By Jessica Husbands, Campaigns & Policy Co-ordinator at Shelter Scotland
This week is Challenge Poverty Week, when organisations across Scotland speak up against poverty and how it can be tackled. When I tell people that I work for Shelter Scotland, poverty isn’t the first thing they think of. But poverty cuts across almost all areas of our work, so we cannot remain silent.
The main reason people came to us for help last year was because they were struggling to afford their housing costs. And this wasn’t just a problem limited to one group: affordability was a priority issue among private renters, social sector renters and home owners. In our advice and support services, we see many examples of the ways poverty impacts on housing issues:
- We see hundreds of families who aren’t claiming all that they’re entitled to under the benefit system, who may have been subject to harsh sanctions or hit by the benefit cap, and as a result can have as little as 50p per week to pay their housing costs. Because of this, they might struggle to pay their rent, resulting in rent arrears and leaving families at risk of eviction and homelessness.
- Many people looking to move house, or move out of their family or friend’s home to set up a new household, struggle to find anywhere they can afford in an area close to their support networks or a house that meets their needs.
- Rent in the private sector in Scotland has increased by 7.2% over the past 4 years, and far more than that in some areas. We have lots of renters getting in touch when they have just been told their rent is being increased, and don’t know how they’ll meet the new cost.
- Expensive gas and electricity bills, especially in winter, also puts a strain on households. Many of our clients worry about how they’re going to heat their home, on top of all their other expenses.
All this paints a pretty bleak picture. But Challenge Poverty Week is all about solutions, and there are lots of them. Tackling poverty needs long term, focused commitment, but it’s not rocket science.
1: We need to build more affordable homes
Here at Shelter Scotland, we’ve been shouting about the need for affordable homes for a long time, and with good reason. We can’t expect to see any real improvement in the housing crisis without an increase in good quality, affordable, social housing. The Scottish Government has committed to building 50,000 affordable homes by 2021, and current housing building figures show that target is within reach.
However, more work is needed to ensure that the right types of houses are being built in the right place. We also need to see commitments that go beyond 2021: the 50,000 is a great start, but only sustained commitment long into the future can provide lasting change.
2: We need a social security safety net that really supports those who need it
Adequate social security is vital to keeping a home and we have evidence that current welfare reforms are causing homelessness. The benefit cap in particular is causing emotional, financial and material hardship to the most vulnerable members of society, including families. We think the government should scrap this arbitrary cap and remove the freeze to uprating benefits to ensure that people get the support they need to stay in safe and secure housing.
Local Housing Allowance (LHA), which supports private tenants on low incomes to pay their rent, has been frozen for the third year in a row, while private renting is becoming increasingly expensive. Last year, almost half of our clients came from the private rented sector, and the proportion of private renters in Scotland is increasing as home ownership becomes increasingly unaffordable. We’re calling for an end to the freeze on LHA, so that households on low incomes can sustain private tenancies.
3: We need to make fuel poverty a thing of the past
The Fuel Poverty (Target, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Bill has now been introduced to parliament. This will introduce a statutory target and a strategy to tackle all four drivers of fuel poverty. New minimum energy efficiency standards will also shortly be introduced to help make household bills more affordable. We need to make sure this Bill, the strategy and everything else does as much as it can to help the 649,000 households in fuel poverty today – and quickly.
What is outlined above is by no means a comprehensive list of how we can uncouple poverty and housing issues, but is an outline of a number of things that would make a huge difference to the 1 million people in poverty today in Scotland after housing costs, as well as the 29,000 assessed as homeless, 130,000 on the housing waiting list, and untold numbers struggling alone…
This Challenge Poverty Week, we’re calling for less talk, more action – just do it!