Will children born and raised here in the UK have the same memories I have of my barrio? Some will, many won’t. Especially those whose families are in receipt of housing benefits.
Soaring property prices in London mean that not only those looking to buy a house or flat are affected. Those at the bottom of the property chain are bearing the brunt, too. You could say the latter are in an even more desperate situation. They have seen the financial support they receive towards their accommodation suffer as a consequence of an increase in the government’s welfare bill.
|What kind of memories will today's children have of the houses in which they grew up?|
The way it works is simple. An unemployed or low-waged person rents a house or flat in the private sector. After a lot of form-filling the new tenant is able to pay the rent with her or his housing benefits. The landlord or landlady receives the money directly from the tenant’s bank account. In theory everyone’s happy. Including the children, if any. But the reality is anything but uncomplicated.
Earlier last year the overall benefit cap of £500 per week to cover rent was introduced. Immediately tenants renting in the private sector found themselves out of pocket. On top of that housing benefits sometimes can take weeks to be processed, meaning that your rent goes in arrears. Even the most sympathetic and understanding landlord/landlady will come knocking on your door one day. Unfortunately those in receipt of housing benefits will not be able to come up with a proper answer. Eviction, then, becomes a reality.
Since part of my work consists of advising families who are in this situation I will not include any of the cases I come across regularly. Suffice to say that I can provide enough examples of people who are going through this type of crisis and whom I have met in my personal and private life.
There is, for instance, the single mother of two who is going through her fifth move in two years. She started in south London where she was born and grew up and is now about to be sent to Ipswich. No more London for this Londoner, whose missing intervocalic “Ts” will no longer delight the ears of yours truly.
There is the other mum of a boy and a girl who until recently had a job she loved in the social and community sector and was respected by her neighbours. Her only crime was to live in a flat that cost approximately 400 quid per month. Once the benefits cap was introduced in April last year she found herself about £150 short. Her children had been in that apartment since birth and loved the area. This mother felt safe and despite this being London, one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth and therefore prone to causing detachment and isolation sometimes, there was a strong sense of community amongst her neighbours. Because she worked locally she was also able to form solid relationships with people.
What of the children? The little people are the ones of whom I think the most. My most indelible memories as a child is the sense of protection I had around me. If I got myself into trouble I could always count on a neighbour to knock on my house’s door and tell my mother or father. What will become of the children who have to move houses six or seven times before they are even eight years old? On one hand we want resilient individuals but on the other hand we are not making that possible. A house and the sense of security it brings is probably one of the most important influences on a human being’s life. Of course, if you are of a peripatetic nature, then this post does not apply to you. Some people like moving, they like change, they can never settle anywhere long enough. It might have something to do with our nomad existence millennia ago; the constant search for the right conditions.
It is different however when we talk about little ones who do not know the meaning of the phrase “housing benefits”. Without wanting to sound socialist (I’m not, believe me), everyone should have the right to a decent habitable abode where their offspring (if any) can realise their full potential. When will we, in this capitalist society, realise that the happier the workforce, the better the results? That the more satisfied families are with their living conditions, the more positive their contribution to society will be? When you look at Nordic polities, for example, and you analyse new, forward-thinking laws and their impact on people, like paternal leave, you will see that the carrot always works better than the stick. It has been noted in countries like Norway, for instance, that men feel much happier after they have been on paternal leave. Their productivity levels increase and there’s less risk of the couple splitting up. The consequences of what many children in the UK are going through right now because of the change in housing benefits and increase in property prices will only come out in the future, both immediate and mediate. Loss of curricular times, instability, psychological damage, conflicts between children and their parents (to the former the latter will be the ones to blame for yet another move), withdrawal symptoms (when you are in your fifth or sixth school making friends is more difficult, and anyway, what’s the point? You will be sent somewhere else soon), the list of adverse effects goes on. All the for the sake of a few bob.
In the past couple of years whenever I’ve been in the park with my daughter or walked through my local market or popped down to the shops I have run into people whose faces I recognise from living in my same barrio. After a courteous “hello”, the conversation immediately switches to those who are absent and have no chance of coming back. Remember so and so? They will ask me. Then a name pops into my head followed by an image. They’re gone, they’ve been re-housed. Re-housed, what a funny word. Re-housed until they are moved on again. And the children? They will be lucky to find a park where they can learn to ride their bike.
Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on 19th March at 11:59pm (GMT)