Proper Gander – Flat broke

Since 1953, BBC One’s Panorama has been unearthing problems in society, but as it’s part of the mainstream media we shouldn’t expect it to dig deep enough to reach the root cause of inequalities and inadequacies. In What’s Gone Wrong With Our Housing?, reporter Richard Bilton aims to explain how our current housing crisis has happened, but focuses on the role of legislation rather than more fundamental factors about why the housing market is as it is.

Bilton visits the Bampton Estate in the part of south London overseen by Lewisham Council. Its tower blocks and streets were built in the 1960s as part of a drive to replace dilapidated slums, with its 290 properties initially being owned and managed by the local authority. Then, one of Margaret Thatcher’s flagship policies, The Housing Act 1980, expanded the rights of council tenants to buy their properties at a discounted amount. Since the Act was introduced, 2.8 million council homes have been sold off in the largest privatisation initiative we’ve seen, according to Rachael Williamson of the Chartered Institute of Housing. For some people, buying from the council didn’t lead to the freedom they expected. Properties in tower blocks tend to be leased rather than sold outright, meaning that the council retains ownership and control of the building itself. A consequence of this for Bampton Estate leaseholders Anthony and Gloria is that Lewisham Council imposed new windows on them at a cost of £27,000 which they can’t afford.

Around 40 per cent of former council homes in London are now owned (or mortgaged) not by those who live in them but by private landlords. Avril, who bought and then sold one of the flats on the Bampton Estate returns to see what it looks like now it’s owned and rented out by a private landlord. She’s shocked to see that the flat has been divided into six tiny bedsits, their tenants each being charged a whopping £960 rent a month to live in what used to be the bathroom or the kitchen. Bilton confronts dodgy landlord Joel Zwiebel who with his wife owns 24 bedsits on one road and receives around quarter of a million in rent a year. Most of this rent is paid through benefit payments by the council which sold the properties off, ironically. Rather than explaining about his substandard properties Zwiebel drives off in his car without saying anything. Lord Best of the Affordable Housing Commission says that the current situation is ‘an absolute disgrace’, with the right-to-buy legislation leading to a return of ‘slum landlords’ profiteering.

The housing shortage benefits private landlords because it means there are lots of people hunting for places to live, so landlords have more choice over who to let to and can charge high rents knowing that someone will pay. Rent amounts for private sector properties tend to be greater than the maximum amounts which can be claimed in housing-related benefits, pricing out many people without sufficiently paid employment. Landlords like Zwiebel can easily find tenants because their properties are cheap enough to have rent covered by benefits, with shoddiness being almost expected.

People on lower incomes are likely to aim not for private rented properties but ‘social housing’, such as that owned by councils, which tends to have lower rent and more secure terms. But local authorities haven’t been building enough new properties to replace those they have sold off, leading to a dire shortage of social housing stock. Some properties on the Bampton Estate remain council-owned. Bilton speaks to one council tenant who waited two years after reporting mould and only managed to get some plasterboard replaced after he got a solicitor involved. In 2022, Lewisham Council had a budget of a million pounds for repairs but almost three quarters of this went on legal fees and compensation, leaving not much money to spend on actual maintenance.

Most of the properties on the Bampton Estate which weren’t sold off privately are held not by the council but by the L&Q housing association. Housing associations represent the other kind of social housing, not being run to make profits for themselves. According to the English Housing Survey, they are responsible for around two and a half million properties in England, a million more than councils. Housing associations were intended to be more reactive and flexible than councils, to better manage estates in the interests of their residents. Over the decades, though, the original model of the small-scale community-based housing association has been replaced by larger, more corporate organisations such as L&Q, which is the second biggest housing association in the country. Of its 51 residents on the Bampton Estate, 11 said they were unhappy with how it operates, especially its repairs service. Tenants have reported damp and mouldy flats and waited years for a resolution.

Bilton says that 1980’s right-to-buy legislation has ‘fragmented the estate between tenant and owner’. It’s true that the Housing Act triggered a decrease in ‘social housing’, and that ownership of homes on any estate is a complicated mix of owner-occupiers, leaseholders, and tenants of councils, housing associations or private landlords. But even if the Act hadn’t been passed, there would still be a divide between tenant and owner. The ‘social housing’ model hasn’t proved itself to be necessarily better than the private rented sector, as demonstrated by the council and housing association tenants putting up with run-down properties. As always, more investment and new legislation are promised, but never end up solving the problems. Being an owner-occupier isn’t an ideal solution either, as it means decades of debt alongside the responsibility and cost of maintenance. So, the real problem isn’t the ‘right to buy’ legislation, it’s how properties are owned in capitalism. When ownership is based on who has the wealth to buy a legal right, what people need for a decent life becomes much less important. Money’s rationing of resources means that there’s never enough to keep homes to a decent standard. ‘The system isn’t working’ says Bilton, but it’s just as fair to say that the system is working in the expected way.

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