24 May 2013
An emergency in emergency housing
‘A mismatch of supply and demand’ may be one of the most over-used phrases in the Shelter office. But the simple fact is that so many of the current problems in our housing system do stem from its inability to respond to rising need. Worryingly, this is increasingly true when it comes to the last bulwark standing between homeless people and the street – temporary accommodation.
Statutory homelessness is increasing: this is the official measure of the number of households that local authorities have accepted a legal duty to find accommodation for, and who would otherwise have nowhere to turn. This has put pressure on councils who have to find this temporary accommodation to prevent families sleeping on the streets (and eventually more permanent homes from which people can rebuild their lives).
This sounds like exactly the kind of responsive safety net you’d want to support homeless families. But there’s one inherent flaw: local authorities do not have a separate and ever-ready pool of accommodation to re-house people into. In fact, with an ever diminishing supply of social housing, councils are increasingly reliant on the private rented sector, either to provide emergency accommodation or as a long-term solution for homeless families.
But a shortage of affordable, private rented accommodation is increasingly behind rising homelessness in the first place. Housing benefit cuts have made it harder for many people to find a place at a rent they can afford. Meanwhile, demand for private rented accommodation has grown, driven by priced out first time buyers who can afford – albeit begrudgingly – to pay higher rents in an increasingly overheated market . The combination of all these factors means that the loss of a private tenancy is now the leading trigger for homelessness.
So demand for local authority help is rising, but the same combination of market pressure, rising rents and falling benefits are also reducing council’s ability to re-house families. Councils have had to put homeless families up in hotels and B&Bs –increasingly breaking the law by leaving them there for longer that the six week legal limit. Figures obtained by Shelter under the Freedom of Information Act demonstrate that local authorities cannot source emergency housing in their own localities and are increasingly having to send homeless families across London or even out of the capital all together. Our interactive map shows where households are being sent.
These figures confirm the perception that TA in London is at breaking point. But this situation pales in comparison with what it’s likely to be in six months time. The overall benefit cap has already taken effect in four London boroughs and will be rolled out nationally by the end of September. With average shortfalls approaching £100 per week, it is very likely to cause a spike in homelessness. But in an incredibly short-sighted move, the government has insisted the cap will remain in place even if a family is made homeless and has to be temporarily re-housed.
Councils in London are already struggling to procure emergency housing and will now have to do so with their hands further tied by the benefit cap. The likelihood is this will lead to even more families being moved out of the region, or boroughs will have to meet shortfalls from other budgets, including the Discretionary Housing Payment fund. Shelter has called for a temporary relaxation of the cap on homeless families in TA. Today’s reminder of how much local authorities are struggling to cope under the current regime should underscore to Ministers why a temporary exemption is urgently needed before the cap goes national.