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23/09/2014

The way we live now.

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.

Focus E15 women

Photo: David Levene for The Guardian

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.

(I am tempted to remind people that Andy Gale was based at Newham in his ‘not official at all’ DCLG role in telling Councils how to avoid housing the homeless.)

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.

 

 

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts.

4 Comments

  1. Ben

    The farce that is London property prices makes me want to cry. A house should be seen as something someone needs in order to live a decent life. I detest the way they are seen as a commodity to gamble on for a relative few to make a fortune at the expense of those who can’t and will never be able to play the game.

    Part of me hopes for a crash but that will also hurt those who just bought somewhere to live in rather than for profit.

    Great post.

    Reply
  2. JHM

    It’s appalling enough that people are being decanted out of London to random towns where they have no connections, support systems or history. What’s worse is that those receiving towns actively DON’T WANT an influx of people in receipt of benefits and are trying to do all sorts of horrible things to put them off and/or make them go away. We can see this kind of awfulness in the Sandwell case recently blogged about here – http://nearlylegal.co.uk/2014/08/just-bonkers-absolutely-bonkers/

    Pardon my french, but what the flying F is going on? Vulnerable people are being kicked about from local authority to local authority like a football. This may arguably ‘save money’ in the short term (though if we’re putting people into expensive hostels rather than finding them homes I doubt it), but immediate savings do not equal long term sensible financial decisions. We’re actively creating the ‘troubled families’ of the future.

    I’m hoping beyond hope that SOME party will do something about this. They don’t even have to pretend to like these people on benefits – they just have to wind back the cuts with the justification that it’s going to cost us more money in the long run. AAARGH.

    Reply
  3. Peter+Barker

    My view on this goes against the grain among my acquaintances and probably among followers of this blog. But hear me out before dismissing me as an apologist for welfare cuts.

    I do not believe that reversing LHA cuts is the answer: I think unrestricted LHA rates in previous years are a large part of the problem. If I was made Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for a day, my first job would be to roll back private sector HB rules to before April 2008, when Rent Officers carried out individual property valuations so that HB would never pay more than the property was actually worth. My second would be to abolish or radically amend the benefit cap which currently has arbitrary and capricious effects on families in London. But I wouldn’t be looking to increase LHA rates. When LHA was introduced it brought two problems:

    – Any private property (including the worst) attracted HB at the median rate – and that is the median rate in an unrefined sample which doesn’t strip out the luxury end of the market
    – The LHA rate applies to the claimant rather than the accommodation, which provides opportunities to make vast amounts of money out of creative household combinations – for example two joint tenants sharing a house with two friends will get 2 x the four bed rate of LHA.

    The surge in HB expenditure following introduction of LHA, especially in London, poisoned the market: self-funding tenants had to compete with those rates. We now have the ludicrous situation where market rents are unaffordable by most people, in which case they surely cannot be true market rents can they?

    LHA cuts represent an attempt to put the genie back in the bottle but the same basic flaws in the structure of the scheme remain. Newham was refusing to be held to ransom by landlords of substandard property which would never be worth current market rents if LHA hadn’t allowed things to get like this. But resistance is futile because landlords can accept private tenants directly without LA referral and LHA continues to offer income maximising possibilities without any quality control.

    Add to that the government’s guarantee of rents up to £500 a week for temp acc (through HB subsidy paid to authorities). Is it any wonder that the London rental market has gone mad?

    Even though incomes in London are higher than elsewhere in the UK, they still aren’t so high that the bottom wouldn’t drop out of the market if HB was brought back under rent officer control by individual property valuation. I feel we are all being taken for a ride by landlords who cannot believe their luck. They threaten: no more HB tenants, self funders only? In THAT gaff? Yeah, right.
    They will blink first. They will get what they are given and be thankful for it.

    Reply
    • Giles Peaker

      You won’t get much argument from me, Peter. My only dissent would be that the state of the London market is such that Landlords can and do abandon taking LHA tenants. The rents might be unaffordable to most, but people have to pay them – there is no sign of the bubble bursting yet. And part of the reason for that is a huge housing shortage The bottom 30% of market rent can and does actually turn out to mean nowhere at all.

      The problem is what to do about this. The long term answer is obvious – large scale social housing building. But that is nowhere in evidence. So the short term answers – reversing LHA cuts, some form of rent capping etc. are being floated about.

      Reply

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