, families were not placed into any type of bed and breakfast accommodation in Edinburgh

With rents rising by 25 per cent since 2010, and an unusually large shortage of social housing, the situation is becoming desperate in the capital.

How did it come to this, where a city as wealthy as Edinburgh can’t afford to house homeless families? To understand it, we need to get to grips with the fact that there has been a sea change in our housing system, from public provision to profit maximisation.

In the 1970s, over 80 per cent of the government’s housing budget went towards the construction of homes and maintenance of council housing. Today, 85 per cent of the housing budget is spent on subsidies for private-sector housing, in the form of housing benefit and subsidies for first-time mortgage buyers.

From 1950 to the early 1970s we never built less than 20,000 council houses per year in Scotland. Since 1981 we’ve never built more than about 7,000 per year in Scotland.

Council housing wasn’t perfect, but it met all of the basic requirements for housing security and was self funding – rent returns more than covered costs. People of mixed incomes would all live in council housing, and when they died someone else who needed it would get the home.

Today, what we have instead is a system based on asset price inflation – the rise in the value of land and property determined by 'the market'. House prices in Scotland have tripled since 2000. In Edinburgh, the average price is now £246,000.

From 1950 to the early 1970s we never built less than 20,000 council houses per year in Scotland. Since 1981 we’ve never built more than about 7,000 per year in Scotland.

This means that those who have property get wealthier, not for anything they produce or any refurbishments they make, but just because the value of their home rises in the market. Only 15 per cent of the increasing cost of homes over the past 40 years is due to increased construction costs – 85 per cent is down purely to asset price inflation.

For everyone who doesn’t own their home, housing gets much more expensive. Since social housing has been in decline, those who can’t afford a mortgage turn to the burgeoning private rented sector and landlords charge the highest rents they can.

Again, landlords don’t charge high rents because it costs them lots of money to maintain the home, nor do they produce anything with the high rents they are charging, they just extract high rents because they can.

So asset price inflation creates unearned income from expensive mortgages and expensive rents, which has to be subsidised by government as housing costs are rising much faster than incomes. This results an increased welfare budget to, in effect, pay landlords and property developers.

Then comes the age of austerity. Surely in the age of austerity landlords, property developers and bankers will be forced to live more austere lives since they are making all this unearned income from asset price inflation?

Those who have property get wealthier, not for anything they produce or any refurbishments they make, but just because the value of their home rises in the market.

Nope. Instead what the government decides to do is reduce the welfare budget for housing by discriminating against large families (the benefit cap) and those with additional rooms (the bedroom tax).

So instead of rent controls, or a tax on rising land values and property prices, or building more social housing, all of which would help tackle the root causes of the problem, it opts to attack the poorest and most vulnerable to protect the bankers, the property developers and the landlords.

A direct line can be drawn between Edinburgh’s property bubble and the city’s failure to provide sufficient social housing accommodation for the homeless. This link, between the neoliberal housing market and homelessness, is not made often enough. Solving the latter requires a willingness to confront the former.

In the meantime, the Scottish Government should plug the gap in welfare support for those hit by the benefit cap, like Holyrood did with the bedroom tax. The Scottish Government has already earmarked £8m from the discretionary housing payment funds for tackling the benefit cap – only an additional £3m would provide full mitigation for the benefits lost from the cap. In governmental terms, £3m is not very much at all.

All About Me has very clear demands for all levels of government, from local authorities to the Scottish Government and to Westminster:

The City of Edinburgh Council must:

- Pay full discretionary housing payment (DHP) to cover the full cost of rents

- House homeless families in decent flats in their local community

The link between the neoliberal housing market and homelessness is not made often enough. Solving the latter requires a willingness to confront the former.

- Build more social housing

- Ensure temporary accommodation meets acceptable standards

- Immediately repair empty council houses and bring them back into use

- Prevent evictions due to the benefit cap

The Scottish Government must:

- Allocate sufficient funds to councils to cover full DHP for the benefit cap

- Regulate private sector rents

With the UK Government budget out next week, pressure must be put to bear on the weak and wobbly Tory government to end austerity once and for all.

The UK Government must:

- Scrap the benefit cap

With the UK Government budget out next week, pressure must be put on the weak and wobbly Tory government to end austerity once and for all. If it really wants to solve the non-existent problem of the budget deficit, it might want to look at closing the loopholes in the tax system which, the Paradise Papers revealed, allows 30-40 per cent of the UK super rich to dodge tax.

(Including, of course, Edinburgh property developers, as the BBC’s 'Scotland’s Paradise Papers' investigation showed).

Of course, they won’t do this, for the same reason that they’d rather continue to subsidise a broken housing system than fix it – because the Tories are the public representatives of elite private interests, and just as the neoliberal housing model is in their interest so is industrial scale tax avoidance.

The Tories are the public representatives of elite private interests, and just as the neoliberal housing model is in their interest so is industrial scale tax avoidance.

The Tories were forced just last month to backtrack on plans for a housing benefit cap in Westminster. They won’t back down of their own volition, but they can be forced to. 

Talking of not backing down, the women of the All About Me group have a song of resistance – the chorus goes like this:

"We have raised our voices and we’ll keep singing out,

"Sticking together, we will work it out.

"Listen politicians, this is happening now –

"We’re not going away, and we won’t back down.

"We won’t back down, we won’t back down!"

Picture courtesy of Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty

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