How housing traps people in unemployment

If we're to move away from using housing benefit to prop up a dysfunctional housing market, we desperately need to think much more carefully about rent levels and wages, writes Rebecca Tunstall.

Housing benefit is preventing poverty and homelessness, but propping up a dysfunctional system and hindering work incentives. We need lower housing costs to make work pay and close the unemployment trap.

The traditional role of housing policy has been to improve living conditions, but over the past 20 years policy-makers have tried to extend its impact. A report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that housing benefits, housing costs, location and options for mobility can affect job opportunities and incomes.

Housing benefit, claimed by four million households, has a positive impact on living conditions, and it is hard to see how millions of households could avoid homelessness or hardship without it. But cuts for private tenants have already meant people going without essentials, and there is widespread concern over the changes for social tenants from April.

But like many other benefits, and in combination with them, housing benefit creates an unemployment trap.

For each extra £1 in earnings, people lose 65p in Housing Benefit. Those claiming other benefits too can lose 90p in the pound or more, and the effect lasts nearly until earnings reach average levels. So unless good wages are in command, people receiving housing benefit may be no better off in than out of work.

There is a trade-off between support to prevent homelessness and deprivation on the one hand, and maintaining an incentive to work on the other. Universal Credit, to be introduced in phases from April at great organisational cost, will redesign the unemployment trap somewhat although the effects may be lost in other benefit changes.

There appears to be precious little by way out of this conundrum. That is unless you have more low-cost housing, such as that providing by councils and housing associations, which makes it markedly easier to make work pay.

For a typical household, for each £10 less rent they have to pay per week, they can escape the unemployment trap by at £50 less in gross earnings. However, over the past ten years increasing numbers of those with low skills and low income prospects have been housed in higher rent private tenancies. In 2010 the average private rent in England was £150 a week, compared to council rent at £67. This has introduced a new structural difficulty in making work pay.

If regional location is seen as an attribute, it is an important contributor to a 'housing effect' on employment, since different labour markets offer very different opportunities. Evidence suggests that the ability to move home does have effects on employment, but the effects are modest, because most moves are local, and because low-paid (and often insecure) jobs may not justify taking a whole household from one end of the country to another.

Policymakers have focused concern on perceived low mobility of social tenants, part of the inspiration behind benefit reforms. It's true that these reforms encourage affected tenants to move—but to do so in a specific direction: towards cheaper areas, which are likely to have worse job opportunities. Home owners are also trapped, and no more mobile than social tenants. Research has suggested that high rates of home ownership lead to higher structural unemployment rates by preventing mobility.

Wages rather than housing circumstances provide the main financial work incentive, and higher wages would help people jump any shape of the unemployment trap. The trouble is overall work incentives have been falling for a long time—since the 2000s due to stagnant real wages for people with lower skills.

Is it fair to ask the housing system to pick up the slack? Probably not. But if we're to move away from using housing benefit to prop up a dysfunctional housing market, we desperately need to think much more carefully about rent levels and wages.

Photograph: Getty Images

Rebecca Tunstall is Professor of Housing Policy at the University of York. She wrote the latest Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on housing and poverty.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.