As we stagger bleary-eyed from 2013 to fall, helplessly, face-first onto the cold, hard sick-encrusted pavement of 2014, what delights can we expect from our betters? Are they still pretending not to know what they’re doing? Christmas was ironic at least, with so much food porn on TV even as a good chunk of the nation dined thanks to the Trussel Trust. All that advertising seemed quite futile and the only foodie programme that kept me in hoots was Christmas Cooking with ‘Team Nigella’. That was entertaining for all the wrong reasons, and I didn’t get her Christmas Cokebook or Big
Dave’s trial endorsement either. Terrestrial TV comprised the annual moron-a-thon of repeats, while Top of the Pops was
another lame event without James Saville Esquire to titillate the audience; Reggie Yates and Fearne Cotton just don’t cut
the mustard when it comes to interacting with kids like Sir Jimmy did. So, as 2013 thankfully pissed right off, leaving us drunkenly swearing at Jools Holland, the nation set about making impossible or improbable resolutions. Perhaps give up drinking again? Maybe be nice to people or eat less? Or possibly, for the New Year, we should collectively make the lives of two-hundred families as miserable as we can? Enter Mr and Mrs Fergus Wilson. You’ve probably heard of them by now; those caring buy-to-let supremos from Kent who have given ten-score tenants a post-Christmas gift of impending homelessness with their freshly typed notices to quit. How charitable can you get? It seems Fergus and his beady-eyed wife prefer clean-living Eastern Europeans as renters; they’re more likely to have jobs and be less dependent on housing benefit. Whereas lazy British single-mother sluts squander the rent money on bingo, plasma screen TVs, fags and subscriptions to eHarmony. But it’s not just the workshy in the Wilsons’ sights.
They want to evict everyone in receipt of any benefit, including working people. As a PR exercise, their television interviews were
somewhere between marriage guidance from Charles Saatchi and Gadaffi doing ITV’s ‘Take Me Out’; “Let the fat Toby jug see the
beady-eyed ferret!”. Ultimately, the pair come across as a rather nasty Krankies tribute act, advising anyone they missed in this
purge to “keep their heads down”. One hopes those soon-to-be evicted tenants will get their day in court.
Now, in these economic times of blaming anyone on benefits for all life’s ills, it would be pretty easy to round on the unemployed for being malingering shits, just as it would to scapegoat the Poles for stealing our jobs, homes and occasionally sacrificing children. Yet the malcontent in this story runs deeper than a cheap soundbite from UKIP, or another droll diatribe from Big Dave about his Big Society concept. Turning on the Wilsons would be so unfair. Although seemingly heartless, this behaviour is nothing new to many members of the National Landlords’ Association. Indeed, it’s apparent some landlords have already seen the writing on the wall. They are shedding benefit claiming tenants as fast as they can, First, let’s take a look at the fiscal mechanics. Housing benefit is paid every four weeks by local authorities whereas rents are due each calendar month. This means the 13 four-weekly payments to cover accommodation don’t arrive when the rent is actually due. For example, a rent of 500 wongas per month multiplied by 12 = 6000. But the equivalent in housing benefit is calculated as 6000 wongas divided by 13 (the number of four-week periods) resulting in payments of 461.54 wongas. Obviously housing benefit catches up with the rent
eventually, but landlords with a financial commitment to mortgages which have to be paid on the calendar cycle are often left short.
That is, unless the tenant can cough enough up to bridge the gap.
Such renters are usually expected to make up this shortfall out of their benefits (unless they’ve wasted it on cheap cider and roll ups).
In the olden days of housing allowance payments this was difficult, but it could be achieved with a modicum of moral fibre. Alternatively,
housing benefit would be paid direct to the landlord, if the tenant agreed and was in arrears. Some local authorities are more reluctant
to do this nowadays due to the risk of fraud by …. landlords. Add benefit cuts to the equation, and this fuck-up grows exponentially.
The increased contribution of claimants to council tax and general reduction in housing benefit, when set against the rising cost of
living and minimal benefit increases, has led to a recipe for disaster. Most buy-to-let landlords run a minimal portfolio and are
responsible, considerate people, trying to nurture a pension fund for their retirement (and who can blame them, when any savings they
may have are pretty much worthless)? Unfortunately, a few landlords are motivated by pure greed, with no regard for the tenants they
exploit. As long as rents continue to increase, with legislation reigning in the costs noticeable only by its absence, who can blame
these money-grabbing buggers for profiting at the taxpayer's expense?
This was all fine and dandy as long as housing benefit covered the bill, but those days are long gone thanks to ‘Osbornomics’. Not surprisingly, landlords are beginning to wake up to the prospect that their free money from the state is ending, with no subsidy left for buy to let empires. With the under twenty-fives threatened by an additional benefit cull post-2015, and Universal Credit promising that benefits will be paid monthly, direct to the claimant, the temptation to buy food rather than make up the rent shortfall is a thorn in the side of even the most decent landlord. As Mr Fergus points out: “He’s not the DSS”. This is perhaps surprising, when you consider the DSS helped foot the bill for a large chunk of his housing empire. And so, the profitable thing for him to do now is look to a different tenancy market. And why not, when an army of Polish workers who probably renovated most of his properties in the first place now have families here and are desperate to move in? So, what’s the root cause of this staggering clusterfuck? Many are realising it’s not just greedy energy companies responsible for rampant free marketeering and the demise of social responsibility, as Big Dave saus: “we’re all in it together”. The easy option would be blaming the feckless poor, but this malaise runs deeper than superficial Tory spin or extended episodes of ‘Benefits Street’.
One could argue the rot started with the demise of the nation’s social housing stock. When Thatcher exchanged council housing
for votes back in the eighties no one complained. The baby boomers were too busy sticking noses in the trough; too greedy to
realise the bad weather brewing on the horizon their kids would experience. You could throw in the utter lack of appropriate
house-building over the past thirty years and add the stagnation of wages compared with the cost of living. However you slice it,
we’ve the makings of a perfect storm. Throw in councils being prevented from using capital receipts to fund social housing, with
many going unpunished as they fail to meet obligations for affordable properties, and the cold front widens. For years the private
sector sat back, pretending homes were collateral as free-for-all credit gave rise to a shortage that bumped up the price. No one
stopped to think of the monster we were creating.
In the old days the rented sector had something called the ‘Fair Rent Act’. Back then rents were assessed to ensure they were reasonable and bound by a scale of charges, enforced by law. That was scrapped and, as rents flourished and the housing shortage grew in a free market economy, it was always going make for a ticking time bomb. Subsidising high rents with housing benefit was never going to work; its a short-term political fix. Rents could only go up and create a rental bubble. Add to this the influx of cheap labour from Eastern Europe keeping down wages, and you have fewer people able to afford a mortgage as rents rose further and faster.
You don’t have to be a die hard right-wing Tory to realise there isn’t the money available, in our situation, to cover the
present welfare bill. But solving the housing problem takes more than cuts; it needs a modicum of intelligence and
perhaps a leap of faith, something beyond the average politician of any denomination. The UK spends more on
housing benefit for people in work than Jobseekers’ Allowance, and yet it’s the unemployed, single mothers, et al
who bear the burden of blame. The majority of our welfare budget goes on pensions, health, education and housing
benefit, and the combination of a lack of house-building, both private and social, no rent controls, and a sudden (or
even steady) increase in population was a recipe for disaster, even without the credit crunch. It was never about how
but when, and the casualties were always going to be those easiest to blame for the mistake, those people at the
bottom of the pile; the poor.
Some blame all this on the nasty party but, to be honest, I doubt they have the combined intelligence to plan such a
monumental fuck up. Their policies haven’t helped, but neither did Teflon Tony when he was in power and we all know
the Lib Dems will say anything only to renege on it later. No one has the balls to attempt a solution, there are too many vested interests at play, from house builders sitting on land hoping prices go up, to greedy landlords charging excessive rents to cash-strapped councils unable to build. Now getting on the housing ladder has become a pipe dream for most.
I don’t blame the likes of Mr Wilson, although his rationale for booting victims of domestic violence back into the hands of their abusers is a tad rank, as are the endless rent increases when set against rising house prices and falling benefit rates. No doubt his rental yield per property averages 6% and, since property values have risen 8%, he’s hardly going to the wall. But as Wilson said, he’s in business, and no doubt thinks he’s being rather astute. But Eastern Europeans may not be the golden calf landlords think they are. Times can change and no doubt housing benefit rules will alter, for the working poor and Eastern Europeans alike. What’s most disturbing about the whole story is the rise of the National Landlords’ Association as a political player. For years they’ve experienced halcyon times thanks to housing benefit propping up their incomes. In this context, the move to off-load claimants is totally heartless and hypocritical. What happens when the interest rates go up on their many mortgages? Boot out the Poles, do a reverse ferret on Romanians, or flood the country with Bulgarians to undercut everyone?
This story illustrates the dangers of letting stupid people make excessive amounts of money in the property market, individuals who
then form a cartel to prop-up their greed. They assume a mantle of self-assured arrogance off the penury of others, and haven’t we had
enough of that with letting and estate agents? The NLA seem to have similarly over-inflated ideas about their value, treating the system
like a business to be exploited, just as they do peoples’ homes.
Finally, importing all those cheap tradesmen from Europe once seemed like a good idea. No one objected to affordable plumbers and it
was a lot easier than training our own. But with skilled practitioners draining intelligence away from those countries where they were
born, and without the investment in infrastructure to support everyone arriving here, the poor and unskilled in particular, free market
economics meant someone had to lose out.
One can only wonder at the sheer cheek of landlords who expected to increase rents in line with property values rather than inflation, and assumed housing benefit would foot the bill for their greed. You can place the acceleration of this mess firmly at Osborne’s door. His welfare-slashing policies and ‘help to buy’ have simultaneously cut housing benefit and pumped up the price bubble. You didn’t really think this one through did you George? Apparently some still hanker for the kind of property market that got us in this mess in the first place. Yet responsible capitalism is a myth, another excuse for those greedy fuckers to exploit everyone else and generalise about Eastern Europeans working harder than the British. Setting one group against another is a typical political ploy that only adds fuel to the far-right cause, giving the likes of UKIP a new axe to grind over the country as we all grow poorer.
If Mrs Wilson desperately wants hunky Eastern European tradesman as tenants that’s her business. The big problem is
there’s no longer enough accommodation for all the people, while stagnating wages are set against a rising gap between
the haves and have-nots caused by the greed of the few, fucking with the lives of the many. This year we will see
cash-strapped councils who've had their budgets slashed by central government expect to collect more council tax
from those with nothing left to give. Expect to see a staggering rise in rent arrears mirrored by a catastrophic rise in
repossessions. Even without the spectre of interest rate rises, half of all home owners risk going to the wall.
No form of fair rent legislation is going to appear to counter these greedy individuals. Not while the coalition is hell-bent
on returning this country to an antiquated class system where tenants have no rights, landlords can charge what they
want, and a roof over your family means a slum for most. Just keep your head down and live in fear.
Welcome to Britain in 2014, it’s positively Dickensian.