At crisis point
As waiting lists get longer, councils are increasingly dependent on emergency accommodation to house people. But as one tenant tells Carl Brown, life can be hell for the residents.
Sixty-two-year-old Rachel* has had the most traumatic of years. She was raped in the provincial town where she lived, and fearing another assault, moved to London last summer to stay with her son. It didn’t work out; she was there for two weeks before applying to a London council to be rehoused.
The local authority placed her in emergency temporary accommodation - a bed and breakfast in an inner London borough. Communities and Local Government department guidance recommends councils avoid using B&B accommodation where possible and, where they do use it, move people to permanent homes as soon as possible - but Rachel’s stay lasted four months and was only cut short following intervention from the police. The bathroom she used was damp with leaking pipes, she recalls (see pictures, overleaf). The windows in her room were boarded up and the ceiling was coming down. ‘It was not an easy place to live in because you’ve got people there who have problems; you have to be careful with everything you do,’ she says.
Luckily for Rachel, her time at the hostel was cut short due to what turned out to be a fortunate visit from the police last September.
She and other residents suspected some of the B&B’s other rooms were being used as a brothel. A criminal investigation by a London police force into the allegations led to an officer speaking to Rachel as a witness.
The same officer took it upon herself to speak to the local authority on Rachel’s behalf, in an attempt to try to get her permanently rehoused. This spurred the council into taking action - it secured her a social housing tenancy in the block of flats where she is now beginning to build a new life.
Rachel’s new home is in a tower block with spectacular views of London. While it is sparsely furnished, she says she is happy and secure. Six months on, she believes that if the police officer had not intervened she could still be living in the squalid B&B.
Unfortunately, there are a growing number of people who are stuck in similarly grim temporary homes. Rachel decided to speak to Inside Housing about the sub-standard conditions she experienced in the midst of evidence that councils are increasingly falling back on emergency accommodation, including hostels and B&Bs, to house homeless housing applicants as the demand for social rented housing has increased.
So why is the use of such housing on the rise and what does it mean for vulnerable people like Rachel?
The number of households being placed in emergency accommodation had been gradually dropping, but over the past 18 months things have taken a turn for the worse.
Fortunately, not everyone who stays in emergency accommodation has an awful experience - but no matter how comfortable a hostel or B&B may be, living in that kind of environment for a significant length of time is likely to have a detrimental impact.
‘There is a lack of privacy, and shared facilities are not ideal for families,’ sums up Nigel Minto, head of housing and planning at London Councils, an organisation represnting local authorities in the capital. He points to official CLG guidance, entitled Homelessness code of guidance for local authorities, published in 2006 - but updated last month - to back up his claim.
The guidance states: ‘Housing authorities should avoid using bed and breakfast accommodation wherever possible’, as it ‘generally will afford residents only limited privacy and may lack certain important amenities, such as cooking and laundry facilities’.
Councils placing a household in emergency accommodation have a duty to ensure it is suitable, the same CLG guidance says. The local authority in which the accommodation is situated has a duty to ensure health and safety standards are met, and no families, or pregnant women, should stay in B&Bs for longer than six weeks, the guidance advises.
Yet with more and more households being pushed into emergency accommodation, there is a ‘strong likelihood’ this six-week target will be breached in many cases, Mr Minto believes.
And as homelessness charity Shelter advises people on its website, conditions in emergency accommodation can get pretty grim before councils even have to consider its suitabilty for human habitation. ‘Because emergency accommodation is only meant to be short term and many areas have very little emergency accommodation available, it would have to be very unsuitable before you could successfully challenge the council about it,’ it advises.
On the rise
An Inside Housing survey published in January revealed 15 London boroughs had already referred 6,322 households to emergency accommodation during in 2011/12. The survey was conducted when there were nearly three months of the financial year left, so it appears as though the number of households placed in emergency B&Bs or hostels throughout 2011/12 for the 15 will surpass the total for the whole of the previous financial year, which stood at 7,461.
The numbers of households living in B&Bs specifically had been steadily falling, from a peak of 13,950 in the third quarter of 2002, down to 1,880 in 2009 - then the numbers began to creep slowly upwards.
Statistics published by the CLG in December show there were 3,370 households in England living in B&Bs in September 2011, the highest number since June 2008 (although they have since fallen slightly).
Similarly, the numbers living in hostels have been rising. There had been a steady fall since the early 2000s when there were regularly more than 10,000 households in hostels, but the latest CLG figures, published last week, show the numbers have increased from 4,150 in the last quarter of 2009 to 4,310 in the same three months of last year.
This situation is a ‘damning indictment’ of the government’s housing policies, states shadow housing minister Jack Dromey. ‘It is the economics of the madhouse as more people are being housed in expensive B&Bs and hostels and we are seeing an increase in rough sleeping and homelessness.’
Last April’s changes to local housing allowance - housing benefit paid to private sector tenants - could be one reason the figures have started to head in the wrong direction, according to private landlords and homelessness charities. ‘With rising unemployment, a continued squeeze on living costs and changes to housing benefit, the picture is unlikely to improve any time soon,’ says Kay Boycott, director of policy, campaigns and communication at Shelter.
The allowance has been capped for new claimants at between £250 and £400 a week depending on property size and the same restriction is now being phased in for existing recipients on their claim anniversary date this year. This, along with other changes to LHA, including basing LHA rates on the bottom 30 per cent of rents, has led to increased demand for social housing as benefit claimants who would ordinarily be housed in private accommodation are priced out. Through its What’s the Benefit? campaign, Inside Housing called for fairer ways to reduce the UK’s £21 billion housing benefit bill.
As a result of the LHA changes, for example, local authorities are able to provide clear reasons for why they have no choice but to turn to hostels and B&Bs to house those in most need. Hackney Council in east London has yet to see a significant rise in the numbers of households placed in temporary accommodation, but it admits that it anticipates an increase in 2012.
The authority believes that, in addition to benefit cuts and economic conditions, a shortage in mortgage availability is putting more pressure on the private rented sector because it is now being used much more heavily by people who would previously have bought their own home. This has reduced the pool of properties available to house homeless people.
‘[There is] a shortage of private sector properties for homeless households because of an increased number of non-benefit dependent households [demanding the same properties],’ explains a council spokesperson.
In short supply
Meanwhile in Bromley, south east London, the numbers of households in emergency accommodation has doubled in 2011/12 to 223. Bromley Council cites the lack of affordable private rented properties, partly caused by welfare restrictions, as one of the factors behind this sudden jump in numbers. ‘We are likely to continue to see an increase, at least in the short term,’ sums up a council spokesperson.
Using emergency accommodation is expensive for local authorities as they are reserving rooms on an individual basis, meaning they do not benefit from cost reductions through group bookings. ‘We cannot block book emergency accommodation because we don’t know exactly what will be needed,’ explains Hitesh Tailor, cabinet member for Ealing Council, in west London.
Costs soon mount up if councils have to pay for a household’s accommodation for weeks or months at a time. Jeremy Clyne, a Lambeth councillor who sits on the authority’s opposition Liberal Democrat group, cites an example of the authority paying £10,000 to house someone in a B&B called Beulah House for less than a year. The same hotel was the subject of Channel 4 investigation ‘Landlords from hell’, aired in December, which revealed that its rooms were infested with bed bugs and cockroaches.
Lib Peck, cabinet member for housing at Lambeth Council, says the resident Mr Clyne refers to was the only individual the local authority placed in the Beulah Hotel on a long-term basis, although she admits that the amount paid for the B&B accommodation - roughly £1,000 per month - is fairly typical.
‘Lambeth did pay around £10,000 to the Beulah Hotel for the duration of the client’s residency,’ she says. ‘This is not expensive in relation to bed and breakfast payments; it is, however, far too expensive for the quality of accommodation provided.’
Sometimes local authorities, particularly in London, have little choice but to house people in emergency accommodation, explains Ealing’s Mr Tailor. Private companies find ways to cash in on this - agencies acting on behalf of private landlords often intervene in order to push up prices.
Because there isn’t enough suitable private rented accommodation in their own boroughs, councils are often forced to look outside their boundaries to house people, says Mr Tailor. ‘Operators play councils off against one another to get a higher price.’
The government calculates at least 30 per cent of private rental properties in most areas [of the UK] are still affordable - but faced with surging demand for housing and challenges around high costs of temporary accommodation, it is no surprise local authorities in high-cost urban areas are beginning to look even further afield to house homeless people.
Mr Tailor admits that Ealing will consider placing those who present themselves as homeless outside London, while Camden Council has confirmed it is also looking outside the capital. Croydon Council has been more specific - it’s considering housing people in Walsall and Manchester.
As someone who has experienced living in awful conditions in emergency accommodation herself, Rachel believes that, if local authorities are left with no choice but to use hostels and B&Bs to house homeless people - be they in their own areas or more than a hundred miles away - they should at least ensure the accommodation is up to a certain standard. ‘We still need these places because of the housing crisis,’ she concludes. ‘But there needs to be better regulation.’
* name has been changed for legal reasons