This is not exactly a housing law post, though the operation of housing law runs through it at an angle. It is more of a snapshot of the present reality of social and private housing, at least in London, traced through the history of a remarkable group of single mothers in Newham. And I must pay credit to the tireless work of journalist and campaigner Kate Belgrave (who also tweets as @Hangbitch) in pursuing this story, as there is much more to it than my brief account.
In 2013, a number of homeless single mothers with very young children were accommodated in a ‘foyer’ hostel by Newham Council. All were in priority housing need. The hostel was run by a Housing Association, which also apparently provided ‘lifeskills’ courses. Conditions in the hostel were not great. There was mould, overcrowded rooms, broken sinks and so on. But it was in Newham, and they had hopes of getting a permanent place down the line. The accommodation as supposed to be for 6 months or so, but some had been there for years.
But then things changed. Newham decided that Supporting People funding was going to be cut. This funding was partly paying for the hostel accommodation. And Newham changed its allocation policy to prioritise those who were working, post Localism Act 2011. And Newham also changed its homeless policy to say that only in exceptional situations would homeless accommodation be offered in borough (the legality of this has not yet been tested, but given DCLG Guidance and the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012, I’d say it sounds pretty unlawful).
So, suddenly the women were facing losing their accommodation, had notices to quit served, and were being offered accommodation out of borough (‘out of borough’ as in Birmingham, Hastings and Manchester) by Newham. Newham were clear – and blunt – that there was ‘no affordable accommodation’ in borough. Not in social housing, because that was being prioritised for working households, not the homeless, and there is a 24,000 waiting list. Not in the private sector, because rent levels and the benefit cap meant that there was no private accommodation that any of the women could afford. Local Housing Allowance would simply not meet the rents demanded, particularly with the benefit cap in operation.
The women faced (and continued to face until very recently) being stuck in accommodation 100s of miles from their home borough and support networks, even if they get to bring a suitability challenge to the accommodation. As any housing advisor knows, it is far, far too risky to refuse a property as unsuitable, with the risk of homeless duty simply being discharged, rather than accept it while asking for a review. That at least preserves the housing duty, whatever the outcome of the review decision.
But the women organised themselves. First in reaction to the conditions in the hostel, and then to their perilous housing situation, then to housing conditions in Newham. They called themselves the Focus E15 group. They are still going, and still arguing.
It has taken a year or more of organisation, of protests and public campaigning. But in the face of this, it appears that Newham and the Housing Association landlord have ‘withdrawn’ notices to quit previously served, and agreed to find in borough accommodation (albeit that this turned out to be £1000 per month PRS accommodation with leaking roofs and gaps between the walls and the floor, which is arguably an inadequate discharge of duty in the PRS under Localism Act 2011 requirements. Newham are supposed to ensure the standard of any PRS accommodation offered in discharge of duty).
But of course, this is only a (potential, uncertain) solution for this organised group. Hundreds, thousands of other households face the same problems and treatment, and do so alone, unassisted.
The Focus E15 group are well aware of this. The campaign have just occupied an empty flat on a Newham Council estate near the former Olympic site. The estate has been steadily emptied by Newham, with only a few properties left occupied by tenants, as Newham intended to sell the land. Sale deals have fallen through, leaving the bulk of a 600 home estate vacant for years, adapted properties and all. Whatever the purposes in selling the land (and it must be said that Newham have made as yet unrealised promises about a substantial house building programme), it cannot be denied that empty, habitable council properties left vacant for a speculative land sale are a potent symbol of the current crisis in London.
So this is where we are. The homeless, in priority need and with nowhere else to go, face being thrown out of their temporary accommodation due to funding cuts, and shipped 100s of miles away. A council’s (possibly unlawful) policy is to ship its homeless out of London, unless the case is ‘exceptional’ (and plenty of others have the same policy, if less officially so).
Out of borough accommodation is used as a threat to make the homeless go away, without bothering the Council. Social housing is prioritised for those in work (and maybe resident in the area for 2, 5 or 10 years), not the most immediate housing need. And the private sector is simply unaffordable due to LHA cuts and the benefit cap.
While the Focus E15 group, through remarkable efforts of organisation and campaigning, might possibly have improved their own prospects of being able to live in their own local area ( in poor PRS accommodation), the crisis continues to rage on for every other homeless person, or household in housing need, in London and elsewhere. To their absolute credit, the Focus E15 group continue to campaign to highlight this. What is dismaying is that nobody else seems to realise or be prepared to highlight quite how desperate the situation has become.