London councils trying to force homeless families out of capital
Some councils are making ‘take it or leave it’ offers to families to be housed as far away as Birmingham, despite disruption to jobs and school.
This article titled “London councils trying to force homeless families out of capital” was written by Patrick Butler, Pamela Duncan and Mattha Busby, for theguardian.com on Friday 14th April 2017 13.11 UTC
A handful of London councils are making aggressive use of legal powers to make “take or leave it” offers of housing in locations far away from the capital in an attempt to permanently resettle hundreds of homeless families.
Officials are giving households 24 hours to accept private rented homes in the West Midlands, Essex and the south-east, warning that if they refuse the council will consider them to have become “intentionally homeless” and withdraw support.
Research seen by the Guardian suggests half of offers made by 28 councils in locations in the West Midlands, more than 100 miles from London, are rejected, suggesting that many families are prepared to risk becoming homeless again rather than be uprooted from jobs and family support networks.
Campaigners say some councils’ policy of offering homes several hours travel distance from the capital, despite evidence that most families will reject them as unsuitable for their needs, suggests that their priority is to reduce the size of the homeless list rather than genuinely help families.
In one case, Brent council offered a three-bedroomed private rented property in Telford, Shropshire to 11 homeless London families over a 12-month period. All refused or were deemed to have refused the property without viewing it. Nine of the families had jobs in the capital, and all had at least two children in local schools.
Dolores Cieicierska, a single mother of three who was offered the property, told the Guardian she feared it would mean losing her cleaning job, and access to childcare provided by family members living in Brent. “I started crying because of the stress, because I would lose my job and because my children would have to leave their school.”
Elizabeth Wyatt of campaign group Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) said it was worrying that Brent kept offering the property, which it must have quickly realised was likely to be rejected. “This is not a council trying to house homeless families, but one that is trying to end any responsibility it has towards homeless families as efficiently as possible.”
Cllr Harbi Farah, Brent’s cabinet member for housing, said the council faced an acute shortage of affordable suitable property, a situation exacerbated by government welfare reforms. “While we would prefer to make offers of accommodation within Brent and London and do this in the majority of cases, unfortunately this is just not possible in all cases.”
Brent said the West Midlands was one of the closest affordable areas for housing. It always assessed families’ circumstances, including parents employment status, and whether school-age children faced crucial exams, before making an offer. Families were given 24 hours to decide, it said, because private landlords often needed a quick decision.
Newham said its offers to homeless families of housing in the West Midlands were a small percentage of its total offers. All families were carefully assessed prior to the offer and given up to seven days to decide whether to accept. In a statement it said: “There is a chronic shortage of affordable accommodation in London due to the housing crisis … Newham like other London boroughs is forced more and more to look outside the capital to meet its needs.”
Families who refuse a council’s offer of discharge into the private sector are in effect opting to be homeless again, and are unlikely to be eligible for more official help. But many see this as preferable to leaving their local community. One housing lawyer told the Guardian: “Clients are doing anything they can, including sleeping on relatives’ floors, to avoid moving out [of their local area].”
Brent is one of three councils in the capital to make extensive use of of powers introduced by the coalition government in 2012 enabling local authorities to discharge their duty to homeless families by offering them a 12-month tenancy in the private sector, according to Freedom of Information data obtained by HASL, for the period October 2015-16.
Brent, which has 2,800 homeless families in temporary accommodation, made 356 discharge offers in the period, of which 140 were out of London and less than half were accepted. Locations in the West Midlands, including Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall and Telford accounted for 112 offers, of which 58% were rejected.
Newham council made 372 offers, 88 outside the capital, two-thirds of which were rejected. It made 20 offers in the West Midlands, 18 of which were refused. The council said it had over 4,500 homeless households currently in temporary accommodation.
Although households can appeal a property offered to them by a council on the grounds that it is unsuitable, the HASL data indicates only a tiny fraction of appeals – which are heard by the council itself – are successful.
Overall, 18 out of 31 London councils who responded to the HASL survey made use of private sector discharge powers, up from 12 in a previous 2015 survey, indicating that the scarcity of affordable homes in the capital, coupled with caps on housing benefit and rising homelessness was putting councils under intense pressure.
Although some councils have decided on principle not to use the power at all, or use it sparingly, London authorities are increasingly looking to exercise it further afield. Westminster council said in January many offers would in future be in locations no more than one hour’s travelling time from the capital.
Government guidance makes it clear that councils must try to secure homes as close as possible to where an applicant previously lived. But Nathaniel Matthews, senior solicitor at Hackney Community Law Centre, said it was difficult to challenge council assertions that they had no alternative but to send people out of London. “Unfortunately the law is of lesser protection to homeless families than it used to be.”
Wyatt said: “We believe everybody deserves quality, secure council housing in their communities. London councils need to stop seeing homeless people as a burden to be got rid of and shipped out. They should be doing everything possible to keep people in their communities.”
The data suggests that in most cases a family is much more likely to accept discharge into the private sector if the property is in their home borough. Enfield made 1,008 offers during the period, of which 948 were in the borough, all but six of which were accepted. Many went into local properties owned by an Enfield council-controlled company, which has acquired 400 homes to house homeless families.
The duty to discharge into the private sector was introduced to give councils more options for resolving homelessness. Prior to 2012 homeless families had to be offered a place in social housing, though shortages meant homeless families waited years in temporary private housing. Private sector discharge ends a homeless household’s right to a social home.
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