The horrors of temporary housingPosted: November 8, 2017
Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on November 8.
From ‘temporary’ homes that last for 19 years to families with young children living in the middle of an industrial estate, a Commons debate on Tuesday found MPs queuing up to relate horror stories from their constituencies.
Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh opened the debate about temporary accommodation with an eloquent and angry explanation of the situation facing 78,000 families and 120,000 children but she was joined by MPs from all parties in calling for urgent changes.
The stats about temporary accommodation are grimly familiar. Among them are a 66% increase in the number of children affected since 2010, 1,200 families with children housed in B&Bs beyond the six-week legal limit and a five-fold increase in families from London housed outside the capital since 2012.
All this has come at a cost of £3.5 bn over the last five years for accommodation that is stretching the definition of ‘temporary’ to breaking point.
Siobhan McDonagh said three quarters of families in temporary accommodation in London have been there for more than six months and one in 10 for more than five years. There are even cases in Camden and Harrow of families living in ‘temporary’ accommodation for 19 years.
A graphic illustration of that came from David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, later in the debate:
‘One family in my constituency have been living in temporary accommodation for 14 years. Another family have been there for 17 years. That family have seen their children grow up in temporary accommodation—the only home that the children have ever known, from their first day at primary school to their first day at secondary school. Next year, the 18th birthday of the eldest child will be celebrated in this so-called temporary accommodation.’
The all-party Communities and Local Government Committee says out-of-area placements should be ‘a last resort’ but they are now a reality for 22,000 families. Councils receiving families from other areas should be notified in advance but the system is not working.
Siobhan McDonagh told the stories of families who were watching the debate from the Commons gallery:
‘Kelly’s family were evicted earlier this year, making them homeless. Sutton Council placed Kelly, her husband and her two young children in a single room in a B&B in Wimbledon. They had so little space that Kelly’s stepson had to leave the family home. For 10 weeks, the family was left in one tiny room, hidden from society in a B&B. No one told Kelly when the nightmare would end.
‘After 10 long weeks, Kelly is now finally out of the B&B, although her temporary home is not much better. Kelly tells me that she simply does not feel safe there, and I completely understand why. The oven does not work, the electrics are precarious, and the flimsy door is a precarious barrier to the outside world. Only yesterday, Sutton Council’s planning department knocked on her door to tell her that there was no planning permission to allow the flat she lives in to exist.’
Most powerful of all was her description of Connect House, a converted office building in the middle of an industrial estate in her constituency that is now a temporary home to 84 families placed there by Bromley, Sutton, Croydon and Merton.
She told the Commons:
‘The property provides the landlord with an estimated— and simply staggering—£1.25 million to £1.5 million of taxpayer’s money each year, with the local authorities charged between £30 and £40 per room per night. Connect House is therefore a 21st century, multi-million pound death trap in the middle of my constituency.’
The families include a mother with a spinal disability who shares a tiny room with her daughter and sleeps in the bed during the day so her daughter can have it at night. Another has a three-hour round trip to collect her children from school so that it’s dark by the time they get back.
Life for families at Connect House is shown in this video made by Siobhan McDonagh and shown to MPs after the debate:
Her more general point was that the rules on use of temporary accommodation are simply not working: ‘I cannot help questioning why we have laws and regulations on temporary accommodation if they are simply not enforced.’
Conservative MP Bob Blackman said that after a government concession the Homelessness Reduction Act would mean that from April ‘local authorities that offer either permanent or temporary accommodation must visit and inspect the premises to confirm that they are fit for accommodation and fit for purpose, and we should all ensure that our local authorities honour that requirement’.
But she said: ‘There can be anything in law, but if it is not enforced, it does not work. Unless there is an organisation like Ofsted or the Care Quality Commission for housing, it is not going to work.’
The links with the rest of housing policy were made again and again by MPs during the debate.
Both Bob Blackman and fellow Conservative Kevin Hollinrake zeroed in on the fact that the end of an assured shorthold tenancy is the main cause of homelessness and called for longer tenancies of up to three years.
MP after MP from the Labour side called for more homes for social rent but support also came from Mr Hollinrake, who said that ‘80% of market value in many cases is simply not enough’.
And MP after MP made the link between rising homelessness and welfare policies such as the introduction of universal credit and the local housing allowance freeze and
Wes Streeting, Labour MP for Ilford North, told the story of families placed in a pub on the Romford Road that featured in a recent BBC TV news report.
But he said the most troubling case for him came when he was approached during a school visit by an 11-year-old boy who wanted to speak to him privately:
It is unusual for an 11-year-old to demand some of their MP’s time, and I spoke to him in the headteacher’s office. He said, “You grew up in a council flat, didn’t you? Can you help me, my mum and my two brothers because we live in one room in a hostel?”
Replying to the debate, communities minister Marcus Jones said that the number of families in temporary accommodation was well below the peak of 2004 ‘but this government are certainly not complacent’.
He said local authorities had a legal duty to assess the suitability of temporary accommodation before placing people and that this had to take affordability, size, condition and location into account as well as possible disruption to jobs and children’s schooling.
And he hailed the Homelessness Reduction Act as ‘the most ambitious legislative reform in decades’ that would ‘fundamentally transform the culture of homelessness service delivery’.
But Siobhan McDonagh closed the debate with this plea to people to ‘get real’ that deserves to be quoted in full:
‘I do not wish to sound angry or petulant, but I feel both, because 84 families will still be living in the middle of an industrial estate tonight, tomorrow night, next year and the year after.
‘The most common eviction is now eviction from an assured shorthold tenancy. No amount of advice at any point in the cycle is going to change that, because landlords can get more money if they rent their properties to people who are not dependent on housing benefit or universal credit. That is a financial fact. We can wish it better, but that is not going to work.
‘The only thing that is going to work is a proper requirement for standards in temporary accommodation that are fearlessly enforced by the Government. God help us: we require councils to tell other councils when they move a homeless family to their area. That would be revolutionary.
‘I worked in housing for 35 years. I found accommodation for homeless families and dealt with people in bed and breakfasts in the 1980s. I have never ever seen such numbers and the sort of accommodation that people are currently living in. We can get real about it and do something real, or risk a crisis among poor, dispossessed families of the like that we will have difficulty dealing with. I ask people to get real about the situation that many of our constituents find themselves in.’