Years of austerity have driven the poorest into squalid, crumbling homes. Can this cycle be broken?
The stark human cost of Britain’s decade-long austerity drive, welfare reforms and warped housing priorities can be glimpsed in 11 decaying flats carved from what was once a grand Victorian terrace home in Weston-super-Mare.
These bay-fronted houses were most likely thrown up in the Somerset resort’s 19th-century building boom, which carpeted the reclaimed marshland behind the windswept seafront with terraces, hotels and guesthouses. Now they are home to vulnerable private renters trapped in a desperate cycle of falling benefits, squalid housing and poor health.
One of the ground-floor flats is rented by 40-year-old Jade Smith*, who is unable to work due to anxiety and depression.
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The ceilings and walls are covered with blooms of black mould spores caused by years of damp and leaks. The boiler is faulty and cuts out unless she drains it and resets the pressure three times a week. The floor in her kitchen is collapsing – her landlord put an MDF sheet below her fridge to stop it from falling through the rotten boards.
“My mental health is going downhill rapidly due to this,” she says gesturing at the black-green spores and peeling wallpaper.
Her 16-year-old son moved out at the weekend because he couldn’t stand living there any longer. “He’s got his exams,” she says. “He can’t have this worry on his head.”
Smith says she has repeatedly complained to the landlord and the council but nothing has been done and the conditions in the flats have continued to deteriorate. “They let us live in squalor. I wouldn’t even put a rat in here – let alone a pig. It is disgusting,” she says.
Next door is even worse. Will Winston, a builder in his 50s, lives in a tiny, mouldy flat without any central heating or hot water. It is so cold that the other tenants call it “the morgue” or “the fridge”. “I’ve had no boiler for nearly two years – it will be two years on Good Friday,” he says in between hacking coughs. “I complained about it but nothing gets done.”
Water drips down his bedroom wall when it rains, soaking his few clothes and belongings. “I have problems breathing,” he says. “I’ve got a chest infection – it’s to do with the damp.”
Upstairs is Greg Williams’s flat. He grew up in children’s homes and ended up sleeping rough. Like Smith, he is unable to work due to mental health problems. “Everybody who lives here has got issues of some sort or another,” he says fiddling nervously with his fingers. “They [the landlords] know what they are doing. They are getting nearly £500 a month from this on its own.”
Last summer he heard rats in the rafters. And this winter the water in his small fish tank froze. “It was that cold in here. It’s horrible,” he says.
Along the corridor are two brothers with learning difficulties, who sleep in a single bedroom. Then there is a woman who Smith says suffers from hallucinations and on whom she sometimes checks. “We all help each other in this block because there is nobody else.”
These are the new slums of Britain – a tenure of unsafe and unaffordable housing with few routes out. The people trapped here would have once have had the chance of moving into relatively spacious, well-equipped council homes at genuinely affordable rents. But, due to the failure of successive governments to build enough social housing, that is an option open only for a vanishingly small minority of people in the most extreme circumstances.
Exclusive analysis of official figures by the academic duo at the forefront of research into the private rental sector, Julie Rugg and David Rhodes, shows that 90% of the 1.4 million households renting on low incomes in England are being put at risk by harmful living conditions and/or pushed further into poverty and possible eviction by rents they cannot afford.
Nearly 30% are living in non-decent homes, 10% are living in overcrowded properties and 85% are in “after housing cost poverty”, which means their rent pushes them below the poverty line.
“Worryingly the evidence tells us there is a growing residual slum tenure for private rented-sector households on low incomes, whose needs are being neglected by policymakers,” says Rugg, from York University. “Poorer renters are much more likely to be living with damp, disrepair and sometimes life-threatening hazards – as well as rents they can only pay by cutting back on essentials like food or heating.”
Rugg and Rhodes – who carried out a major government-backed review of the sector in 2008, with an update last year – blame welfare reforms, which have pushed housing benefit and the housing element of universal credit below even the cheapest private rents on offer in 90% of the country. This, coupled with ongoing cuts to most working-age benefits and shortages of social housing, leaves renters with little option but to accept whatever they can get from landlords.
“Tenants moving in and out of low-paid jobs, dependent on an increasingly ungenerous benefit system, have few choices,” says Rugg. “They cannot vote with their feet because they cannot afford anything better and even then they are getting into arrears and living with the threat of eviction.”
Rugg and Rhodes’s research also shows that all the low-income households in the private rented sector have recorded one or more vulnerabilities, including long-term health conditions or dependents. Just under half have children and just over half are entitled to means-tested benefits. Around one in 10 is disabled and 18% are migrants.
“Low-earning families with children and vulnerable individuals are better placed in social housing, where rents are affordable and landlords have a greater social responsibility,” Rugg says. “We cannot expect a commercial, profit-driven sector to cater for their needs.”
Yet, according to housing charity Shelter, there are there are more than 1.1 million households on social housing waiting lists in England. Fewer than 273,000 homes at social rents, which are typically half of market rents, were made available in 2017/18 – a difference of more than 840,000 homes.
Even though the government has lifted the cap on councils’ borrowing to build new homes and pledged a new generation of council houses, the lack of direct subsidies from central government means few will actually be built. Under the government’s current affordable homes programme, which runs until 2022, only 12,500 new social rent homes are planned.
“The prime minister has made positive noises about social housing but there is not enough investment to meet demand,” says Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter. “Councils and housing associations cannot at the moment build the homes needed to help all those trapped in the insecure and unaffordable private rented accommodation.”
Weston-super-Mare typifies many of these problems. Just over 44% of the homes in the town’s two most deprived seafront neighbourhoods are privately rented and there is a concentration of 163 dangerous and poorly managed bedsits. More than 32% of the rented housing in these wards are classed as non-decent, with more than 18% containing the most harmful hazards such as extreme cold, unsafe electrics and fire risks.
Hundreds apply to North Somerset council for social housing every month. They join an ever lengthening waiting list that currently stands at 3,370 families. Yet only 600 homes become available each year. This is unlikely to improve as no new homes at social rents have been built in North Somerset since at least 2015.
This means even vulnerable mothers are being placed in unsuitable and unaffordable private rented accommodation. In a quiet residential street, Becca Brown and her three children have just been moved by the council into a damp, mouldy flat she cannot afford unless she goes without food.
Her two-year-old son, who is asthmatic, needs to use his emergency inhaler at least twice a week, whereas before he didn’t use it at all. Chunks of damp plaster fell on to her other son while he was sleeping. “He’s a dinky little thing for a five-year-old. He jumped out of bed screaming and I went in and I saw parts of the wall on him,” she says, pointing to a large exposed patch of brick work above a child’s bed. “He was terrified.”
Brown has to find £70 a week out of the benefits she receives for her children because her housing benefit does not cover the full rent. She is also subject to the benefit cap, which hits larger families. After she has paid the utility bills and provided for her children, there is little left for her. “I literally have a slice of toast and nothing else for my tea because I’m paying for a place full of mould and walls falling down,” she says on the verge of tears. “It’s horrible to know that I cannot keep my children safe in their home.”
It’s not just those unable to work who struggle to make ends meet. Steph Roberts, an Iraq war veteran and single mother, works part-time but has been forced to use the local food bank three times. She relies on military charities to clothe her two young children in part because the housing element of her universal credit is nearly £100 short of her full rent.
“It is embarrassing – I have massive amounts of shame,” says the 37-year-old. “I have the anxiety of not knowing if I’m going to have enough money tomorrow – have I got enough for the gas meter?” Her landlord has accused her of being in rent arrears and repeatedly threatened her with eviction.
“I just want a home so I can work and bring my children up,” she says. “I’ve applied for social housing but there’s no chance.” Out of desperation she wrote to the local MP, John Penrose, who is a government minister, to ask for help applying for a discretionary housing payment, which helps with rent shortfalls. She says she never received a reply. Penrose says he is now trying to track down her email and offer help.
Private renters often get referred to food banks. On a gloomy midweek morning there is a steady stream coming into the town’s main food bank, which is tucked away at the back of car park not far from the bright lights of the Grand Pier. Sid Wilson is having a cup of tea while the food bank’s volunteers load up his bags with baked beans, potatoes and UHT milk. He spends almost half his universal credit on the rent for his flat above a shop. “If I buy food, I can’t afford to pay my bills. If I pay my bills, I can’t afford to pay for food,” he says. “I’m down to virtually nothing. I’ve got a tin of tuna and some frozen veg – that’s it.”
Nigel Green also has to use half of his universal credit to pay the rent on his bedsit. After he has paid his bills, he is left with little to survive on. “I just sit indoors. I go a couple of days without eating,” he says, darkly.
The shortage of social housing also means Weston’s landlords are having to take on the role of social landlords. In a windowless cabin behind a road lined with former guest houses turned into bedsits, John Trudgian insists he is stepping in to help those abandoned by the state.
Trudgian, whose firm houses around 200 people, says he has around 20 to 30 people who are sofa surfing or sleeping in the woods above the town on his waiting list. “We are where the buck stops. We are the private landlords that take people off the streets,” he says. “We take the part of the population that nobody wants to deal with.”
He adds it is getting harder and landlords are pulling out of the cheaper end of the market partly because tenants on benefits cannot afford even the lowest market rents. “A lot of landlords gave up when universal credit came in,” he says. “We know that because we have been buying their properties.”
One of the landlords pulling out is Paul Routledge, who has appeared on the BBC series The Week the Landlords Moved In. He is in the process of selling 65 flats, which are almost all rented to tenants on low incomes. He once owned 163 flats in the town and was receiving around £700,000 a year in rental income. “It has worked for us fantastically and given us an extremely good life. But it has got progressively worse and worse,” he says on the phone from Greece, where he is having his yacht repaired.
Routledge blames the removal of tax breaks for undermining his business model. But he also says welfare reforms and the introduction of universal credit have contributed to rent collection issues. “We have arrears across the board all the time for one reason or another,” he says. He claims new landlords moving into the bottom end of the market can only survive by cutting back on property upkeep. “You are now getting a flurry of landlords coming into the market who haven’t got a clue. It is a breeding ground for slum landlords,” he says.
Despite well-documented problems with the town’s rental sector, North Somerset council decided not to introduce a licensing scheme for all landlords in the two worst affected wards in 2016. Nor has the Conservative-controlled authority prosecuted a single landlord for housing offences since 2015.
Elfan Ap Rees, the council’s deputy leader with responsibility for housing, denies the town has a slum tenure at the bottom of the private rented sector. “We have a few properties where landlords haven’t been looking after the properties properly but by and large that is not a big issue,” he says.
He says cold homes covered with mould are “not acceptable” but insists the council is taking action to improve standards with a new programme of inspections in the worst areas. “If a landlord is not maintaining a property properly, we will act,” he says. “But people have to tell us.”
Ap Rees has concerns about landlords withdrawing from Weston. “It does worry me. But part of the problem is that the tenants are not paying the rent. The answer has to be a facility whereby the rent should be paid direct to the landlord,” he said.
He admits there is not enough housing being built in Weston but says the council does not have the means or the desire to start building itself again. “With the government cutbacks we have had to take a huge amount of money out of our general council budgets and the housing association [Alliance Homes, which owns the council’s old housing stock] does an extremely good job,” he says. “They look after our tenants far better than an authority could and they do fund rented housing themselves.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government says it is increasing the supply of affordable housing, delivering 400,000 in the last eight years. “We have made £9 billion available through the affordable homes programme to March 2022 to deliver 250,000 new affordable homes.”
This is not much comfort to the people stuck in the crumbling terrace in Weston. They are caught in a vice-like grip of inadequate benefits and a chronic shortage of homes aimed at those on the lowest incomes.
“Nobody is listening to me – that’s what it feels like,” says Jade Smith, with a faraway look in her eyes. “I feel trapped.”
*The names of tenants have been changed to protect their identity