Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Some Other Stuff I Bet Half Of You Didn't Know About Housing And Unemployment.

I know I go on about housing a lot, but honestly - there's such a lot to go on about. And it's no wonder more and more young people are needing The Boss' help.

How the hell any of them are supposed to leave home and become independent is quite beyond me - unless they come from the sort of background that Dave and Nick do, of course.

I'm sitting at my desk at lunchtime, still feeling awful about what happened in Moscow - even though it has got me off the hook about meeting Johnny tomorrow - when the intercom buzzes and a young woman called Rachel asks if she can talk to me about her housing situation.

When I go down to talk to her, it quickly becomes clear that her case is pretty complicated, so I assess whether her manner and appearance lead me to hear The Twilight Zone theme - which they don't - and then bring her back upstairs and into my office. (She isn't wearing metal-framed glasses, either.)

"I'm sorry to have to bother Mr Sinclair about this," she says, "But someone with influence really needs to understand how it is for young people, especially when more of us are unemployed than anyone else."

"Don't worry about bothering Andrew," I say. "He won't mind at all. That's what he's here for."

Honestly, sometimes I make myself feel nauseous with my blatant hypocrisy. What I should be saying is that The Boss won't even know of her existence and has bugger-all influence with anyone these days, anyway - but that wouldn't exactly be reassuring, would it?

So I carry on trying to find out about Rachel's situation - which is bloody grim, and turns out to represent yet another great big hurdle that those with permanent homes or jobs and sufficient income give no thought to whatsoever.

"So you're unemployed, then?" I say, to which Rachel shakes her head.

"Not yet, no," she says. "But my year's contract runs out in a month's time and there's no money for it to be renewed, and although I've applied for loads of jobs, and have got one interview, that isn't until a week before my existing contract ends. So even if I get the job, I'll still be unemployed for a few weeks at best."

"Oh, I do hope you will get the job," I say.

I've taken a liking to this girl - in fact, I'd employ her tomorrow - seeing as she already seems about ten times more competent than Vicky. Or The Boss, for that matter. But now I'm getting distracted, so it's back to housing. Or to the lack of it.

Rachel goes on to explain that being unemployed isn't actually her main concern. Because becoming homeless is.

"I moved to Northwick to take up my current job," she says, "so I took a lease on my flat for a year as soon as I started work. But that runs out a couple of days after my employment contract ends, and I haven't managed to find anywhere else to live yet."

"Ah, I see," I say - though when Rachel continues, it seems that actually I don't. Yet.

"I can't stay in the flat I'm living in, because it's slightly too expensive for Housing Benefit to cover the full cost of the rent while I'm still trying to get another job, but I can't find anywhere else through any of the agencies."

Rachel pauses, and corrects herself:

"Well, I have found one place that would just about be affordable," she says,"but now everything's going wrong and it looks like I'm still going to end up being homeless by the end of February."

It takes ages to get to the bottom of what is going on, partly because tears keep rolling down Rachel's face, and then she stops to apologise for crying as she scrabbles for tissues in her bag. I don't blame her, actually. If I was in her situation, I'd put my head on the desk and bawl like a baby.

It turns out that the flat Rachel's found through an agency is at a rent that is reasonable enough to be covered by Housing Benefit during the time that she's between jobs. But the trouble started when she didn't tell the agent that her current job was about to end, because she was scared that the owner of the flat wouldn't accept a tenant who might end up on benefit, for however short a period that might be.

"I asked the agent what questions they asked on the reference and credit check forms," she says. "And he said that they only want to know the start date of your current contract, and the name and address of your employer - so I thought the landlord wouldn't need to know that I might be unemployed - especially as I'm determined it won't be for long."

She looks apologetically up at me, as if she has something to be ashamed of.

"I'd probably have done the same myself," I say. "If I was in your position."

I'm not being polite either - I'd do whatever it took to avoid becoming homeless, though I'm not sure Rachel believes me. She does smile, though, and then continues with her story.

"So I decided to apply for the flat - as it was the only one I could find at such a low rent - and told the agent to start the process of checking me out to see whether I'd be approved. I had to give him £200.00 to pay for that, and then he gave me the forms to fill in and to give to my employer."

"So the £200.00 was your deposit then?" I say. "Or will you have to pay rent in advance on top of that?"

"Oh, God, yes," says Rachel. "And my bond, too. The £200.00 was only to cover the agency's fee for assessing whether I'd make a suitable tenant. I'll have to find the money for the bond and the rent in advance - before I can claim back the other bond I had to put down on my current flat. So that's one of my big problems. I only earn £13,500.00 a year anyway, so trying to find that kind of money when I first moved to Northwick was hard enough, but it's even worse having to find a second lot and more agency fees, while I'm still paying rent on the flat I'm in until the end of next month."

You can tell from the way that Rachel talks about her family that there is no chance that they can afford to help her out. She's apparently one of those bright kids who made good through working hard at school: born and brought up on a council estate, but now a graduate in one of Michael Gove's favoured academic subjects.

I bet her family thought their daughter's future would be brighter than theirs had been - until the bloody credit crunch blew that out of the water in the year she graduated. Instead of building a career, Rachel's already had one long period of unemployment since she left her Russell Group university, and she seems understandably anxious that she might be about to start another.

"I'm going on about it, aren't I?" she says. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to - but I'm just so angry that no-one in power seems to get what it's like for people in my situation, so I felt I had to come here to try and make my voice heard. I know you can't really do anything quickly enough to help me, but maybe Mr Sinclair could try and argue for changes to help other people in my situation - though I don't know what exactly. I'm having trouble thinking straight."

"Have you been approved for this new flat, then?" I say. "So at least you'll have somewhere to live by the end of next month?"

"No," says Rachel. "It turns out that the agent was wrong when he said that the application form only asked for the start date of my employment contract. It doesn't - so now I'm going to have to tell the truth: that I'll be out of a job in a month's time. And the agent thinks my application will be turned down because the landlord doesn't take tenants who are on benefit."

I don't know what to say to this. The tabloids make it sound like there are vast swathes of unscrupulous buy-to-let landlords out there, all desperately seeking the sick and unemployed as tenants, and only too happy to get their hands on Housing Benefit. Rachel's case paints a rather different picture.

I mean, let's not forget: this is a young graduate with a good degree - employed for the last year and desperate not to be unemployed again. She thinks and acts responsibly, by giving up the contract on where she lives because it's too expensive to be covered by Housing Benefit, and she knows she may have to make a short claim in between jobs.

Then she has to find hundreds of pounds for her bond and as rent in advance for the new flat, while she's still paying rent for the one she's living in, and she can't get her original deposit back in time to use it cover the one on the new flat. And to cap it all, she's made to pay £200.00 to an agent who has misinformed her about the landlord's requirements, so she may end up homeless anyway.

Given the bloody fuss that some of the usual suspects make about absolutely nothing, I'm amazed that Rachel isn't smashing the office up with frustration. But she just sits there, quietly, tearing bits of tissue between her fingers, while I try to make sense of the situation.

"So, if the worst comes to the worst, and the landlord and agent do say that you can't have the new flat because you might be on Housing Benefit for a while, you will get your £200.00 fee back, won't you?" I say.

"No," says Rachel. "It's non-refundable, so I've lost it if that happens."

I look at her in disbelief for a second, before I pull myself together and try a different tack.

"What about the Council's statutory duty to the homeless?" I say. "We could write to them on your behalf. Oh, but I suppose they say you don't fall into one of their priority groups, do they?"

"Yes," she says. "Seeing as I'm not a single parent, or anything. Or even an ex-con."

Gah. Sometimes I could bloody well scream. It's about time politicians - and probably oil barons too - started doing something to help people, especially those who want to bloody work. And preferably before I have a stroke with the rage that I feel on Rachel's behalf, which might have something to do with the fact that there but for the grace of God goes Connie, and probably me, too - if Max leaves me and I lose my job.

So now I'm going to contact everyone I can think of to see if there's anything we can do. But, if one thing's for sure, it's that Rachel  won't be the only young person in this situation.

Maybe we, Joe Public, could force those buy-to-let landlords who have mortgages through RBS or one of the other bloody banks we supposedly own, to accept responsible tenants like Rachel - without making them pay all these stupid upfront fees - even if they are forced by the economic situation to be unemployed for a while. And look again at the criteria we use for those who merit housing, too.

Perhaps I should suggest to Nick Clegg that, if his Party want to earn any credibility back with the 18-30 age group, then this is one of the issues they should focus on, if the LibDems don't want to be dead in the water at the next election? Or maybe David Cameron might like to prove that he does have a clue about what life's like for ordinary people even though Andy Coulson's no longer there to tell him about it.

Come to think of it, if Andy's got nothing on at the moment, he might fancy leading the campaign...


  1. Poor girl, not an uncommon story I imagine. Will be made worse when the new changes to housing benefit kick in - even the one cheap room that HB covers now will probably be unaffordable. But heres something your MP can do - try to influence the review of the HB changes that has been announced today. Feed in the stories of girls like Rachel and others who may be priced out of entire areas a few years after the changes bite. Agree to that the Lib Dems should be championing this but so should labour - too quiet in my opinion.

  2. Exactly! And this girl would have been in an even worse mess, anyway, if she'd been under 25. Have asked Grant Shapps MP to take a look at this as feedback's suggesting it's a common problem and bound to get worse as more people lose their jobs, or only get short-term contracts...

    And yes, we could say more about this too - especially given all the financial incentives we gave to Buy-To-Let landlords.

  3. Slight tangent (but not spectacularly off topic): private renting through agencies and official channels has you jumping through as many hoops as obtaining a mortgage these days. Actually, if you go back to early 2007, securing a rental property was arguably the more difficult; though we know now why that was.

    Added to this all the upfront costs make renting a very expensive business indeed. My (our) own situation is nowhere near as appalling as Rachel's but I understand her situation entirely.

    When we returned to the UK after a year abroad we needed to rent rather than buy and, because we could not prove income, had no recent fixed abode and all rest we found ourselves having to pay six months of rent up-front to secure a home. And yes, I know, we were very fortunate to be in a position to do so. The next six months will be the same.

    In the meantime, the security and rent demands from landlords and agencies in university towns are marginally shy of compulsory & immediate organ donation from student and relatives. Again, We are currently experiencing & paying for this on behalf of Favourite Elder Son (as are his mother and ever-generous stepfather).

    Anyway, enough of the useless hand-whingeing [sic]. Here are a couple of suggestions: postcards in newsagents' windows for rooms or house shares are a good source. Also, not all the landlords who advertise unregulated lets in the local paper are deposit-stealing crooks. Yep, been there too.

  4. You're right about all this, of course. However, another problem is that shared houses seem to fall into two very narrow camps: student houses (who can't take any non-student residents because they'd lose their Council Tax exemption) and "young professionals" - code for working.) It's a total mess, and likely to get worse with increasing unemployment, pay cuts and freezes and increasing inflation. A VERY depressing picture.

  5. where i live, the only places that will accept people on HB are unfurnished. so you can't afford rent, but you CAN afford to buy a fridge, cooker, bed etc?!

  6. The whole thing is a bit lacking in cohesion. Coalition - over to you. And please hurry up.

  7. Speaking as a long term resident of a well known University city and a former parliamentary staffer and all round politico, I've seen these cases from the point of view of a student, a young professional and unemployed.

    I ended up in a back end of no-where suburb in another city altogether since then for want of a room in a half empty city centre.

    Why? Because students have their council tax allocation paid by central grant, yp's supposedly paid theirs in employment, and so would anyone claiming Housing Benefit to pay the rent supposedly, but no landlord wishes to take them. There is a readily avilable process to cover Council tax as well as HB, but landlords pretend unemployment, or just short term or part time employment doesn't exist.

    More than that, there are so many short term leases that you are liable to end up homeless and jobless at the same time, as happened to me.

    Landlords could in fact make more money from HB allowances then they could risk taking from provate long term tenants, but there are such strong associations of benefit scroungers, that this categorically never happens. Notices online and in agencies baldly state 'no dss' an agency that no longe exists, but which dates in name from the Thatcher era of unemployment. i fail to see the difference in stating 'no Irish' etc as i remember from childhood. (I grew up in another inner city area, high unemployment and rental rates then too.)

    Of course, then, there were many fewer buy to let houses, renting was actually quite common accross all classes and professions, far more council properties and longer tenancies. So what are people supposed to do today. It's hard enough to rent as it is in cities. It just got a hell of alot harder. Someone tell Grant Shapps please.

  8. Agreed re Grant Shapps - very much hope he's reading (and (listening) as this is a big problem that's only going to get bigger. And about a group of people who are entirely overlooked, despite what the right-wing press indicate in articles about Housing Benefit. Will give him a nudge via Twitter...

  9. I'm purely refering to private tenants with private rental contracts, with basically no rights. And it would apply especially if you were working part time, then making JSA very likely obsolete, another benefit which is 30 years out of date. I didn't make that clear in the first post.

    Not that I could live on P/T wages in my current location, which makes being forced to leave the University city even more ludicrous, as does having therefore to exist purely on JSA alone.

    Many people do get by of a mix of jobs and benefits, but the erality is in many cases on P/T wages alone in the North because benefits don't reflect reality.

    Poverty in the South as a result is higher where this is not remotely possible. JSA compounds many individuals opportunities in relation to HB and therefore Council Tax as well as one can't apply for them.

    That's not getting into paying fees for "servies" like credit checks: its not as widespread in the North, you can avoid it, but your choice of let is even further limited if you did. You take your chances answering newsagent adverts. Would you do that for any other purchase of such personal and monetary value? Of course not.

  10. http://www.loveyourpolitics.co.uk/?p=2355 readers may find this post informative.

  11. This was published on the same day as your blogpost: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/25/homelessness-funding-cuts-councils