The revolving door for homeless people

For those of us who are getting a little long in the tooth, the passage of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act in 1977 was one of the most significant moments in post war housing policy. Sponsored by a Liberal, the late Stephen Ross MP, supported by most Labour MPs and quite a few Tories, the Act was a triumph for the campaign led by Shelter and SHAC and others. The Act placed clear statutory duties on local authorities to assist the homeless based on the central principle that households in ‘priority need’ (mainly families with children and vulnerable single people) who are unintentionally homeless would be found a settled home, in practice usually an offer of social rented housing. The Act was seen by many as the last brick in the creation of a comprehensive welfare state.

The homelessness section of the Localism Bill, currently in Committee in the House of Commons, drives a coach and horses through the legislation. It will allow local authorities to discharge their main homelessness duty by providing privately rented accommodation (subject to there being a minimum 12 month fixed term).

Practice in homelessness has changed a great deal over the past few years. Partly driven by the well-intentioned but ultimately counter-productive target of halving the number of households in temporary accommodation, ‘gatekeeping’ the homelessness duty has become an art form. The growth in ‘housing options’ services has substantially improved practice in the prevention of homelessness, but has also led to a huge increase in the diversion of homeless households into the private rented sector, often without troubling the homelessness statistics collector. Up to now the homeless household, if they knew their rights, had a choice: they could either go into the system and wait for a social letting or be found a private let straight away. Given the option of a lengthy spell in temporary accommodation, many chose an early move into a private letting. Now they will be required to take private accommodation even if it is against their wishes or best interests.

Responses to this element of the Bill are varied. Not surprisingly, many councils support anything that reduces the burden on them and some are proud of the quality of the housing options service they provide (see Camden for a good example).

Shelter’s assessment is that “this measure will ultimately strip the homelessness legislation of its force and leave the most vulnerable families ….. facing a cycle of insecure accommodation, eviction and reapplication to the council.”

Citizens Advice stress that the policy will create a revolving door for the homeless because the ending of a private rented tenancy is already a significant – and increasing – cause of homelessness, and that this will get worse as the changes to the Local Housing Allowance come in. They also argue that private renting is not well suited to many homeless people – the characteristics of homeless households and the profile of existing private tenants are very different, with the latter tending to be younger, single, and less likely to be vulnerable.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation argues that ‘given that homeless households are often also experiencing poverty and other forms of social disadvantage we would be concerned about the impact on homeless households achieving stability, the increase in housing costs for individuals and the welfare benefit bill.’

The Housing Law Practitioners Association goes to the heart of the issue: ‘We suggest that the aim of a homelessness policy should be to bring the applicant’s homelessness or a cycle of homelessness to an end.’ They also argue that the burden placed on social lettings by the Act is acceptable even with the current dearth of supply: ‘If 21% of social lets are to those owed the main homelessness duty, we think that is a welcome feature, not one requiring change.’

The Chartered Institute of Housing broadly accepts the changes but this seems a contrary conclusion given their enormous list of ‘concerns’ about the proposal – the poor quality of the private rented sector, affordability, its inappropriateness for homeless families and vulnerable single people, the lack of support services, the revolving door problem, and the growing concentration or ghettoisation of poor private tenants. They should know that the government will do nothing about any of these things.

It may be clever politics to include these measures in a jumbo Bill with plenty of other controversies for people to focus on, but this section deserves major scrutiny. The ‘Big Society’ should be outraged.

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7 Responses to The revolving door for homeless people

  1. Pingback: Localism Bill holes homelessness safety net | Red Brick

  2. Thanks for your comments.
    Tom – currently the government are saying the duty will be discharged if the tenancy is a fixed term of 12 months or more. This is not ‘settled’ accommodation and that is why so many people think it will lead to a ‘revolving door’ of homelessness. Some councils, like Camden, have had some success in negotiating 3 year tenancies but even they, in their evidence, say that they will increasingly have to secure accommodation out-of-borough, making the problem worse for homeless people who by definition have children or are vulnerable. Given rents in the sector and the forthcoming cuts to local housing allowances, sustaining a tenancy will become harder not easier. It is asking the private sector to do a job that it is not designed or equipped to do.
    Dan – I agree with you about supply, but the chances of getting a cross-party consensus are zero. This government will produce no new social housing as we normally understand it, only ‘affordable housing’ at 80% market rents. I disagree about the Homeless Persons Act. All the evidence in early years was that people rehoused under the legislation were also high priority on the waiting list. It was only as supply plummeted during the 1980s (new supply and re-lets) that numbers rehoused off waiting lists fell seriously. I think the system was rigorous and no more prone to cheating than any other, especially with the intentional homelessness provisions. I used to visit B&B accommodation for a London borough in the 1980s and no-one would go through that for 2-3 years if they had other choices. It was a genuine safety net but many more people began to fall into it as the years went by because their normal opportunities to get rehoused disappeared.

  3. Dan Filson says:

    Arguably the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 was the single measure that created a serious loss of confidence by the public in the housing waiting list system and points systems and the like. From then on, if not before, people started to cheat to get rehoused, knowing full well that homeless people came top of the queue (and not without good cause). It gave a statutory responsibility to local councils without matching resources to fulfil that role, and once Right to Buy came in that got worse.

    We MUST get provision of affordable housing back as a major political priority, and perhaps the generation of an achievable but stretching national target (broken down county by county etc) is the way this can be done. If we pick a number, say 250,000 and get a cross-party consensus on the number, break that down to give each housing authority a target and the ring-fenced resources, then we can turn the screw on those authorities that fail to meet it.

  4. Pingback: Single Aspect's Blog » Blog Archive » Red Brick on the homeless

  5. Thank you so much for spotting this and taking the time to do the research. It is a depressing thought that over forty years on from Cathy Come Home we are seeing all those lessons unlearned and all that good work dismantled by these uncaring shits Tories.
    I read recently that during the 1930s, this country was building 300,000 houses a year. Something that provided both employment, and housed people. Where is that vision now?

  6. Pingback: Single Aspect's Blog » Blog Archive » Cathy Come Home – reviewed

  7. Tom Chance says:

    Do local authorities discharge their duty in the private rented sector with landlords who offer the standard assured shorthold tenancies, with a minimum period of 6 months?

    Would you object to local authorities being able to discharge their duty if the tenancy agreements weren’t so feeble, and if there was a concerted effort (whether by selective licensing or otherwise) to improve the condition of the private rented housing?

    Obviously social housing would be better, but the change in the Localism Bill fits with the aim of the Government, much of the HCA and the London Housing Strategy to see the private rented sector play a much greater role.

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