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Living In Limbo – The Hidden Housing Crisis

12 min read

Since 2010/2011 the number of people living in temporary housing has doubled to almost 100,000 households, not only consigning many of them to substandard living conditions, but costing local councils £1.6bn a year. How do we escape this housing purgatory? Andrew Kersley reports.

Helen O’Grady was waiting on a street corner for three hours for a phone call she hoped would stop her ending up homeless. It didn’t.

When her landlord served her with an eviction notice, O’Grady gave her local council in North East London several months’ notice, but it wasn’t until bailiffs were at her door that they said they could house her.

When she asked the council for homelessness help, they didn’t call back until that evening, when they told her they didn’t have any available homes or rooms.

O’Grady and her children ended up sleeping on the floor of a friend’s house while they waited a week for the council to find them some emergency temporary accommodation.

After touring half a dozen hotels and hostels the council said had safe room for her but didn’t, she was eventually placed in a string of hostels, which she says were riddled with bed bugs and mould, or even had bloodstained mattresses. Other residents tried to force in the door of her family’s room.

“I had to escort my children to [the] toilet because they were scared,” she says.

Even when she was offered more permanent temporary accommodation in January, a council technical failure meant her housing benefit was not being paid for the property and she was on the brink of being evicted, despite doing nothing wrong.

“Who gets in trouble for all of this?,” she says.

If you speak to anyone working in housing and ask them about temporary and emergency accommodation you will almost always get the same kind of responses – usually exasperated sighs about its poor quality and stories like Helen’s, of the dire conditions they’ve encountered there.

But even as horror stories about dire conditions in temporary accommodation spread far and wide, nearly 300,000 people, almost half of whom are children, have been placed by councils in this supposedly emergency short-term housing, often for years at a time.

Housing experts are warning of a “humanitarian crisis” as the nominally emergency system is hitting breaking point – but how did this happen?

Local authorities just don't have the resources to enforce proper standards

PoliticsHome recently revealed figures that show hundreds of families of four or more people are stuck living in one bedroom temporary accommodation for months or more at a time. Even as the quality of temporary accommodation seems to be getting worse year on year, its use is only going up. Since 2010/2011 the number of people living in temporary housing has doubled to almost 100,000 households (or 0.5 per cent of the population) – the highest level in 20 years – while local councils spend some £1.6bn a year on it.

Not only are more people using temporary accommodation, but those housed in this nominally emergency housing are stuck there for longer periods at a time.

Councils now regularly warn residents of multi-year waits in temporary accommodation as they try to find a more permanent housing. The House magazine has spoken to multiple families, some of whom have spent years living in this accommodation –  sometimes with five, six or seven people sharing one or two bedrooms.

“It's a humanitarian crisis, quite honestly,” says Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter. “There are 125,220 children living in temporary accommodation in England. You simply cannot sustain that number of children. The impact [on] generations to come is huge.”

The worst conditions in this already dire corner of the housing world, according to those we spoke to, largely come from the private landlords contracted by the council to offer temporary accommodation.

Past investigations have found councils paying out millions to developers and landlords who house people in unsafe, cramped converted office blocks or in mould and rat ridden hostels, often demanding the maximum amount of housing benefit in rent to do so.

“The situation in temporary accommodation is getting a lot worse at the moment,” says Alex Diner, a senior researcher at The New Economics Foundation think tank. “The primary cause of that is that is that rents in the private rented sector are rising astronomically.”

As as rents get higher they eat up more and more of people’s incomes – and the UK is experiencing one of the longest wage stagnations in its history – leaving even those in work unable to afford private rents. It has made a record number of private tenants homeless.

In theory government has already got something on the statute books to help top up or supplement incomes when rents outstrip them – housing benefit, or local housing allowance (LHA).

In 2011, the government altered the amount from covering 50 per cent of average local rents to 30 per cent, then in 2016 it froze LHA rates, even as rents shot up by roughly 7 per cent in that time. While the freeze was temporarily lifted at the start of the pandemic in 2020, LHA rates have been frozen again far below the rate needed to meet the record growth in rents recorded in the last three years.

A recent analysis found just 5 per cent of private rents nationwide were affordable on current housing benefit rates. One investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalists actually identified 19 areas in the UK where zero rental properties were advertised in a month that were affordable for those on housing benefit.

For those with large families, limited incomes or those unable to or not currently in work, that means many are left unable to pay rents and facing homelessness, at which point councils have a statuary duty to intervene and try and find them shelter – usually temporary accommodation.

And the poor standards in temporary accommodation themselves are hard to budge, in part because of the lack of housing enforcement in the UK. Drastic budget cuts that saw local council spending drop by nearly a quarter mean local authorities often employ very few or sometimes none of the enforcement officers that maintain standards. In 2019-2020 the government only provided an average of £7,400 of special funding per council specifically to cover the cost of housing-law enforcement.

Diner told The House the issue was even more acute for private temporary accommodation, where councils have a vested interest not to punish landlords who they rely on to provide the homes that let them even partially meet their obligation to house anyone who becomes homeless.

“Actually, a lot of what we see from local authorities is an increasing level of gatekeeping and an unwillingness to accept people as homeless because then they've got to find somewhere to put that person,” says Neate.

Temporary house

At the core of this crisis, as with pretty much every single modern problem in the housing sector, is one thing – building.

It’s a well-worn argument at this point – the UK needs an estimated 300,000-340,000 new homes a year to meet the demands of its growing population, but housebuilding is stuck about 100,000 homes short of that. While we met or surpassed that number for the three decades after the war, every year since 1978 we have fallen far short.

The problem has been most acute for affordable social housing. Decimated by the introduction of Right to Buy, a refusal since then to build social housing and particularly council housing has meant the number of social homes in the UK has plummeted. While in 1979, 42 per cent of all British people lived in council-run housing, that figure is now barely above 5 per cent . Even if you include Housing Association-run social housing, that only rises to 15 per cent.

That has only been made worse by the introduction and promotion of the ‘affordable rent’ housing category over social housing, which, unlike social housing that usually costs around 50 per cent  or less of the local average rent, is as high as 80 per cent of the local average rent. In certain parts of England ‘affordable’ rents are double the rate of social rent in their area – with ‘affordable’ one bedroom houses costing more than £10,000 a year in parts of London.

The impact it all has goes much deeper than the obvious human cost of cramming hundreds of thousands of people into slum accommodation .

Over a third of the 125,000 children placed in temporary accommodation have missed over a month of school as they’re moved from temporary home to temporary home, while some 80 per cent of teachers, according to one Shelter survey, say they have seen housing issues hamper their students' performance in assesments or exams. Even when compared to low-income households generally, homeless children have been found to achieve less academically.

“I’ve seen families in old shipping containers. I've seen families in converted office blocks where their one room is an old meeting room with no outside windows. I've seen a mum, who has got wall to wall beds in her one room, and she's been told by social workers, that her baby's failing to thrive, failing to meet his milestones, as she’s literally got no room to put him down to crawl,”

Neate says.

L’Oreal Williams was fleeing a domestic violence situation when she asked Brent Council for housing support back in 2016, and was eventually offered temporary accommodation in Prospect House – a converted office block in Stonebridge, Northwest London.

“My son is severely sight impaired and has neurological conditions… We were put in a converted office. It was poorly ventilated,” she says. “My daughter was one of three or four children that develop sleep apnoea, in that building from the mould.”

In 2021, after fighting for years to prove what seemed obvious to her – that a converted office block riddled with mould wasn’t safe for her three children – she was finally offered new temporary accommodation , but the trial was far from over.

"My daughter now who developed sleep apnoea from the other property has now developed asthma,” Williams adds, explaining she went to hospital with her daughter twice for breathing problems in 2022, who ended up reliant on steroids to “survive” living in the house.

Having spent nearly seven years of her life battling councils and the private landlords they hire as the health of her children declines, she says having to nonstop fight to even get people to listen to her complaints had taken its toll.

“It’s just really tiring,” she says: not just for her, but for her children, who are getting sick and can’t have “the best start in life”.

“It’s something they can’t even understand,” she says. "And it’s not fair.”

It's a humanitarian crisis, quite honestly. There are 125,220 children living in temporary accommodation in England

There are specific policy changes the government could make to address this. It could, for a start, improve the standards in temporary accommodation by improving the enforcement of largely unenforced housing law – something already reported on by The House in the past and the subject of the government’s proposed Renters Reform Bill. One study in Cornwall found that the installation of central heating into damp, unheated bedrooms alleviated respiratory problems for children and cut the number of school days missed by a third.

Then there’s unfreezing local housing allowance, which would allow a huge number of people currently in temporary accommodation to move back into the private rented sector, but would face some serious opposition at The Treasury given it could cost “a fortune”, as Neate puts it.

But to all those The House talked to, these short-term solutions, while welcome, feel like skirting around the core of the problem – the UK’s falling number of affordable social homes.

The most-cited data we have, courtesy of academic research commissioned by Crisis, suggests the UK needs to build 90,000 new social homes a year, alongside 30,000 affordable rent properties and 25,000 shared ownership homes. But that kind of programme doesn’t win much favour in Westminster – partly because of MPs worried about local opposition to the number of homes needed in their constituency, and partly due to the minimum £10bn annual cost attached to that scale of council housebuilding.

“We end up spending more on kind of trying but failing to address the worst symptoms of the housing crisis than addressing the root causes,” says Diner.

“But we ran numbers at the NEF and projected spending on housing benefits to private rented sector landlords only… And it's due to be around £58bn over the next five years, which is over five times greater than the amount that we're due to spend on the affordable homes program.”

Neate agreed: “What you've got now a sort of complete meltdown situation, really where the cost of what is an unbelievably poor product that is costing the taxpayer, ultimately, a ludicrous amount of money.”

Both argue this creates a false economy in housing policy – instead of fronting the short-term cost for building decent social homes we go for the much more expensive and worse option of paying the rents of extortionate slum accommodation  for a growing number of people each year.

It should make it financially impossible to put this crisis aside and do nothing, and yet to those we spoke to, it felt like decades of government had been doing exactly that. Maybe the fundamental problem with temporary accommodation  is how effective it is – or at the very least, how effective it is at siloing human suffering somewhere easy and out of view. 

“What the public discourse around housing focuses on is, when people hear the word homelessness, they think you mean rough sleeping. While people are shocked by that, but there’s 5000 people sleeping rough on any given night – it’s dwarfed by this crisis,” Neate explains, somewhat dejectedly.

“125,000 kids in temporary accommodation  is a huge figure and is a national crisis. But the sense we’ve gotten is it’s not seen by politicians as something that is going to affect voters.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are determined to reduce the need for temporary accommodation by preventing homelessness before it occurs. That’s why we are giving councils £1 billion over three years, to help them tackle homelessness, targeted to areas where it is needed most. Temporary accommodation is always a last resort and councils must ensure it is suitable for families, who have a right to appeal if they think it does not meet their needs.”

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