The Unnatural Disaster of the Bedroom Tax

It is causing emotional and psychological turmoil among people who have little other than their communities and social networks to rely on.

One of the most traumatising effects of natural disasters is the way they rip people out of their communities. It happens when the physical infrastructure of those communities is destroyed, and it happens when people are removed from family, friends and the social networks that support them.

The American psychiatrist Mindi Fullilove calls this 'root shock', a term borrowed from horticulture: a plant pulled up and transplanted elsewhere will often die because it is no longer able to draw nutrients from the soil that surrounds it. Such upheaval 'disturbs our very connection with the earth', she says.

Writing in The Atlantic Cities recently, she describes how such displacement affected the victims of Hurricane Sandy after it hit New York and New Jersey last year. It changed the lives not only of those who lost their homes and had to move, but those of everyone else too - 'dis-placed' in the sense that their place was no longer the same. She explains:

'Displacement triggers lifelong sorrow, what psychologist Marc Fried famously called "grieving for a long home". And it's not just grief over a place. Displacement breaks up social networks, and disperses social capital. It costs individuals an enormous amount of money, very little of which is replaced by any of the "repayment" schemes, which typically cover the cost of a house, but not the intangibles like replacing one's neighborhood. And it sets people back, adding opportunity costs to other kinds of problems.'

Two weeks ago in Sri Lanka I saw one effect of root shock: a fishing village still scarred by the impact of the 2004 tsunami. Scarred not only because you can still see where the homes were ripped from the shore, but because the lives of its inhabitants have changed too.

The fisherman who showed me his village explained that he no longer lived there, but instead lived in a camp constructed by the army. Many of Sri Lanka's fishing villages have been entirely displaced for safety reasons, moved half a kilometre inland in case another disaster strikes. But when your livelihood is a boat kept on a beach, living half a kilometre away makes it much more precarious.

Root shock isn't only a consequence of natural disasters. Mindi Fullilove has observed how gentrification and so-called urban renewal can have the same effects, ripping the heart out of neighbourhoods and the spirit from their inhabitants. One of the most telling critiques of the ill-fated housing market renewal schemes in Britain was the way they blighted communities in an attempt to improve them; places like the Welsh Streets in Liverpool are testament to the damage inflicted.

The British government has consistently used the housing market renewal schemes as evidence of the failure of its predecessors' regeneration policies, arguing that they 'pitted neighbour against neighbour'. So you would imagine it would take more care with its own approach.

The bedroom tax is evidence that not only has nothing been learned, but that there has been no interest in learning. Instead of blighting communities through physical redevelopment, it blights them by attacking the lives of individuals, forcing them to choose between their homes and their material wellbeing by penalising them for every 'spare' bedroom they have. Already there is evidence that tens of thousands of people are falling into debt as a result.

The bedroom tax (described by government officials as a cut in 'spare room subsidy' or as an 'under-occupation penalty') seeks to address disparities in housing supply and demand. But it does so by evicting people from larger homes when there are not enough smaller ones for them to go to, and by seeking to free up larger properties in areas where families do not want to live. And it is causing emotional and psychological turmoil among people who have little other than their communities and social networks to rely on.

No wonder the UN special rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnik, has suggested the bedroom tax is an abuse of human rights. No wonder individuals talk about being 'pushed out'. No wonder some have talked of suicide, and at least one, Stephanie Bottrill, has taken her own life.

This is root shock inflicted by a government on its own people in the name of 'fairness'. It strikes individuals where they are most vulnerable, threatening their homes and relationships with friends and neighbours. Its impact is particularly hard on people who are disabled: in many cases they risk being forced out of expensively-adapted homes simply because they are deemed to have too many bedrooms.

Trauma isn't generally visible, and makes few headlines. But it is real and its effects are deep and lasting. People will be paying the price of the bedroom tax for many years to come.

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