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Four ways to reverse the rise in homelessness in London

Author: Opinion: Benjamin Irvine, RSA, Research Intern, Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 inaccuracy was the authors mistake.