Housing is back on the agenda in Oxford this week, both in the universities and the city. Last week Green councillor and Christ Church alumnus Sam Hollick tabled a motion to the City Council to refuse to implement evictions relating to the bedroom tax (something other councils have already done.) In a display of the supine vacillation that is starting to characterise the Opposition, the Labour-controlled council voted to push ahead with evictions. Public criticism of the decision has emerged from across the Oxford community. Unemployed single mother and council tenant Andie Berryman stated that: “The bedroom tax is a yet another attack on those on low incomes; a clear indicator of socio-ethnic cleansing in our major cities. It forces people out of their communities, forces people further away from job opportunities and essentially forces people out of proactively engaging in civil society.” Louise Livesey of the Oxford Feminist Network added, “Other councils have the led the way in refusing to implement this ill-judged policy. Women and children are already bearing the brunt of the Government’s decimation of the welfare state and civil society, as research by the TUC and others has made clear. Women are more likely…to be further hit by the Bedroom Tax and risk eviction if they cannot afford to pay.” 872 out of 3,500 claimants, or one in four, are expected to lose their benefits due to the bedroom tax. Local residents confirm that they will carry on fighting the bedroom tax and ensure that those who are vulnerable and disabled are not made homeless.
The context on housing in Oxford is thus; we are afflicted with the fourth-highest homelessness rate in a British city. Rogue landlords, unaffordable housing, a shortage of appropriate properties, gentrification at the expense of poorer communities, the housing benefit cap and all the other accommodation issues affecting most areas are as prevalent here as anywhere else. We are, as we have always been, a deeply divided city, from the commuter belt of London workers and academics in Summertown and North Oxford to the deprivation in the Leys and Cowley. In the past, such stratification has been so intense that the Cutteslowe Walls sprung up in North Oxford in the 1930s in order to physically lock out poorer areas- an order that remained extant for thirty years. In the presence of two large universities catering for nearly 40,000 students between them, the pressure on housing can all too easily be viewed through the lens of student-resident competition.
Merton College has censured the City Council, and is pursuing legal action over a quite different housing matter. The council has instituted a charge to be directed toward affordable housing payable by all commercial developers. It is a charge I agree with in principle, out of a sense of the social responsibility of developers to people who inhabit the spaces they are building in. And yet there are problems written into it; ‘affordable’ housing rarely actually is that (just look at the Olympic Park!), and in an era of university funding restrictions, making student developments unviable can only increase pressure on the town housing market. The debate between Merton and the council’s defenders is circular, seemingly infinite, a direct result of the fact that it spectacularly misses the point.
University and city combined have been hit with an average rent rise of 4.5% last year. Students, at Exeter and Magdalen for instance, face hefty catering charges in addition to high rents (Worcester for one saw a 12.5% rent rise in one year.) At Ruskin and Brookes, bursary support schemes are facing heavy cutbacks. The pound in the pocket of students is rapidly diminishing, and so is that of residents. A narrative that sets disadvantaged student against disadvantaged resident, scrapping over what little and expensive accommodation exists is one that does no particular good to either group. Underlying causes of the problem are greater and more structural, the race to the top in rent and house prices unleashed in the 1980s has made Oxford among the most expensive places to live outside of London. The ultimate solution would be the building of socialised housing (cutting state spending on housing benefit in the long term), and the bringing under control of predatory landlordism, in a bid to create a city with enough good quality housing for both residents and students. The City Council’s role in all this is both bifurcated and desultory, with on one hand progressive motives that impede student development, but on the other hand no real translation of those motives into a generalised policy on housing that resists the government’s hugely harmful housing strategy and protects residents. Fair shelter for all in our city is achievable and worth fighting for, and something students and the wider community can and should actively unite around.