A return to revolving-door homelessness?

Today marks a watershed in the entitlements of homeless people in England.

Measures in the Localism Act 2011 which come into force today mean that councils will no longer be legally required to offer homeless families and vulnerable people a secure home managed by a council or housing association landlord.

Instead, councils will be able to discharge their duties to homeless people with the offer of a suitable twelve-month tenancy with a private landlord, and homeless families will now end up in short-term private lets.

The Government estimates that an average of 18,000 households per year will be accommodated in the private rented sector under these new powers.

The Government’s rationale for this move is that ‘while people who face homelessness need suitable accommodation, they do not necessarily need social housing’.

So now, when an applicant signs a tenancy agreement, they will lose their ‘reasonable preference’ as a homeless person on the social housing waiting list. The link between the devastating experience of homelessness and a realistic prospect of being allocated a permanent, genuinely affordable home has been breached.

There is now a real risk that we’ll return to the situation that existed before the 1977 homelessness legislation, when homeless and other vulnerable households (young people leaving care, people with disabilities or mental and physical illnesses) were accommodated in a succession of short-term lettings.

Homeless households had little prospect of ever gaining access to a permanent home, and could find themselves trapped in a pattern of evictions and repeat homelessness, with all the attendant social and financial costs.

Back in the 1960s and 70s Shelter and others campaigned long and hard for homeless people to have access to social housing. In our 1972 Grief Report we pointed out that the main reason people sought help from the council was because they had poorly paid or insecure jobs.

In the context of a housing shortage, ‘lack of buying power in the housing market means renting from a private landlord. In this sector the tenant has no security and evictions by private landlords figure high in the causes of homelessness.’

Forty years on from the creation of Shelter and the television drama Cathy Come Home, what’s changed?

As Antonia blogged earlier this week, the disparity between earnings and private rents is now so large in many areas that, even on a Living Wage, families would need to spend well over half their income to pay an average rent on a family home.

As a result, the number of working households having to claim housing benefit to cover their rent has more than doubled since 2008. Private tenants have little security, generally offered a six month assured shorthold tenancy.

The ending of such tenancies remains the second biggest cause of homelessness and is an increasing factor in people asking their council for homelessness assistance – up from 14% in the second quarter of 2010 to 21% in the same period this year. The private rented sector also has the worst housing conditions, with over 40% of private renters living in non-decent homes.

Yesterday’s supplementary guidance reminds councils that they will still be able to end the homelessness duty with an offer of social housing where they decide this is appropriate. So it is up to them to decide whether the most appropriate solution for vulnerable homeless households remains a secure, decent home managed by an experienced and accountable social landlord, who can arrange any necessary support. When they decide to place homeless families in private tenancies, they must ensure that it really is suitable.

But with council budgets and local housing markets under pressure this is no easy task.

As the Guardian reported on Monday, the race is on amongst London councils to find suitable, affordable accommodation to offer people.

As a council housing manager told Inside Housing two years ago: ‘because there are so few landlords and boroughs fighting for them, you just take it [the accommodation]…we don’t have as much information about the landlords as we would like and they can be as unprofessional as they like.’

There is now a serious risk that the poorest and most vulnerable people, including children, will be pushed into a revolving door of bottom-end private rents and repeat homelessness.