As we struggle to access our subsistence benefits – trying to navigate around workfare, benefit sanctions, and disrespect encountered in the job centre – often, simultaneously, we are struggling to keep a roof over our heads. Welfare and housing are closely connected, the poor state of both of them is causing poverty and suffering. The homelessness charity Crisis recently highlighted how benefit sanctions are causing homelessness. Huge cuts to housing benefit mean that often people have to use money from their meagre Job Seekers Allowance or Employment Support Allowance in order to cover rent, leaving even less money for food and other basic necessities. And then there are the exceptionally vile landlords (including ‘social landlords’) who discriminate against people claiming benefits making finding and keeping a home even more difficult.
The latest development sees the workfare regime being made into a requirement for accessing social housing by local councils across the country. Under the Localism Act 2011, local authorities have been given more powers to set even stricter conditions on who can get social housing. Guidance set by the Department for Communities and Local Government suggests that local authorities should design their allocation policies to give priority to those who are in work, employment-related training, or “volunteering”. Whereas before, allocations were supposed to be made according to need (although this still excluded many people in need of the relative affordability and security of social housing), with someone’s relationship to the labour market carrying less weight.
“Local authorities are urged to consider how they can use their allocation policies to support those households who want to work, as well as those who – while unable to engage in paid employment – are contributing to their community in other ways, for example, through voluntary work…This might involve, for example, framing an allocation scheme to give some preference to households who are in low paid work or employment-related training, even where they are not in the reasonable preference categories; or to give greater priority to those households in the reasonable preference categories who are also in work or who can demonstrate that they are actively seeking work.”
Hammersmith and Fulham council have followed this guidance from central government stating that their housing register prioritises “hard-working local families, foster carers, members of the armed forces and others who have given something back to the community, as well as people living in emergency accommodation and others in severe housing need”. (We doubt that the many ways that claimants participate in and contribute to their communities, and the great work people are doing to combat workfare, will fall within Hammersmith and Fulham’s definition). They have used these new powers to hack their housing waiting list from 10,000 households to 800, conveniently making it look like there is little demand for social housing in the middle of a severe housing crisis.
Meanwhile, Newham council’s policy prioritises those who are in work over those who are not. This is currently being taken up by the inspiring Focus E15 mother’s campaign who are highlighting Newham council’s failure to provide them with social housing in their community and are calling for social housing for all. Access to social housing is being massively restricted, with those in need of this relatively affordable and secure housing being completely denied because they are not in paid work, or finding themselves forced to “volunteer” in order to access what should be a basic right.
This increased conditionality related to access to housing is also being replicated by workfare exploiter and homelessness charity YMCA. A new scheme launched by the charity provides housing in shipping containers for young people who secure full-time employment. Young people struggling to find full-time work, or who are unable to work full-time, or who are stuck working for free in a YMCA charity shop are denied this “housing”. Like their support for workfare schemes which undermines the right to welfare, this scheme actively undermines the right for all to decent housing.
There is more housing workfare down the line. The DWP has plans to sanction the housing benefit of in-work claimants if they fail to carry out ‘work related activity’ set by the Job Centre. Low paid workers will come under the brutal workfare-conditionality regime where their housing benefit, referred to by Novara Media and others as the ‘landlord subsidy’, can be withheld at the whim of a Job Centre advisor, leaving the claimant vulnerable to eviction. More than 1 million people are in-work claimants receiving housing benefit to contribute to the cost of ever increasing rents. This means that 1 million more people could be subject to the bullying, workfare placements, and sanctions of Job Centre Plus as they struggle to keep a roof over their heads.
Workfare in housing or welfare is about the same thing; it’s about further cutting and denying people meagre but vital benefits that allow people to carve out some existence for themselves. It’s about denying our rights to food, warmth, shelter, leisure, and meaningful activities and relationships and it’s about the imposition and normalisation of forced unpaid work.
There are a growing number of grassroots housing groups and the London based Radical Housing Network fighting for quality homes for all. As workfare, sanctions and cuts undermine our rights to housing and welfare, it’s important to make the links between these issues, and support each other’s activities to abolish the workfare-conditionality regime and secure food, warmth, and homes for all.