Let’s Replace Tents with Social Housing

When Suella Braverman recently called homelessness a “lifestyle choice”, her comments sparked intense backlash from homelessness charities. Tony Chasteaneuf, the CEO of Spitalfields Crypt Trust, a homelessness and addiction charity in Tower Hamlets, said ‘The hatred being stroked by this rhetoric breaks community bonds and is breaking humanity … it is exactly this frame of mind that causes othering, isolation and homelessness.’ Multiple charities have expressed that street homelessness is the absolute last resort. Living on the streets is a dangerous and traumatic experience that no individual would resort to without exhausting all other options. Instead of finding ways to put the burden of blame on homeless individuals, we need to ask the government why, in this day and age, they are still relying on charities to hand out food and tents?

Part of the blame game involves dismissing homeless people as addicts, and while addiction and other mental health issues can increase the risk of homelessness, these are often symptoms of sleeping on the street. Of the many factors that can lead to people becoming homeless, recently increasing private rents and rising house prices have been the hardest hit. A report from the National Audit Office said “the key reason why people were presenting as homeless was the end of tenancies in the private rented sector” and that “this was due to increases in rents in the private sector.” Widespread funding cuts have also put hostels under increased financial pressure. Many are having to close, while others are unable to provide services to meet the huge demands. This makes it harder for people to break out of the vicious cycle of homelessness, as the strain of sleeping on the streets makes it much harder to overcome addiction and unemployment. To remove tents from the streets, the government must consider long-term solutions.

Resolving homelessness means resolving the housing crisis and building new homes. The government needs especially to increase the social housing stock. It comes as no surprise that since 2010, as rough sleeping increased by 74%, simultaneously, social housing stock fell by 120,000. With the current pressures of the rising cost of living, more people are struggling to afford a secure place to live. According to Shelter, a housing charity, over 1 million households are waiting for social homes, of which there is a significant lack of supply. Since 1991, there has been an average net loss of 24,000 social homes, and housebuilding has halved in the last 50 years. This has led to chronic shortages, causing a huge hike of 73% in house prices and private rents increasing by 37% between 2008-2022. Furthermore, the lack of social housing has forced people into the private rental market, where the high prices have pushed people into unacceptable living conditions such as overcrowded, damp or structurally unsafe homes.

According to Shelter’s definition, social housing aims to be more affordable than private renting and provide a more secure, long-term tenancy. Ideally, it should be quality controlled to meet the standard for “decent” housing, and there should be enough supply to supply everyone in need. The rents are linked to local incomes, and if rent has to increase, then the amount is limited by the government so that local people are not priced out of the area. These stable and secure tenancies give greater protection from eviction and allow people to put down roots to build a life for themselves. While the government has a current target of building 300,000 homes a year, this does not address the issues with affordability. In the foreword to a 2017 Institute for Public Policy Research report, Sir Michael Lyons said: “We would stress that it is not just the number built but also the balance of tenures and affordability which need to be thought through for an effective housing strategy.” A focus on building houses intended as social homes would help address this problem as it would ensure they were intended for the most vulnerable.

There are long-term monetary benefits for the government in building social housing. £21bn is spent on housing benefits annually, and this money goes straight into the hands of private landlords instead of being put towards dealing with the housing crisis: the root cause as to why people cannot afford long term stable homes. The final report on a commission by Shelter has proposed a 20-year program to build 3.1 million social homes. The project would provide a return on investment in 39 years with an annual cost of £10.7bn a year on average – reduced to £3.8bn when savings in benefits and taxes are considered. By using only half the budget of housing benefits annually, we could build 1.27m homes for the homeless and the most vulnerable members of society. Additionally, it would provide over 691,000 homes for older renters and the 1.17m for people trapped in unaffordable, insecure private housing.

A focus on long-term solutions would benefit everyone. The housing supply shortage has been described by James Vitali, head of political economy at Policy Exchange, as “A key of driver of the UK’s weak economic performance”. A stable home means that adults can take advantage of career opportunities and children can flourish at school, both of which benefit the economy in the long term. Communities can form, which helps sustain local amenities, like shops and post offices, as well as provide an anchor for labour markets. Furthermore, in the long term, the improved affordability would reduce reliance on housing benefits, freeing up money to be spent elsewhere.

As we can see, social housing would help people, communities, and the whole country. A home is a central foundation of life and should be a right, not a privilege. A stable supply of social homes would reduce the number of rough sleepers, returning some human dignity to the most vulnerable members of our society and giving them the opportunity to build happy lives for themselves. The government needs to stop their fruitless blame game and build more homes. Instead of focusing on the division the government is trying to stir up, everyone should consider the benefits of how having a greater supply of social housing would help resolve the housing crisis in the UK.

All articles and opinions posted give the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Leeds Think Tank, the Leeds University Union, or the University of Leeds.