The rise in housing benefit is driven by a rise in need. No more, no less

It's not greed, it's not fraud, it's just more people needing help to live their lives, writes Declan Gaffney.

It’s safe to say that housing benefit has few defenders on any side of the political debate.

All parties agree that spending is out of control and needs to be reined in. The right has ruthlessly promoted the claim that housing subsidises the underserving poor to live in accommodation ordinary workers couldn’t afford. The left responds by saying that it is landlords rather than tenants who are milking the system. Thus Owen Jones writes:

Greedy landlords are fully aware that most cannot afford to pay their extortionate rents. But they also know that the taxpayer will step in and subsidise them with housing benefits… Instead of wasting billions on housing benefit, we could spend it on building housing, creating jobs and stimulating the economy.

What the left and right criticisms have in common is more important than what distinguishes them. Housing benefit exemplifies the gruesome two-step of current welfare debate.

  • Step one: claim that expenditure is at unprecedented and unsustainable levels.
  • Step two: blame this on some unpopular group milking the system—greedy landlords or irresponsible tenants—thus suggesting that expenditure can be cut or redirected to other purposes without pain.

Step two is wishful thinking, as I’ll argue below. Step one is easily dealt with. Look at this chart:

 

The green curve shows expenditure on housing benefit as a share of GDP, indexed to 1978/9, from that year to 2011/12. (It’s the share of GDP that counts when the sustainability of expenditure is at issue.) Spending now, four years after the onset of recession, is at almost exactly the same level as it was in 1995/6 four years after the last recession. In the intervening period it first fell dramatically as the impact of the early 90’s recession receded, then rose sharply when the global financial system collapsed in 2008/9. There has been no long-term upward trend since the early 1990's, so the rhetoric of unsustainability is completely misplaced.

The red curve on the chart, which takes out the effect on expenditure of changes in the number of claimants, shows that the recent rise in expenditure is overwhelmingly driven by the caseload (the dotted blue curve). It also allows us to see the impact of the switch from supply-side to demand-side funding during the late 1980s — that is, the switch from directly subsidising social rents and building homes to giving tenants the money to pay higher rents.

This doesn’t represent a change in overall expenditure but a redirection of subsidy to a different channel.1 The impacts of that switch, particularly on work incentives and poverty traps for lower income groups, have been hotly debated, but the point here is that this step change in housing benefit spending doesn’t represent an additional cost to taxpayers (except in the form of any negative impacts on employment). So even in this long-term perspective the notion that housing benefit represents an increasing burden on the Exchequer is wrong.

What about the other item on the charge sheet—that housing benefit expenditure is wasteful because either landlords or tenants are milking the system on a grand scale? Both these claims, if we are to make sense of them, involve similar economic assumptions.

To see this, consider how landlords might be able to raise rents above market level to capture the subsidy—bearing in mind that if rents aren’t above market level, there is no subsidy (left critics have been surprisingly uninterested in demonstrating this). The private rented market is dominated by small-scale, uncoordinated cottage industry operations, so we can rule out the notion that landlords are using market power to drive up rents. (An exception, but a small element in total spending, may be the market in temporary accommodation for people meeting local authority homelessness criteria).

The other possibility would be if tenants were to some extent indifferent to rent levels. That could allow landlords to use price discrimination (charging more to housing benefit claimants) to extract above-market rents from taxpayers. Alternatively, even if landlords didn’t use price discrimination, tenants might choose more desirable (expensive) properties if they weren’t worried about the rent—the government’s main argument for cutting entitlements. Thus the greedy landlord and irresponsible tenant stories turn on the same explanatory mechanism of tenants failing to respond to prices: they differ only in who is said to be extracting the unfair advantage.

Which raises the question: why would tenants be indifferent to rents? The higher the rent level, the more earned income will be subject to punitive marginal tax rates as housing benefit is withdrawn. You would have to suffer from extreme myopia or have minimal expectations of your future earning capacity not to take this into account in choosing accommodation. Add to this that about half of private rented sector claimants were living in their current accommodation before they made their claim, so they would have been making the same tradeoffs as anybody else when they chose where to live.2

Fortunately, all this can tested empirically.

London has the largest private rented sector in the country, a highly mobile population, substantial variations in rents between areas and (although Londoners hate to admit it) an excellent public transport system.

If housing benefit tenants care about rent levels, we would expect them to be in lower rent areas, subject of course to the availability of accommodation. If they didn’t care, we would expect them to be distributed across areas in accordance with the rental stock.

When a model in which the number of private sector claimants in each borough in 2010-11 is measured against (a) the size of the local private rented sector and (b) the lower 25 per cent of local rents, we find the latter "explains" 66 per cent of the variation in caseload between areas. Overall, a 1 per cent increase in rents implies a 1.7 per cent decrease in the number of claimants.3

Given this strong negative relationship between rent levels and private sector HB claims, the notion that landlords are capturing a large part of the subsidy by charging above market rents looks implausible.

This is even more the case when we look at what’s happened in London since the cuts to housing benefit in April 2011. Using the same model with post-reform data, there is no statistically significant change in the relationship between rents and caseload: even quite dramatic cuts to entitlements don’t seem to have made that much difference to the already very strong propensity for higher rents to drive down the number of claimants.

(This isn’t to say there has been no effect from the changes, but that if there has been, it’s small by comparison with what was already happening before they took place.)

At the same time, between 2011 and 2012, rents rose by 8 per cent in London, and they rose most for the type of larger property where the cuts had the most impact on tenants’ ability to pay—rents for three- and four-bed flats have risen by more than 10 per cent. So much for the government’s claims that rents are falling in response to the cuts

Given how much we spend on housing benefit in the private rented sector it would be surprising if there were no landlords taking advantage. But the hard lesson is that this probably has little impact on overall spending levels. Claims from the left that billions are being wasted "subsidising" private landlords are about as convincing as claims from the right that billions are being wasted subsidising irresponsible tenants to live in mansions.

There’s a longstanding debate about the merits of funding housing through demand rather than supply-side subsidy. (For a fair statement of the argument, see Shelter’s report). But suggesting that there’s a free pot of money available for housing investment in the form of subsidy captured by greedy landlords adds nothing to that debate.

If we want more housing investment, we’re going to have to pay for it some other way: perhaps by borrowing as Jonathan Portes has suggested. Taking that route would also have positive impacts on employment, thus reducing expenditure on housing benefit without hitting the incomes of struggling workers. But the welfare reform two-step is a distraction from the real issues, whether you lead with the right or the left.

1 See page 55 here.

2 See section 6.2 here.

3 Geek note: all variables in logarithms, all p-values <.01. The results are not driven by multi-collinearity between the independent variables.

A housing estate in Lambeth. Photograph: Getty Images

Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. He blogs at l'Art Social

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Manchester united: "A minority of absolute idiots are trying to break us apart"

At the vigil, one man's T-shirt read: "The only thing that's allowed to be separated by colour is the laundry."

A day after one of the worst atrocities in the history of the city, Manchester's people were keen to show the world the resilience of the Mancunian spirit.

Dom's, an Italian restaurant, is in walking distance from Manchester Arena, where 22 people lost their lives to a suicide bomber the night before. On Tuesday, the staff were giving out free coffee, tea and pizza to anyone who needed it. On a table outside, there was a condolences book, and teary passersby left RIP messages to those who perished. Under a bright blue sky, the community seemed more united than ever, the goodwill pouring out of everyone I met. But the general mood was sombre. 

"We need to make space for healing and for building up our community again, and just getting people to feel comfortable in their own city," the Dean of Manchester, Rogers Govendor, told me.

The terrorist has been named as Salman Ramadan Abedi, a 22-year-old Mancunian of Libyan descent. But with a population of 600,000, Manchester is a cosmopolitan hub, and proud of it. Throughout the day I encountered people of all skin shades and religions. On one of the roads off Albert Square, a couple of Orthodox Jewish boys set up a little stand, where people could grab a bottle of water and, if they so desired, hold hands and pray.

On the night of the tragedy, Muslim and Sikh cab drivers turned off the meter and made their way to Manchester Arena to offer free rides to anyone - many of them injured - who trying to escape the mayhem and reach safety. "It's what we do around here," my taxi driver said with a thick Arabic accent.

The dissonance between the increasingly frantic debate on social media and what was discussed on the streets was stark. I spoke, on and off the record, with about two dozen residents, eavesdropped on a number of conversations, and not once did I hear anyone speaking out against the cultural melting pot that Manchester is today. If anything, people were more eager than ever to highlight it. 

"Manchester has always been hugely multicultural, and people always pull together at times of trouble and need," said Andrew Hicklin. "They are not going to change our society and who we are as people. We live free lives."

It was also a day where political divisions were put aside. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn agreed to suspend their campaigns. For the next few days there will be no Labour vs Tory, no Brexiteer vs Remainer, at least not in this part of the country. This city has closed ranks and nothing will be allowed to come between that cohesion.

"I don't demonise anyone," said Dennis Bolster, who stopped by to sign the condolences book outside Dom's. "I just know a small minority of absolute idiots, driven by whatever they think they are driven by, are the people who are trying to break us apart."

Later in the day, as people were getting off work, thousands flocked to Albert Square to show their respects to the victims. Members of the Sikh community entered the square carrying "I love MCR" signs. The crowd promptly applauded. A middle-aged man wore a T-shirt which said: "The only thing that's allowed to be separated by colour is the laundry." A moment of silent was observed. It was eerie, at times overwhelmingly sad. But it was also moving and inspiring.

Local poet Tony Walsh brought brief respite from the pain when he recited "This is the Place", his ode to the city and its people. The first verse went:

This is the place In the north-west of England. It’s ace, it’s the best

And the songs that we sing from the stands, from our bands

Set the whole planet shaking.

Our inventions are legends. There’s nowt we can’t make, and so we make brilliant music

We make brilliant bands

We make goals that make souls leap from seats in the stands

On stage, everyday political foes became temporary allies. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, home secretary Amber Rudd, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and house speaker John Bercow all brushed shoulders. Their message was clear: "we are Manchester too."

The vigil lasted a little over half an hour. On other occasions, a crowd this size in the centre of Manchester would give authorities reason for concern. But not this time. Everyone was in their best behaviour. Only a few were drinking. 

As Mancunians made their way home, I went over to a family that had been standing not far from me during the vigil. The two children, a boy and a girl, both not older than 10, were clutching their parents' hands the whole time. I asked dad if he will give them a few extra hugs and kisses as he tucks them in tonight. "Oh, absolutely," he said. "Some parents whose children went to the concert last night won't ever get to do that again. It's heartbreaking."

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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