Housing crisis hits minority ethnic families hardest

In the last two issues of FRFI we reported on how the government’s war on council housing is attacking the basic right of working class people to affordable and secure housing. The Labour government is refusing to allow local authorities to invest directly in council homes, despite this being the democratic choice of many communities, and is using blackmail and dirty tricks to force through its ideological commitment to privatisation.

Black and minority ethnic people are at the frontline of this war. The 2001 census revealed that black and minority ethnic households make up 7% of England’s population. In the year ending June 2004 such households accounted for 20% of those accepted as homeless by local authorities. Black African/Caribbean households make up 10% of homeless acceptances despite accounting for only 2% of England’s population. They also represent just under half (45%) of all black and minority ethnic homeless households (Shelter, The black and minority ethnic housing crisis, September 2004)

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Defend council housing

The struggle against the privatisation of council housing won several major victories in the run up to Christmas. Several attempts by local councils to blackmail tenants to vote to transfer their homes have been defeated. Despite facing expensive propaganda campaigns that promise much needed improvements and threaten the withholding of investment if tenants say no, local communities and grassroots campaigns have stood firm. Through local campaigning the motives and corruption of local councils and the Labour government have been exposed. Tenants understand that replacing their landlord will result in higher rents, less secure tenancies, a less accountable landlord and an uncertain future.

In Edinburgh 53% of council tenants voted against attempts to sell off their homes to a housing association. This was one of the biggest sell-off attempts with 23,000 homes affected. The tenants now face the battle to get the direct investment they need from central government to make their homes decent.

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Back to the workhouse

In a virulent attack on the poorest sections of the working class, housing minister Caroline Flint suggested that unemployed people in council housing could risk losing their homes if they don’t prove that they are looking for work. In a Guardian interview on 5 February Flint claimed she was ‘surprised’ to learn the statistics about unemployment among social tenants. She said that the government wanted to tackle the culture of ‘no one works round here’, arguing that unemployment is ‘a form of peer pressure’ within the community itself: ‘If you are in a family, an estate or a neighbourhood where nobody works that impacts on your own aspiration.’

Both in the interview and in a speech the next day to the Fabian Society, she stated that housing should be seen as a privilege: new council tenants should have to sign ‘commitment contracts’ agreeing to look for work in order to be eligible. If they failed to show their commitment to find a job and to the principle of ‘something for something’, they could lose their council homes. This could be extended in future to include existing tenants. Unemployed tenants would also be made to do skills ‘audits’, giving the state more power to force people into low paid, temporary and insecure jobs.

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Defend council housing

Housing is becoming the bellwether of economic recession in Britain as well as in the United States. In Britain, the number of repossessions of privately-owned houses is rising rapidly as unemployment grows and falling house prices leave owners with negative equity. The already massive shortage of council housing is fast becoming a desperate crisis for working class people who have the choice of poor quality, often overcrowded conditions at inflated prices in the private sector or homelessness. Now is the time to invest massively in council housing and affordable good quality private housing to meet the needs of the working class. Instead the Labour government is, at best, dragging its feet, looking for more ways to ration council housing and ignoring the needs of millions of badly housed and homeless families.

In the lead-up to the issuing of a government Green Paper on housing, promised for early 2009, Housing Minister Margaret Beckett has been considering proposals from the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH, representing housing officials) which argue for an end to security of tenure for council tenants. This right to stay in your own home was won in 1979 through national campaigning by council tenants following reforms in the private sector. The CIH report Rethinking Housing suggests that there should be means tests for council tenants, and periodic reviews of tenants’ financial situations. Should their income exceed a certain level, they should either pay a higher rent or be ‘encouraged’ to move into the private sector. Another report by the New Local Government Network (NLGN), a New Labour think tank, also recommends putting an end to secure tenancies, setting market-level rents and even proposes forcing elderly council tenants to leave their homes once their children have grown up.

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The end of council housing

housing campain2

Whichever party wins the General Election, all the remaining 4.5 million council houses will be sold off. The Tories talk of a ‘private sector solution’ whilst Labour prefers private-public ‘partnerships’, but the end is the same: £58 billion worth of council stock will end up in private hands, much of it given away. The new private companies will raise money for the estimated £20 billion backlog of repairs by using the housing stock as a collateral. The effect will be to send rents soaring. One study has shown that where housing associations have refurbished council houses, rents were between 25 and 75 higher than equivalent, modernised local authority homes. Labour’s Sandwell Council is taking the lead in this and will privatise its 8,500 houses by next year. Rent increases will be 5 per cent higher than the rate of inflation in the first five years. This is a foretaste of what is to come.