Having just been asked for the third time this week whether I think changes in housing benefit (HB) will cause a national glut of empty homes, I'm not sure whether this is the most important question to ask, but I feel should tell you what I think. The question is based on an accumulating body of evidence that the planned cap on HB will price people on low incomes who rent their housing from private landlords out of their homes. This graphic from the Chartered Institute of Housing shows that over time they may be pushed out of London, then the South West and in 30 years time whole country will become too expensive for them. This begs a number of questions. But the one I have been asked to answer is: will it cause homes left in the wake to become empty? To which my answer is no…. well, maybe a bit. Here’s why.
The implication to the CIH’s model is that private landlords will turf out tenants on HB rather than drop the rent to a level that they can afford. It also assumes that rents will rise at a uniform 5% a year. The old adage is that all projections are wrong, and I’m quite sure this one will be. My first thought is that the private rental market is just that, a market. Rents are set by what people will pay, sop it’s never going to price itself out of business. In some areas, central London for example, I have little doubt that landlords will be able to find tenants not receiving HB who will pay the same rent. So few will see the need to drop their rents. In other areas landlords will have little choice. I spoke to one landlords from rural Durham recently who told me he could let houses to people on HB at double the rate he could let them on the open market. In neither case do I see much chance of vacancy increasing. In central London tenants will only be forced out if the landlord thinks he can let it somebody for higher rent; so no vacancy. In Durham the landlord is potentially faced with less rent or no rent. Most I would guess would opt for less. So no new vacancy.
However, I did say there might be a bit of extra vacancy. Here’s why: with lots of landlords forced to make decisions and lots of people having to move, there will be plenty of opportunity for cock-ups. Landlords are just people and on the whole people who have lots going on in their lives other than letting houses. An uncomfortable truth about much of the private rented housing let to people on HB is it’s rubbish. HB doesn’t take account of property condition, and so the incentive for a landlord to maintain it is less than if the tenant isn’t on HB. A landlord who moves out HB tenants to let on the open market may find that they are faced with a big refurbishment bill to get it up to scratch. The property is then empty and if the landlord can’t get it sorted out, it stays empty. In an ideal world a landlord foreseeing this problem may drop the rent and keep the HB tenant. But the world of cock-ups doesn’t include many landlords with foresight. In Durham a more serious problem may emerge. If HB is so much higher the market it suggests there isn’t much market. When this happens it isn’t impossible for landlords just to give up. It hasn’t happened for years. Perhaps because HB has artificially propped the market up, but there’s no reason why it could happen again in some areas.
Of course all of this avoids the really big problem here. HB changes will inevitably cause people on low incomes to move because they can no longer afford to pay their rent. The market will adjust to this, there won’t be swaths of vacant properties, but for some people here will be personal tragedies and hardship. Is this a price worth paying? Now there's a real question.