Home and away: out of area moves represent the sharp edge of the housing crisis

If you’re homeless in London in 2016, you’d be wrong to think that you’ll be automatically re-housed in your home area.

As the pressures pile on local councils already under siege due to the housing crisis, more and more homeless families are being sent out of their home borough. This can be just down the road in a neighbouring area, or it could mean moving Slough, Luton, Birmingham, Manchester – wherever the next cluster of cheap housing is sought.

What’s more, households cannot expect any choice over location. A shortage of affordable accommodation means that councils are having to make last minute decisions about where to put homeless households. Its pot luck; but where you end up could be where you live for the foreseeable future. It’s going to shape yours and your children’s lives.

Families being forced to up-root their lives and move out of area represents the sharp edge of a housing crisis that is becoming more entrenched by the day. And all this is happening despite the protections under the homeless legislation – which mean that out of area moves should only be considered if they are suitable and all other ‘in-area’ options have been considered. So why is this happening?

There are a number of different factors at play here. First is the sheer demand for homelessness services. In the past five years there has been a 42% increase in families with children being accepted as homeless by their local council. And while the number of families living in council run temporary accommodation – waiting to be re-housed – has steadily increased, the number leaving has remained the same. This has created a backlog, overstretching the supply of temporary accommodation.

At the same time, local councils are being hit by funding challenges. Budgets for housing services have decreased by 23% since 2010. And with this shrinking pout of money, they having to procure accommodation that is becoming more expensive and in shorter supply. The challenge of getting affordable self-contained accommodation is perfectly illustrated by the decline in private rented sector (PSL) housing available to be leased by London councils. The supply of PSL in London has decreased from 70% of all temporary accommodation in 2010, to around 40% in 2015.

As the supply of affordable accommodation decreases, the competition between local councils for properties has intensified. When suitable accommodation isn’t available in their area, councils will look to neighbouring boroughs or further afield for alternatives, creating a knock-on effect that spreads pressures across the country. Our research revealed that the most prolific users of out of area placements were council who themselves were seeing a high number of homeless families placed in their area.

We’re not trying to defend councils here but nor are we indifferent to the pressures they are under. Practice ranges from the good, to the unforgivable, to the outright illegal. Pressures are not a justification for councils not operating within the law – or for wanting to change the legislation to help facilitate out of area moves.

Firstly, the homeless legislation is already flexible enough to allow local authorities to place some families out of area, when all other reasonable options have been expended and when the move is ‘suitable’. And secondly, the homeless legislation is there first and foremost to protect homeless households from hardship. Changes to the law shouldn’t be considered as a quick-fix to supply and demand pressures. Nor would they be tolerated if they compound the problems for families who have already gone through the trauma of losing their home.

But while councils can, and should, operate within the law, this will never address the root cause of the problem. If we want to see the trend of increasing out of area moves reversed, then we need the government to step-in with a comprehensive plan to build more affordable homes, and also fix a private rented sector that is not fit for purpose.