Every new set of homelessness figures shows that the ending of a private tenancy is the biggest reason why people are losing their homes. It’s becoming a genuine emergency: in England it accounts for 30% of homelessness acceptances, rising to 40% in London. Ending of private tenancies accounts for practically all of the growth in homelessness since its last low point in 2009. What’s been the government’s response?
You would think it might try to find out why landlords see the need to force out over 12,000 more people from their homes than was the case only seven years ago. Or why over a third of a million were under threat of eviction last year. It’s not difficult to think of possible reasons: rents being raised faster than people’s ability to pay, social security cuts meaning that low-income tenants can no longer afford their rents, or greed by landlords who simply want to end a tenancy so they can get tenants who can afford higher rents. A reasonable response might be to investigate how to change landlords’ behaviour, using legislation if necessary, to give more time to tenants having payment difficulties and making it less easy for them to be converted into a responsibility (as homeless) for local authorities to deal with. After all, mortgage lenders are now better equipped than they used to be to help people deal with their debts, and this shows in record low mortgage repossession figures. In Scotland, landlords can no longer end tenancies on a whim but need specific reasons, like selling the property.
Another response would be to question whether further tightening the screw of so-called ‘welfare reform’ is really a good idea, since it’s pretty obvious that measures like the freezing of local housing allowance rates, further reducing the ‘benefit cap’ on out-of-work tenants, and withdrawing support completely from the youngest tenants will simply make matters worse as they take effect over the coming twelve months.
But no, the growing problem is being blamed on local authorities. After pressure from landlords, councils who insist on tenants waiting until they actually face eviction before they are recognised as homeless are being told to act much earlier on. Housing minister Brandon Lewis says he’s ‘working to prevent more people from becoming homeless’, but his priority is to get tenants who’ve become an inconvenience to private landlords to be rehoused quickly, thus relieving landlords of ‘significant costs’. It follows ‘a large amount of correspondence’ from landlords, complaining that ‘an alarming number of private tenants are being told by their local council to ignore eviction notices’. The National Landlords’ Association worries about ‘vulnerable tenants’ waiting for assistance from local authorities, but doesn’t ask whether perhaps their landlords share some of the blame for their vulnerability. The NLA will no doubt be opposed to Olly Grender’s Renters’ Rights Bill, currently in the House of Lords, which offers some of the protections for tenants that Brandon Lewis might consider supporting if he were seriously looking to tackle the main cause of homelessness.
Now of course it is also true that local authorities should help people as soon as possible and some are, no doubt, guilty of trying to minimise the numbers they are dealing with as homeless. But Lewis makes no acknowledgement at all of the extreme pressures they are under, especially in London, or of the extent to which their workload derives from private landlords’ actions. His letter makes not even a passing reference to these pressures, currently resulting in record use of temporary accommodation, and in more people being placed ‘out of area’ because of the shortage. London councils are spending nearly £700 million annually on temporary accommodation. If the available spaces are full, if councils have already exceeded their annual budgets, and if homeless families can only be put in expensive private lettings or else moved out of the area completely, some element of demand management is bound to be occurring.
While homelessness grows remorselessly, and private tenants are the ones most likely to be vulnerable to it, Brandon Lewis applies a sticking plaster to the haemorrhage. Meanwhile the Treasury has halted the Affordable Homes Programme, so as to switch all remaining funding away from social renting and into schemes to support home ownership and the private market. How many of the spending programmes announced since last year’s election will ‘prevent more people from becoming homeless’, which is what the minister says he wants to do? Does he think homeless families will rehouse themselves by buying starter homes?