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Opinion: A tale of two cities - why affordable rent must be challenged

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Opinion: A tale of two cities - why affordable rent must be challenged

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Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Central Government, Local Government

Opinion: A tale of two cities - why affordable rent must be challenged Opinion: A tale of two cities - why affordable rent must be challenged

James Murray, cabinet member for housing at Islington Council, is leading a High Court challenge by nine London boroughs against the affordable rent regime. Here he explains why.

Step out of Islington Town Hall on Upper Street and you’ll see two estates facing each other. To the right you'll see council-run Tyndale Mansions; opposite you'll see housing association-run Sutton Dwellings.

At first glance they're similar: both estates were built nearly 100 years ago with the promise of providing homes for people on low and normal incomes in Islington. But on one side of the street, this promise is now under threat.

Social housing in Sutton Dwellings faces a perilous future thanks to the government’s decision in 2010 to allow social landlords to raise ‘affordable rents’ up to 80% of the market level – and to offer tenancies for just a few years. With these changes affecting tenants moving into existing homes as well as new ones, a comparison with what’s happening in Tyndale Mansions brings into sharp focus the profoundly damaging effects of what the government is doing.

At Tyndale Mansions, we have remained committed to social rents for all our tenants. Yet in Sutton Dwellings, the landlord has taken advantage of the government-given freedom to let new tenancies at rents closer to the market level.

So a new tenant looking for a two-bed in Tyndale Mansions will be charged £130 a week by the council. Yet if the same prospective tenant tried to get a two-bed in Sutton Dwellings, their housing association would charge more than double: £264 a week.

This is happening across Islington, across London, and in the rest of the country. At these new, higher rents, many people who need better housing simply cannot afford the homes on offer, or they face being forced to rely on much more housing benefit to get by.

And the fact that these new near-market rents are officially called ‘affordable rents’ threatens, in an Orwellian manner, to undermine people’s trust in what it means for housing to be 'affordable'.

So I want to be very clear and make the case not just for affordable housing but for the future of social housing.

Homes for social rent are what we need to make sure people on low and normal incomes can afford somewhere decent and secure to live.

Homeownership will fail to offer this to an ever-increasing number of people, particularly in places like inner London. And meanwhile, it has become ever more clear the private rented sector is completely unfit for purpose.

Not only do private renters face problems caused by rogue landlords and rip-off letting agencies, but the sheer cost in so many places and the insecurity of tenancies mean the sector in its current form can't be a realistic option for people, and especially families, on low or normal incomes.

It is depressing that, rather than limiting rents and increasing security for private tenants, the government has gone the other way by encouraging higher rents and less security for social tenants. It’s a race to the bottom, rather than making life better for all.

But this makes our commitment to social housing more important than ever. The market alone will never provide the homes we need in places like Inner London. Yes we need more homes – but it matters what sort of homes we have too. If we only built more homes for market sale and private rent that would not help us meet our complicated housing crisis.

Likewise, the government's desire to push up rents means that even homes for 'affordable rent' will fail to meet our housing crisis. They'll either be let to people on higher incomes or they'll push up the benefits bill.

In places like Islington, we are showing that there is an alternative. We are building a new generation of council housing for local people. Our new homes for council rent, built as infill or redevelopment on Islington estates, are offered first to existing tenants on the estate they're built.

We are also working with housing associations who will charge social rents in new homes they build. A number of housing associations in Islington have had a similar response to the government's new rules as us: they agree the higher rents are simply not affordable and that social rent is the answer. We are supporting them with land and capital to make sure they can continue to build social housing in Islington.

James Murray's article appears in the March edition of 24housing magazine.

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