When the Government announced its cap on housing benefits, it dismissed critics who said that this would lead to increased social segregation and a displacement of the poor from inner city housing. Nothing of the sort would happen, but instead, the size of the welfare bill would go down and there would be lower rents for poor people renting from a private landlord. In reality, the critics were right: the poor are driven out of their communities, and rents continue to rise as fewer and fewer people can afford to buy. Nowhere can this be better observed than in the Olympic boroughs, where high-speed gentrification meets the benefit cap.
Hardly anyone expected that the Olympic Games would leave the population of Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets unchanged. The billions of pounds that poured into three of the most deprived boroughs in England led to upgraded infrastructure and housing stock and brought new shopping and leisure facilities. Many people on higher incomes will consider moving there where few would have done so before. Consequently, housing values and rents are on the up. Post-Olympics, the poor would have always found it hard to find affordable accommodation, and people on housing benefits would have struggled to find a private landlord willing to rent to them rather than a more affluent tenant.
But the housing benefit cap is massively exacerbating this development. Housing benefit is paid in the form of the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) to people on low incomes who rent from a private landlord (as opposed to a social landlord, such as a housing association). Prior to the reform, the maximum amount was pegged at the median level of a given rental market area, meaning that private landlords would get a similar rent than if they let out their property to a more affluent tenant. The newly introduced cap limits the LHA to the 30th percentile, and also specifies an absolute cap, for example £250 per week for a one bedroom property. This may appear high – but in London, it is not an unusual price.
Since the introduction of the cap, landlords in East London quickly realised that they can charge the same or much higher rents in the open market rather than renting to LHA recipients. It is very tempting even for the most socially inclined of private landlords to do so, given that the system is fraught with complications: payments are made in arrears, and often arrive late. LHA recipients whose income level crosses and recrosses the eligibility threshold have their benefit payments stopped and restarted, making the system even more unreliable. The general demonisation of LHA recipients (or benefit recipients in general) does not help. The result: a shortage of housing for the poor. As a Guardian investigation has shown, there are hundreds of properties within the limits of the housing cap in Newham, but many of these are not available to people on LHA. Queue the exodus of LHA recipients. Newham Council has already asked a housing association in Stoke if they could take on 500 families for which the council has been unable to find properties. The legacy of the Games will be a homogenous island of wealth interspersed with remnants of social housing rather than the mix of rich and poor that is still the norm in most parts of London.
The developments here are a sign of the shape of things to come across the country – at different times, at different speeds, but it will happen elsewhere, as the rental market is rapidly overheating: people cannot afford to buy anymore and renting ceases to be the preserve of the poor. Landlords can chose who to let to, and unsurprisingly will chose richer tenants. It was always a complete folly to introduce price controls on a small segment of an overheating market – it simply means that this market segment will not be served. What is happening in the Olympic boroughs should act as a warning to the rest of the country: if we don’t want ghettos of rich and poor, the cap has to be repealed. If we don’t want to spend increasing amounts of money on housing the poor, we have to reform the whole of the housing market, not just that part that is meant to serve the vulnerable (and that serves them badly already). At the moment, it is barely working for most, and it isn’t working for the poor at all.