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.