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Four ways to reverse the rise in homelessness in London

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  • Architecture & built environment
  • Economics and Finance
  • Cities
  • Housing

On the 6th of October 2016 the RSA and Policy Lab held a one-day workshop to explore solutions to the number of households in temporary accommodation in London. The workshop convened 38 participants from London borough housing teams, registered providers, homelessness charities, social enterprise and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). It was supported by Trust for London.

The aim was to develop a systemic understanding of the causes of homelessness and the pressure on services, learn from existing responses and see how they could be built upon. In previous blogs I’ve described how temporary accommodation in London is a system in crisis and some of the ways councils have responded so far to try to get a hold on it. Through the workshop participants sketched out four new ideas for systemic interventions to prevent homelessness by addressing it’s structural causes. We’ve published the full outcomes from the workshop here, including areas for further research and how the ideas below were arrived at.

 

Make private renting stable and affordable and prevent homelessness much further upstream

The majority of new cases of statutory homelessness in London are caused by the end of an assured shorthold tenancy and most households in temporary accommodation are single parent families who can only earn one income. Private renting in London has simply become unaffordable for them. Participants looked at the question of how to prevent people from getting to crisis point and presenting to councils as homeless. They emphasised the need to make private renting more stable and affordable coupled with improved access to early advice, information and legal advocacy. To increase stability and access to private renting a minimum five-year tenancy agreement was proposed, with in-tenancy rent increases limited to the rate of inflation. The tenant would be able to leave without a penalty after 10 months by providing a reasonable period of notice. Banning high upfront agency fees was also proposed. Their vision was of a system in which, should a tenancy end or break down, households are able to access another one with minimal council support. The need to intervene earlier to prevent homelessness was also emphasised with channels for providing information, advice and support available at times that fit around work commitments.

 

Equip people with skills and knowledge to deal with housing problems when they arise

Uncertainty was identified as a key feature in the experience of being threatened with homelessness. A lack of knowledge about housing rights as well as what to expect from housing services often delays the point at which people seek support. Not knowing what will happen next continues to be a source of anxiety once they have done so. There is a need to break down barriers to understanding housing rights as well as what to expect from housing support services. Participants proposed a dedicated programme of learning is introduced in schools, including budgeting and financial literacy, housing rights and how and when to access support. Equally legislation and the way councils provide services needs to be clear and consistent. Advice often recommends that households access support early but they are often then told that nothing can be done until the day of their eviction. The Communities and Local Government Select Committee deemed levels of support offered by council services unacceptably variable in their recent enquiry into homelessness, particularly for single homeless applicants.

 

Give councils the power to acquire underused land at it’s existing use value to deliver affordable housing

A lack of affordable housing supply was identified as a structural cause of homelessness, it's also undermining councils ability to find suitable settled homes for homeless households. One way to deliver more housing at affordable rents (without an increase in grant funding for social housing) would be enabling local authorities to acquire underused non-residential land at it’s existing use value through compulsory purchase orders. This would require a legislative change to give councils powers similar to the power of eminent domain in the US. Arrangements in Germany and the Netherlands currently enable local authorities to acquire land for infrastructure and housing development at, or close to, existing use value. More information on this approach is available in a recent Centre for Progressive Capitalism report on capturing land value increases to fund infrastructure investment and house building.

 

Councils to direct house building on their own sites, investing their land into schemes rather than selling it

Exploring alternative models for delivering affordable housing supply participants took inspiration from Lewisham council’s PLACE/Ladywell project - which commissioned moveable temporary homes on a site that sat empty awaiting regeneration plans - as well as the Real Lettings Property Fund - which combines private and public investment to purchase affordable properties that council housing teams can access. In order to direct spending on relieving homlessness towards contributing to new supply, participants proposed the development of a pan-London vehicle for directing the delivery of multi-tenure housing developments. It was proposed that councils invest publicly owned land into the vehicle rather than selling it and that the uplift in land values from conversion to residential use would help fund housing at sub-market rents.

These ideas do not exhaust all possibilities and non are a sufficient solution alone. For London councils and their partners to put them into action a reinvigorated approach also needs to be supported by Government.

On Friday of last week, The Homelessness Reduction Bill 2016, progressed through its second reading in the House of Commons. The Bill would place duties on Local Authorities to intervene earlier to prevent homelessness and change the point at which person is classed as being threatened with homelessness from 28 days to 56 days. It would also require them to assist a much broader group of households. The focus on prevention is welcome but without addressing the fundamental problems - a lack of housing at affordable rents and levels of housing benefit that have been restricted since 2010 - there’s a danger councils will end up with a duty to help households to find alternative accommodation that doesn’t exist.

Prior to its second reading a new duty to provide temporary accommodation to all households was removed from the Bill. This would have included non priority-need single homeless households, who are currently receive little support. The scale of hidden homeless cannot continue to be obscured in official statistics, large numbers of people live in unsafe and poor quality temporary housing below the radar. There is a real need to raise standards in this type of unsupported temporary accommodation and we heard a series of proposals from Justlife foundation at the workshop for doing so.

Taking a systemic view of homelessness in London it’s clear that a renewed cross-Departmental Government strategy is needed. This should involve attention to the way services are provided, increasing access, affordability and standards in the private rented sector - as well as the Government supporting councils, one way or another, to increase the supply of homes at sub-market rents that are needed.

Nowhere is this problem more acute than in London and we hope these ideas are a spur to action.

Download the workshop outcomes in full

3/11/16 - This article has been updated. It previously stated that participants proposed a minimum five year tenancy agreement 'with no break clause for the tenant'. Participants intention was that there should be no break clause which would allow the landlord to ask the tenant to leave before the end of the tenancy (or that this should be limited) whilst tenants should be able to leave the tenancy early without a penalty by providing sufficient notice. This innaccuracy was the authors mistake.

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  • join the BBC Radio 4 homeless appeal.

    at St Martin in the Field Church this Christmas

    very near RSA HQ House


    ps Invite Homeless via this Charity to RSA new Coffee Shop 2018 for a Hot Drink and work with the as Fellows to improve lives and society

  • Were the individuals who are in temporary accommodation included in this discussion? It feels like their voices are the most important in this discussion and a chance to communicate them to the right people is essential to achieve long term solutions. 

    • I agree absolutely that  support should encompass whole person or family needs and it looks like the mayday trust is a great example of that as well as basing support on what the people that receive it say they want.

      We didn't have any individuals who were housed in temporary accommodation at this workshop, though we had charity and council support services. Involving people with experience of homelessness is definitely of merit particularly when developing services. The purpose here was to think freely about redesigning the policy framework at different scales. We did use videos based on approx 80 hours of interviews with families in temporary accommodation to get a good idea of what peoples needs are, what makes temporary accommodation such a negative experience and how homelessness services are experienced.

      I'm definitely in favour of the idea that service users should be involved directly and participatively in the design of services and also more generally that policy and political changes should be pursued through broad and popular direct democratic methods but I also think there is a space for knowledge sharing, idea development and strategic thinking which doesn't directly include people who are experiencing homelessness. This workshop was was focused on the systemic malfunction of council provided temporary accommodation in London and the macro drivers in the broader housing market. That kind of thinking can seem indulgent in the presence of someones acute and immediate housing need, but it's still needed.

      Complex needs, marginalisation and deprivation can often be fundamental causes of homelessness as much as a lack of housing, usually a combination, but in London the housing aspect of the problem has become much more predominant.

      I hope that explains why it wasn't out of callousness or a deliberate desire to block out the voices of homeless people that this particular workshop was held in this way.

  • Much as I admire and agree with all attempts to prevent genuine homelessness, the government, with charity support, are charging headlong into the biggest homelessness crisis of modern times, if not ever. The constant slashing of benefits for the poorest is about to hit the juggernaut that is the terminally-stupid Section 24. The ONLY - and inevitable - consequences of this are rent rises and evictions. Everyone who celebrates a landlord selling is celebrating another evicted, potentially homeless, family. While the government refuses to recognise these obvious consequences, the situation will never improve. If anybody should doubt me, just see Peterborough where £1.2m has been spent since April on Travelodge rooms, which the council recognises is in large part because landlords are selling ahead of the April introduction. You ain't seen nothin' yet. Once S24 is enacted, more and more will find themselves in this position, and up against a govt that doesn't want to hear.

  • As a landlord I appreciate greatly what the intentions are here.  I see homelessness rising at an incredible rate in the 2 cities closest to me, and I understand the desire to give tenants longer term tenancies.  Most landlords want to retain good tenants so it would be of benefit to both sides.  


    However I get the strong feeling that no consultation has taken place with private landlords when talking about keeping rents low and no 'high' up-front agency fees.  Certainly in the opening paragraph it is not mentioned.

    I would agree that some, and I do say some, agencies charge way too much, but what is regarded as reasonable.  Certainly when some friends of mine moved into rented recently I felt the charges they had inflicted were far from reasonable, and they also included £50 for a dog reference!  That was not a refundable deposit, it was a charge for a reference from the dog's vet.

    However what I really question in the proposal to keep rents down is whether the workshop has any knowledge of the costs that landlords are having to face these days.  A good landlord is doing some or all of the following:


    Gas safety checks

    Periodic electrical installation checks

    Legionella risk assessments

    Portable appliance testing

    Fire alarm installation, checks and maintenance

    Emergency lighting installation, checks and maintenance

    Carbon monoxide detector installation and checks


    Thus we are providing the safest homes in the country.  Who does these on their own homes?

    We are increasingly having to pay for selective additional licences that can cost hundreds of pounds per home.  And of course many are already buying HMO licences.


    Now private landlords have been the victim of a vendetta by the previous Chancellor, who has increased added a 2% SDLT and disallowed wear and tear, though most landlords would agree that the latter is fair if it wasn't for the fact that initial purchases have been disallowed too. 

    But the really BIG issue, the one that will have the most major and terrible impact, the one that will see hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of low paid tenants really suffer, is Section 24 of the 2015 Finance Act.  It is literally forcing landlords to increase rents and if a tenant can't pay it they they will be evicted and upgraded to one that can.  Whilst the tax doesn't come into force until next April landlords are already beginning to react - because they simply have to.  The tax change is so onerous it will have people paying tax when there is no profit, or even tax on a loss.  Thousands upon thousands of landlords will be moved up a tax bracket or TWO.  Some will go all the way from lower rate into additional rate tax, they will lose child benefit if they get it AND lose some or all of their personal allowance.  The tax burdens can be greater then their true incomes, especially when interest rates increase.  

    The homeless situation is about to explode and the blame lies at the feet of our George Osborne.  If the current administration wants to stop this happening then they can.... but will they.


    If you want to know more about this issue please look at the report available at https://www.property118.com/section-24-comprehensive-report/91755/.  Go to the bottom of the page and click on the big blue button.

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