Monday, 10 January 2011

Too Old For Renting?

I can’t quite believe it, but the con/dems have decreed that anyone under the age of thirty-five and renting a home must share – or rather that they will only be allowed LHA to cover the cost of the shared property.

Having watched the student protests, I am wondering why people aren’t more angry. I am aware that anyone who has swallowed the hate campaign (benefit claimant now being synonymous with benefit scrounger to many) must imagine they are immune. Once again, those on the housing high-ground should remember: there but for fate go we all, as in this economic climate, anyone can end up signing on – even for a while.

One of the main groups liable to be affected – even devastated - by this are already angry. It’s divorced dads – you know, sometimes they express their thoughts dangling on the end of bungee ropes dressed as superheroes. Job loss, marital breakdown and homelessness are the three horseman of the social apocalypse: they often arrive together. Fathers usually vacate the family home after marital breakdown, and will – if they are under thirty-five - be forced to share a house with no space for their children to sleep when they visit.

There aren’t enough decent houses large enough for people to share, and nobody seems to be asking what people want and need from a home. Developers veer from one orthodoxy to the next: first building vast suburban Bantustans of Wimpeyvilles, or then covering inner cities with ‘luxury’ one bed flats. When a flat has two bedrooms, the other occupant is likely to be the owner, and claimants are low on the list of desirable lodgers.

I’ve written previously about how miserable it can be to be compelled to share a flat, and charities like MIND and Shelter have also raised their concerns about the effects on infantilising adults and also on mental health problems, but nobody seems to listen.

The bill for Housing Benefit has rocketed, spiralled and sped hyperbolically out of control, but whose fault is that? Encouraging speculation, persuading owners to ramp up weekly rents, gibbering with satisfaction at escalating property values oblivious to the human cost, and then (and then!) blaming the innocent, powerless victims of this farce is now normal.

If claimants must share a house, why not force developers to build proper homes, so that there are houses spacious enough for several singletons to have some privacy (The Right To a Private Life being enshrined in law and all that…) And if those in power are so keen to save money on housing benefit, why not bring back rent officers empowered to enforce fair rents, or compel anyone living alone in a country (or urban) mansion to rent out rooms to lodgers and then see how they enjoy sharing.

It’s not like single claimants are holed up in massive country houses: they just want a small flat (technically they can’t even claim for a bedsit). Adjusting house price inflation by penalising those who cannot fight back is cowardly and pointless. But I don’t see anyone rioting about it.