New JRF research programme to explore how housing can provide a buffer against poverty in the UK

9th Jan 2013

How could housing protect people in the UK from the worst effects of poverty? Kathleen Kelly introduces JRF's new work on housing and poverty.

Looking at how little the Coalition’s mid-term review mentioned the Government’s fundamental changes to housing policy, I’m really pleased that JRF is investing in a new research and development programme on housing and poverty. 

We want to understand more about how people’s housing circumstances can be a springboard out of poverty, a buffer against its worst effects - or make things worse perhaps because of costly, poor quality housing. We want to understand how we can make best use of public and private funds to build more homes and meet the pressing housing needs of those 1 in 12 families in England on the social housing waiting list.  

The 70-year anniversary of the Beveridge Report sparked a discussion of what Beveridge would make of today’s social security and housing systems. 

Seventy years ago it must have felt like a neat side step to argue that there would be a massive council house building programme that would bring down housing costs (not to mention rent controls). But for all the political rhetoric, a massive house building programme looks extremely unlikely these days. 

Whatever way you look at it, there would be an extra 3.1 million people in poverty today if we measured it after their housing costs were accounted for, rather than before. Shelter recently reported that, over the last year, almost a million people have used a pay day loan to help pay their rent or mortgage. Your location is a major factor dictating your housing costs, whether you’re renting or buying.  

How often though do we stop to ask ourselves about whether housing provides an effective buffer against the impact of poverty?

Some of you may have seen the #BreadlineBritain films we did with the Guardian. One really struck a chord with me, about bad housing conditions.  It wasn’t about housing costs per se but it highlighted how your housing conditions and location can create a trap – impossible to stay in, yet impossible to leave. 

Thinking back to Beveridge. Post war social housing improved housing conditions and for many it acted as a stepping stone to the nirvana of home ownership. Private renting has now become the catch all tenure – not just for those that can’t buy right now but also for those with no hope of any other tenure. 

Yet half of those in poverty are home owners. It’s all very well talking about housing as an asset and being able to sell up if you get into trouble – but if you have little or no equity that’s not so easy and could still leave you in debt. For an owner with a mortgage, anything that changes your financial circumstances for the worse can be a very risky proposition, especially as 98% of housing benefits goes to those who are renting. 

Although there might not be a magic bullet or an undiscovered source of funding, I look forward to working with many of you over the next couple of years to turn research into realistic housing solutions for people living in poverty in the UK.