Our Research Director Claire Harding considers what needs to be done to prevent the capital reverting to type and failing to provide homes for those most in need.
Adverts and editorials which point out the vast number of children stuck spending Christmas without a proper home have become a sad staple of the festive season. Things were a bit different in 2020 because the evictions ban kept more families in their homes than usual. However, the end of the ban, coupled with evidence of rising rents in the capital, means that we’re likely to be back to the terrible norm this year. There are nearly 10 times as many households in temporary accommodation in London is than in the rest of the country – more people in the capital become homeless, and on average they are homeless for longer.
The number of people living in temporary accommodation in London is also a lot higher than the number of people sleeping rough on the streets, but it tends to get less attention. Part of the problem is language: to those outside the system, ‘temporary accommodation’ sounds like somewhere you might go while your new kitchen is installed. ‘Bed and breakfasts’, where families are often placed, sound banal or even pleasant – but forget any visions of floral bedclothes and fresh eggs in the Cotswolds. In this context, a bed and breakfast is somewhere that people are sent to live without their own kitchen, and often without their own bathroom as well.
People end up in temporary accommodation when they are homeless and their council needs to find them somewhere to live, but they don’t have anywhere suitable available straight away. Councils aren’t obliged to find temporary accommodation for everyone who ends up homeless, only for those described as being in ‘priority need’ – mostly families with children, pregnant women, or people with disabilities. Others groups, including most working age adults without children, don’t usually get helped by the council, and may end up sleeping rough, in a shelter, or sofa surfing at friends’ and families’ homes. In a system which goes back to the Poor Law in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, councils also only have to do this for people who have a connection with their area – one of many reasons that vulnerable people often find it hard to move around the country to look for work or cheaper housing. And you also have to be ‘unintentionally homeless’, meaning you were kicked out of your home rather than leaving it of your own accord. This is sensible on the face of it, but in practice it means that families who have been sent eviction notices are forced to wait until they are physically evicted by bailiffs in order for the council to agree that they are homeless.
In the best case scenario, being in temporary accommodation is OK, and short term. It might be basic but a clean and safe furnished flat owned by the council or a housing association, near to school and work, and a step on the way to a permanent place. In the worst case, it might be dirty and infested with vermin, with whole families living in one room far from their usual networks, stuck for months on end. These places are usually rented by the council from private landlords on a nightly or weekly rate which ends up much higher than ordinary rental contracts, for a far worse product. Councils are stuck with them because the law says they have to provide some sort of housing, and there are no other short term options in their area. And the lack of social housing and affordable private rented housing in London makes it hard to move people on to somewhere that’s suitable for them in the long term.
As it stands, the current temporary accommodation system in London benefits no one but landlords. Families are stuck in a system which is both punitive and hard to understand, and which makes it much harder for them to escape poverty by getting a better job, or by doing well at school or college. Councils have a legal and moral duty to help them, but don’t have the money or property to do it well. Taxpayers pay over the odds for bad outcomes. Our new project on homelessness and temporary accommodation is looking for new solutions which could work across the city to get us out of this mess, and to get the most vulnerable Londoners the homes they need and deserve.