Housing must be at the centre of policy on poverty
In this new opinion piece for Challenge Poverty Week, CIH Scotland's policy and practice manager Ashley Campbell takes a look at the role of housing in helping to address poverty.
Working in the housing sector means that we are constantly thinking about how to ensure everyone has access to a good quality home that meets their needs. In this context, affordability and poverty are never far from the agenda.
Challenge poverty week gives us the opportunity to consider how everyone in Scotland can reach their full potential and live without the constraints of poverty.
Good quality, secure housing is at the heart of good health, wellbeing and access to education and employment - but housing can also be one of the drivers of poverty. In Scotland, 17% of households live in relative poverty. This increases to 20% when housing costs are taken into account. The figure is starker for children, with 26% being classed as living in poverty after housing costs. For most of us, our rent or mortgage payments are the single biggest outlay each month.
Average rents in the private sector have been increasing above wages in recent years. Between 2010 and 2017, the average rent increased by 19.9%, while real term wages have remained static. There are big regional difference with rents over this period; in the Lothians and Glasgow increasing by 33.7% and 32.1% while across Scotland the average was 19.9% and in Ayrshire, the increase was just 0.5%.
Nonetheless in many areas, private rents remain too high to be affordable and help for housing costs for private renters has not kept pace with the actual cost of renting. The Local Housing Allowance benefit for private renters was frozen by the UK Government in April 2016. This is supposed to allow a household to afford to rent a home in the cheapest 30% of the market, but the rate is now so low that rent for 90% of these properties must be topped up from other sources of income.
Worryingly, increasing earnings will not necessarily guarantee that a household can escape the poverty trap. In-work poverty in Scotland has been increasing and almost 60% of working age adults in relative poverty are living in working households.
Recent analysis by CIH Scotland showed that the UK Government’s Universal Credit is not paying enough to ensure a decent quality of life for everyone. Reductions in the amount that households can keep when they move into work or take on more hours have disproportionately hit single parents. For example a single parent with one child living in the social rented sector would need to work 57 hours a week on the National Minimum Wage to meet Joseph Rowntree’s Minimum Income Standard. This directly contradicts the UK Government’s assertion that households should always be better off in work than on benefits.
So if housing costs contribute to poverty, what can housing do to alleviate it?
We need to ensure that all of our homes are energy efficient and we need to keep rents as low as possible. This means building more affordable homes and addressing the causes of price inflation such as housing land costs through reforms to the planning system.
If we are going to tackle poverty, we need to get housing right. We need the Scottish Government to continue to invest in new affordable homes. We need a social security system that supports people to live a good quality of life. We need to make sure that private landlords are adhering to the new regulations which protect private renters.
Most importantly, we all need to recognise the role of housing and keep it at the heart of policy making until everyone has the right home that meets their needs at a price they can afford.
*This article featured in the Herald Scotland on the 1st of October 2018.
*More information about Challenge Poverty Week can be found here: www.povertyalliance.org/challenge_poverty