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Fergus Brown

Writer

Housing is a fundamental right – so why doesn’t it look that way?

Late last year, news broke that a homeless man had passed away on the streets of Glasgow. Days later, it was revealed that he was not in fact homeless but had died of drug related causes. This tragic incident symbolised failing within the system to adequately provide for those in need of assistance. In 2019 Shelter Scotland stated that Glasgow City Council ignored their legal duty to find homeless people temporary accommodation, denying accommodation on 3,365 occasions in 2018. During this time, they believe upwards of 50 people died as a consequence of systematic failure. Few shelters are available here, with one of the hostels, Belgrove Hotel, being described as “hellish” in a 2014 investigation. Official statistics on homeless deaths aren’t yet kept in Scotland but England and Wales saw a record 726 last year.

Misery and mortality are the harsh reality associated with rough sleeping, and it is a staple of the yearly news cycle. Apart from the risk of hypothermia, inclement weather exacerbates physical and mental health problems. The response, certainly compared to other tragedies of austerity Britain, is usually one of compassion, with numbers for shelters doing the social media rounds, and a pickup in donations to organisations like Social Bite and the Simon Community. But this only lasts so long and come winter each year it seems inevitable that people will die on our streets, at what should be the midpoint of their life, achingly hungry, cold beyond comprehension, and alone. 

In the last decade or so, I can think of five new build housing sites within quick walking distance of my parents’ home in Langside, with not a single unit of social housing between them. This is despite two of the sites being located on land that used to house NHS hospitals and were therefore publicly owned before being sold to real estate developers. The balconies of Battlefield’s Victoria Infirmary on which TB patients of the 50s were aired out will now be unique selling points for “modern apartments” in an “up and coming” area.

The Right to Buy policy of Thatcher’s governments has led to swathes of social housing stock being sold to tenants. For many working-class people, this was a life-changing opportunity that gave them the chance to own their homes for the first time. But there are several different results of this policy 40 years down the line. A lack of new home building to replace those sold off has squeezed the housing market and left little stock for tenants in need of social housing. Certain attempts to solve this have been heavy handed to say the least, with the “bedroom tax” widely seen as only functioning to sap social renters’ already low incomes without creating the redistribution of living space that it was apparently intended to.

Other policies may fare better. The Help to Buy ISA scheme closed at the end of November but affords a maximum bonus of £3000 to help first time buyers save for a mortgage deposit. Schemes like this and the recent movement towards rent caps from Scottish Parliament go some way to helping the issue. However, these policies are a patchwork response to a broken housing economy; they fail to address the underlying issues which have brought us to this point. 

I pay more in rent for one bedroom in a flat than my parents pay on the mortgage for their three-bedroom flat in the same area bought less than 20 years ago. For many of my generation, home ownership seems a distant and possibly unachievable goal. As a result, we pay out similar amounts every month to live in often insecure private rental properties as we would be paying if we had access to a mortgage. The latter is an investment, the former is sunk cost. 

Currently, renting is inherently precarious. Many tenants are a solitary rent increase from having to leave their communities, possibly putting miles between them and their place of work or study, family and friends. This is especially true of lower income people for whom living in an area convenient for these things is already a push. In the five years I have been at university, the cost of rent in the city has increased beyond any possible increase in my income – either through wages or from government loans. The last few years have seen movements of students from traditional west end areas to the south and east of the city. This inevitably results in price hikes elsewhere as potential tenants used to rents on Byres Road are happy to pay a rate which only a few years ago would have been unimaginable in either the Shawlands or Dennistoun – hikes that the family next door now must contend with. 

The implications of a narrow housing market and an inflationary rental sector are worse for minority groups. The No Evictions campaign run by Living Rent has brought the city’s attention to the lock change evictions of 300 asylum seekers by private housing company Serco. The response to the campaign and direct action of activists has continually been a thorn in Serco’s side and is a sign of hope for change to come. The union has rapidly grown in stature and membership, and regularly protests exploitative practices adopted by letting agents and housing associations.

Right to Buy first saw housing shift from the possession of councils to those who lived in them. But through subsequent changes in ownership it has been bought up for rental opportunities. It is hard to argue that it was wrong for my gran to be given the chance to own her own home, but a question remains: who will own it in 50 years and what will they be doing with it? 40% of homes sold under the policy are now owned by private landlords. 

AirBnB and other similar short term let services have facilitated short term renting of homes en masse, creating a rapid drop in supply of rental properties for full time residents of cities, therefore increasing rents. Landlords are incentivised to use the service – with rooms in the region of £50 a night in Glasgow; four to five times the average rental income for the same property. Holiday letting presents great opportunities for people to make a bit of money on the side renting out a room in their home and may even assist in bridging the financial gap caused by rising rents.  

However, the professionalisation of short term lets whereby property owners convert flats into full time holiday homes creates myriad problems. Not only does this push up rent and property prices, but it creates unpleasant living conditions for residents around them. Constant rotations of holiday renters with no relationship to the households above, below and beside them are likely to be noisier and less respectful than long term tenants. It also creates feelings of insecurity as residents don’t know who is staying on the other side of their wall, and the ability to organise residents into tenants’ unions or resident associations is lost when large numbers of properties have no permanent residents.

There is an impetus to push for reform, to adequately contend with a changing housing market and ever more demand placed on current stock. It’s clear that much more needs to be done to address how the government approaches land use and the employment of private contractors to manage the housing of asylum seekers. As rents are hiked and homes become increasingly subject to gentrification and short-term letting activity, it is important to understand that homes mean so much more. They are an underlying feature of our security - the loss of which can quickly lead us to spiral into homelessness.



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