I am really glad to have secured a debate on this topic. Edmonton has seen rising levels of rough sleeping and hidden homelessness in recent years. My constituency office has opened more cases pertaining to housing in the last month than any other single issue.
The government is not doing enough to tackle this crisis. The issues we are facing in Edmonton are symptomatic of wider housing problems across the country, and the government’s failed record in this area.
My speech follows below.
"I would like to open this debate with a case study of a constituent who came into my office this week, four months after being made homeless. He was evicted at the beginning of the year at short notice. He is in his mid-50s, he has never been in rent arrears, and he had previously received references saying he was a good tenant. He has complex health needs. On eviction, he went to his GP for a copy of his medical report, which showed, among other things, a history of chronic depression, osteoarthritis, spina bifida, a cataract—the list goes on. He approached the council for help, but the council had no record of him. He approached his family, but they had no room. The only help he has managed to receive has been from charity organisations that work with rough sleepers, and those organisations are in huge demand.
My constituent is now, again, sleeping in his car, and he is chronically depressed. He has had his health problems callously acknowledged as normal for those made homeless.
To deal with this situation, St Mungo’s has recently launched the “Stop the Scandal” campaign. His case study epitomises the Government’s failure to meet the duty of care that they owe to every individual. He is just one of many who have approached my office after being evicted, most frequently from a private rental property.
In this debate, I will discuss homelessness: the rise of rough sleeping, and the rise of hidden homelessness. By hidden homelessness I mean the situation of all those who do not have stable accommodation: those who are placed in temporary accommodation, resort to living with friends or family, or live in hostels because they do not have a home of their own. Its rise, like that of rough sleeping, demonstrates the failure to ensure a sustainable and working housing policy in this country.
This debate is particularly timely, because we are now in the spring. It is a season of buying and selling in the market, and it is consequently the season of evictions. In the last month, my office has dealt with more casework pertaining to housing than to any other single issue. Of the 28 housing cases opened in the past month, 15 are cases of constituents who have been evicted, and five others involve constituents fearing eviction in the future. While some were evicted for being in rent arrears, some have simply lost their home because the landlord wanted to sell the property. They come from across the ages and professions, and many are long-term tenants. One has lived in their rented home for over 23 years. One woman, a former lawyer, was homeless for over six months. She and her disabled adult daughter resorted to squatting, and to sleeping in churches or on night buses. A mother of a young child, who worked as a teaching assistant, was evicted from temporary accommodation and deemed intentionally homeless for complaining about unsanitary conditions, including mice, damp and mould. Tighter regulations must be put in place to ensure that the accommodation rented out to people is suitable for living in.
Tighter regulations must be put in place. We are facing what has rightly been called a housing crisis, and homelessness is the sharp end of this crisis. It has dramatically worsened in the past five years, while rough sleeping has risen dramatically since 2010. Figures collected for the Department for Communities and Local Government indicate that there has been an increase from 415 to 940 in the number of people sleeping rough across London on any one night. The combined homelessness and information network database, which gathers annual data from outreach services, shows a similarly dramatic escalation in rough sleeping across London—from 3,975 rough sleepers in 2010-11 to 7,581 in 2014-15.
The rise recorded in Enfield has been particularly dramatic: the number of rough sleepers has risen from 18 to 174 per year. The borough also has a high level of hidden homelessness. Enfield has the fifth highest level of homeless households residing in temporary accommodation in the country, and the number increased by 29% between 2011-12 and 2014-15. Figures for the first half of 2015-16 show that Enfield, with more than 500, has the third highest number of homeless acceptances in the capital. At present, the number of households living in temporary accommodation in my constituency of Edmonton is 924, as identified in postcodes N9 to N18. That figure represents 34% of households in the area, which is an enormous percentage of people without stable homes.
Although the housing crisis is by no means confined to London, it has touched the capital acutely. With over 1 million private rented dwellings, London has the largest concentration of private renters in the country. Enfield saw a huge increase in its private rented sector between 2001 and 2011. According to a recent report, the average London renter spends almost 60% of their income (after benefits, but not after tax) on their rent.
That is double the amount that is typically considered to be affordable. Also according to Shelter’s report, “Making renting more affordable for more Londoners”, one in three Londoners in private rented accommodation has gone into debt in the last year to pay the rent.
The housing crisis has created a dangerously precarious situation for renters. Private renters live in inherently unstable accommodation, with little protection from eviction or rent increases. Our laws on private renting are some of the worst in Europe. In most countries, tenancies are longer than a year, and rent increases tend to be tied to external indices, such as inflation, rather than landlords being able legally to increase them willy-nilly.
The loss of a private rented home is now the most common way people become homeless in London. It accounts for almost half the capital’s homelessness cases. Although the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors predicts that rents will rise by 20% between now and 2020, the Government’s welfare measures have seen housing benefits fall. Local housing allowance has been frozen; the lower shared accommodation rate has changed, and now applies to those under 35, and not those under 25; and the benefit cap is causing more stress for people, who area already coming to my surgery about it on a daily basis. All that means that the gap between housing benefit and rent will worsen, pushing more people into rent arrears and, potentially, homelessness.
I, alongside Enfield Council, call on the Government urgently to review the local housing allowance so that it accurately reflects the inequality in the housing market, and to give more assistance to the local authorities that face the greatest challenges in housing the homeless. I also urge the Government to reverse the intended lowering of the benefit cap. The local housing allowance rate and the benefit cap are contributing to the high number of homeless families being placed in the most affordable part of the north London housing allowance region, namely east Enfield. They include homeless families from other London boroughs who are placed in temporary accommodation in the area. That has displaced local households who are renting privately, further restricted the number of properties available for Enfield residents, and increased the pressure on front-line services.
Enfield’s relative affordability has made it a buy-to-let hotspot, and landlords who let to homeless families are seeking to offer their properties on a nightly rate. That drives up the cost of housing provision enormously. Gross expenditure on temporary accommodation in Enfield has doubled between 2011-12 and 2014-15 from £20 million to £40 million. Greater controls must be introduced on how buy-to-let landlords operate so that we move away from this exploitative system.
In an age in which more and more powers are being devolved to local authorities, councils are being stretched beyond their means. Underfunded councils are hugely overworked. The homelessness monitor for 2016 shows that nine out of 10 councils often or sometimes find it difficult to help single homeless people aged between 25 and 34, and that 87% find it difficult to help those aged between 18 and 24. The majority back a change in the law to expand homelessness prevention. I add my voice to theirs.
I echo the demand of homelessness charity St Mungo’s Broadway in calling for the Government to improve homelessness legislation to prevent more rough sleeping with a new universal prevention and relief duty so that anyone threatened with homelessness will get help. At the moment, councils do not have a duty of care until a person finds themselves homeless, meaning families literally have to wait until they have been evicted from their property to get assistance. Implementing a broader duty of care would, I believe, help councils to assist families before they reach a crisis point. That would infinitely improve the situation for families; being served an eviction notice and having to wait for assistance can severely affect people’s mental health.
It is one thing to legislate, however, and another to implement. Without proper investment from central Government, councils are faced with the impossible task of accommodating an ever-increasing number of families in need, without the resources to do so. An increasing number of families are being left in unsuitable temporary accommodation for prolonged periods of time, as alternatives are not available. Councils must be properly funded in their efforts to assist people who find themselves homeless. As a starting point, I call on the Government to review the allocation of the homelessness grant to bring equity to the system.
Most importantly, a sustainable housing policy must be put forward, and genuinely affordable homes must be built. City Hall’s assessment is that London needs to build between 50,000 and 60,000 homes a year to keep up with the increasing need, yet only 20,000 homes were built last year. That is simply not good enough.
The homelessness crisis in Edmonton illustrates how this Government are failing ordinary people. Housing is a human right, and should be treated as such. The Government have a duty of care and must do more to protect tenants. Without regulation, tenants—in particular, those on low incomes—are left in an extremely vulnerable position. At worst, lack of regulation is creating the preconditions for a repeat of the Peter Rachman era. I would welcome a meeting with the Minister to discuss the details, if he wishes to have one. I will continue to monitor the issue and, in six months’ time, will be reviewing what progress has been made."