Bedroom Tax: what you need to know, what you need to do
John Bowman explains the policy behind the bedroom tax and the next steps for the campaign
Of all the Tories’ cuts to benefits, the “bedroom tax” has provoked the biggest wave of anger. The cuts of 14% to housing benefit for those with a “spare” room, or a quarter of housing benefit for those with two empty bedrooms, is callous and cruel.
As well as causing an enormous rise in homelessness, it will destroy working class communities. Unlike private landlords, social landlords such as councils and housing associations provide tenants with long-term and permanent lets.
Social housing estates are often made up of elderly people, young families, those who need special support, and workers on low wages. Neighbours have got to know each other over many, many years. Support networks have been built. Community projects have been founded. Long-term lets have meant that often, residents have invested huge amounts of their own money and time on their homes and their neighbourhoods.
That doesn’t matter to the Tories. They would rather see Britain’s housing estates torn apart by poverty, loan sharks, crime and isolation. They don’t seem to care about separated parents who want to see their children at weekends, disabled people who need carers to stay when they are going through difficult times. Until a few days ago, foster parents were to suffer from it in between looking after children.
The Tories are proceeding with plans to pay universal credit into tenant bank accounts – they do not care that 13% do not have one. They plan to make people apply for benefits online, when around half of adult social tenants do not have internet access. Exposing that the bedroom tax is purely ideological and has nothing to do with a shortage of rooms, they have even upped the deductions made from housing benefits when an additional person of working age lives in a house. That’s right, the under-occupancy tax has been combined with an full-occupancy disincentive.
The new welfare changes, including the bedroom tax, haven’t been thought through, but they didn’t need to be. This is a repeat of the 1980s pit closures: an experiment in abolishing society, causing havoc, then blaming the victims.
The consequences of the bedroom tax, and subsequent benefit changes are so bad that social landlords have had a hard time convincing tenants that the threat is real.
In many cases, it is only in recent weeks that reality has sunk in and tenants have made decisions on whether they can afford the tax, or to try and move away into the much squeezed supply of smaller homes. Many cannot.
Social landlords fear a situation where tenants cannot pay their rent. Evictions are very expensive and so are re-lets, costing many thousands of pounds per home. They currently have no idea how quickly their tenants may fall into rent arrears, or how many. The differences in their policies are striking.
The Knowlsey Housing Trust recategorised many of its homes to make them smaller, which will cost the company £250,000 per year in lost rental income. Coast and County, a Teeside Housing Association organised a North East summit of tenants groups and residents associations, representing 90,000 people, calling for coordinated protest action across the region.
On the other side of the spectrum, in response to a 300 strong bedroom tax protest in Bootle, Liverpool, One Vision Housing sent a threatening letter to all residents stating legal action would be taken if tenants did not pay their rent, asking them to sign it along with a witness. They’ve threatened to use ‘ground 8’ notices on tenants in arrears – purging the poor with special fast-track evictions.
Other landlords have strongly condemned OVH’s aggressive move. We need to make an example of those landlords prepared to make tenants homeless – the old slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” certainly rings true in this case.
The lesson here is that whilst reversing decisions of local councils through protest campaigns can seem a daunting task, and all councils have cut vital services without scruples so far, there is a real chance to effect policy immediately at the housing estate level, and build a movement based upon real victories.
We do not know what stance the Housing Associations will take on evictions and rent arrears, and while Knowsley, C&C and OVH seem to be embarking on certain paths, the rest appear to be sitting tight and seeing what happens. What happens will be greatly impacted by the strategy of the left – and with the call from Labour Left for a national wide day of action on Saturday things could be off to a good start.
We need to follow those protests up with action that primarily focuses around the estates rather than in our city-centre comfort-zones.
Such action should include proposing broad alliances without preconceptions (or naivety) about where locally focussed charities, local politicians, community groups and even small businesses will stand on the issue, what actions they may be willing to take and support they would be willing to give. We need to encourage and build grassroots anti-eviction networks, and make sure that community help networks are bolstered, funded and effective at a time when they are most likely to become overwhelmed or sabotaged themselves by the attacks.
We need to earn respect and build deep roots through offering practical advice and practical support as well as campaigning work as times get hard – supporters of the Anticapitalist Initiative in Manchester plan to attend training sessions at the Salford Unemployed Centre to aid with this.
The importance of training was stressed by a housing worker at a recent meeting in Manchester, who urged caution with calls for tenants to immediately stop paying rent – we are trying to prevent evictions, not provide bad advice that could make them more likely. This sound suggestion shows we need to have humility and listen as well as agitate when campaigning.
Ultimately of course, the rent strike is the big gun in our arsenal, and even the housing trade press is warning that this could become an issue. If every tenant rebels to save another from eviction it will quickly become completely unviable for landlords to evict. And we can demand that councils live up to their duty of care and provide accommodation for those who are evicted, and even stand up to central government for the first time.
We don’t have much time before rent arrears stack up and evictions could start, but it is rapidly becoming clear that this will be the biggest fight against the cuts so far and not one we can afford to lose. This time we have to get it right with a strategy that wins victories – symbolic activism alone will not cut the mustard. We need to push for community action and fight to win.