Given I’m about to write about housing policy, I’ll preface this by saying that, as a socialist, I believe that nobody should have to go without food, clothing or leisure when they live in one of the largest economies in the world; an enjoyable standard of living should be guaranteed to every person that lives in this country, and a safe and comfortable place to live is the bedrock of that guarantee.

As such, I’m an active member of my local tenant union, Acorn, which operates in much the same way as a trade union, but with a focus on housing and community issues.

It’s vital, in my view, that private and social renters - particularly those on low incomes, those with disabilities, and those who just don’t have the time or energy to advocate for themselves – have a source of advice and support when things go wrong.

My other disclaimer here is that I myself am a private sector renter, as are most of the people in my life - and for the most part, it’s a pretty miserable arrangement.

You get paid, and instantly somewhere between 30-60 per cent of it disappears on rent. Your bedroom is decorated a hideous colour, but you can’t change it (this is a personal one – it’s vertical pink and lilac stripes and I hate it).

If you’re unlucky, your home might start to reveal interesting new “quirks” (shout out to the many dead mice I’ve disposed of in my illustrious renting career).

You live in mortal fear of scuff marks, lest you somehow get charged £150 for “repairs” off your deposit – which you’re probably banking on to secure your next place, because to rent is to also be transient, and therefore to periodically ruin your friends’ days when you ask them to help you move.

ONS data from 2019 estimated that the proportion of Welsh households living in a privately rented home had risen to thirteen per cent in 2017 from nine per cent in 2007, with the number of households living as social renters or owner occupiers falling.

If this trend continues, it stands to reason that legislative action will be required not only to respond to the needs of private renters, but to regulate the rapid and fairly uncontrolled growth of the private rented sector.

That minister for Climate Change Julie James (whose brief, confusingly, also includes housing) said last week that our new Welsh Government is “determined to take real and ambitious action” on the housing crisis, then, was very welcome.

It’s just a shame that its policy plans really don’t back up that rhetoric.

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In the Programme of Government released last month, a handful of housing policies were announced. There was a pledge to build 20,000 new social housing units, a plan to “develop a national scheme restricting rent to local housing allowance levels”, and a vague mention of property conditions – “[we will] continue to improve existing homes”.

While more (high quality) social housing is, in my opinion, an inarguably good thing, it’s a decidedly longer-term fix; building that amount of housing takes time, and requires the government to meet its targets, which is not always a guarantee. Other measures to ensure a supply of housing in the here and now are desperately needed.

Which brings me to Labour’s plan to restrict rent to local housing allowance (LHA) levels.

The problem with this policy is in its core ideological assumption – that the market rate for rent is reasonable, and should be paid. The LHA calculation, used to determine a person’s entitlement to housing benefit, is largely based on the typical rent prices paid by other tenants in a given region; the idea here seems to be that struggling tenants can apply for housing benefit to ensure their rent is paid.

While this is certainly preferable to a tenant getting into life-altering debt and risking the stress and upheaval of eviction, it still constitutes a large pot of public money going straight into the coffers of private rentiers.

This is an issue we’ve seen time and again with Welsh Labour; The housing crisis isn't going away and the government needs to act.

When the coronavirus lockdown hit last year and thousands found themselves out of work and struggling, one of the Welsh Government’s flagship housing policies was the Tenant Saver Loan Scheme.

Through the scheme, tenants who had fallen behind on rent would, in theory, be able to take out low-interest loans with a credit union to pay off their debt - solving debt with further debt for tenants, and guaranteed rent takings for landlords.

Freedom of information requests by the BBC and ACORN Cardiff later found that just 41 applicants had been approved for a loan in the first seven months of the scheme, with many rejected on the basis of employment status and poor finances. Fortunately the scheme has now been scrapped and replaced with grants.

Another of the Government’s pandemic housing policies, the eviction ban, was lifted at the beginning of this month, despite warnings that homelessness support services would struggle with the expected evictions surge – research by the Bevan Foundation thinktank suggests that around 80,000 private renters have already been told to find a new home. Mark Drakeford cited concerns that landlords would take the Welsh Government to court if the ban didn’t end.

That Labour’s plans for improving the quality of housing stock are so undefined is also worrying. Research by Shelter Cymru last summer found that nearly a quarter of private tenants were living in homes with mould, damp and condensation – including one in ten families with children.

Just under half of private tenants reported at least one problem at their home, such as an electrical hazard or leaking windows, with the majority saying that the problem was still unfixed by the end of the first Covid lockdown. With these myriad issues in play, some specificity from Labour would be reassuring.

All this being said, only the social housing pledge made it into Julie James’ Plenary speech last week, and bar some of the more concrete proposals for tackling the problem of second homes in areas like Gwynedd (including a holiday home registration scheme, and planning and tax reforms – all of which are welcome), the rest of the speech was alarmingly fluffy.

Ms James spoke warmly of the Welsh Government’s relationship with private sector landlords in Wales, describing them as “working happily alongside us”, while rarely speaking of tenants at all.

Like so many of the issues laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic – the underfunding of the NHS, racial inequality, escalating poverty and child hunger, the tight grip of the private sector on the UK’s most foundational infrastructure – the housing crisis is not going away. I’m just not convinced our government is up to the task.

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