HASL’s 2020

2020 has been a very difficult year, especially for people living in bad housing conditions such as overcrowded housing and temporary accommodation away from their home borough and other unsafe housing situations. But our group has still achieved so much together this year despite the difficult circumstances.

Even though we were not able to have our regular group meetings in person we have adapted to running our group meetings online by zoom on a weekly basis to make sure that we can see each other and support each other regularly. Throughout the pandemic, our regular zoom meetings, practical support and online campaigning has made sure that we have continued to protect our housing rights and fight together for the high quality, safe, secure 3, 4, 5, bed homes we all need. Every day across south London our members are supporting each other and taking collective action on housing issues we face.

We have achieved many victories together this year – victories for families who have finally been able to move into permanent council housing and also wider victories which will benefit many others as well – and we hope that next year we will be able to celebrate these together with a party in Burgess park when it is safe to do so. We wanted to share some of our highlights with you – sorry if we have missed anything!

We want to thank all our members and supporters for your amazing support for the group this year. Our group is run by our members and the group would not function without everyone’s participation. Thank you to everyone who has helped in any way including, helping run and contribute to our zoom meetings, telling friends about the group, liking our social media posts, joining our online protests, helping to make videos and so much more! We’ve also loved working together with our friends Public Interest Law Centre and English for Action and many other groups and new friends we’ve made over the year.

We’re looking forward to seeing you (on zoom) in the new year and making plans together for 2021!

Campaign and legal victory against Southwark council’s cruel treatment of families in overcrowded housing

We had a really big victory earlier this month when Favio and Elba won their case in the Court of Appeal overturning Southwark council’s decision that their overcrowding was a ‘deliberate act’. We hope this Court of Appeal judgement will also help other families in severely overcrowded housing who are being unfairly blamed by Southwark council for causing overcrowding. This legal victory is part of a long-running campaign by HASL families in overcrowded housing.

Our campaign for the removal of the ‘deliberate act’ term and for the end of Southwark council’s culture of blame and refusal continues. You can still support our email protest to Kieron Williams here

The South London Press covered Favio and Elba’s case here and we wrote an article about it for Tribune here.

In June, we launched our postcard protest with over 200 HASL members and supporters joining in support of Milton and his family who are another family that Southwark council were blaming for causing overcrowding. Alongside legal action by Public Interest Law Centre, Southwark council finally backed down and awarded the family higher priority on the housing register.

In September, together with Public Interest Law Centre and 30+ community groups, we launched an open letter to Southwark council about the treatment of families in overcrowded housing and the culture of blame and refusal these families are subjected to. The unacceptable response from Southwark council, where the council still described overcrowding as a ‘choice’ by families, led to our email protest.

At the start of the first lockdown our members made video diaries highlighting the difficulties they face in severely overcrowded housing.

Over the year, with the help of good housing lawyers, we’ve helped to overturn many of Southwark’s bad decisions targeted at overcrowded families. With our campaign and legal challenge we want to make sure families do not have to receive bad decisions in the first place and that they can get the help they are entitled to!

Victory defending Lambeth homeless families’ rights

In June, HASL and Public Interest Law Centre won a campaign and legal victory defending homeless families’ rights who had been unfairly removed from the housing register under Lambeth council’s “homeless prevention” scheme called Temp to Settled. As a result of our victory, hundreds of Lambeth families had their housing register accounts re-instated so that they can bid again for permanent social housing. You can read more about it in the Brixton Blog here and  Inside Housing here. It was also reported on Nearly Legal here. We’ve made a leaflet explaining the new rights and future problems that may arise. 

We have been campaigning on this issue for years. In December 2018 Susana helped to make this video explaining her case and in March 2019 we held a protest inside Lambeth’s new Civic Centre with our banner ‘don’t kick us off the housing list’ where we met another family affected by this scheme.

One of our members who was part of this successful legal challenge against Lambeth council still faces eviction by her private landlord. She was served a section 21 notice during lockdown. She describes her experiences in this blog with her demands for more social housing and an end to section 21.

Too Long In Temporary

Lambeth homeless families in temporary accommodation in band C face years and years stuck in poor quality temporary accommodation when they urgently need safe, secure council housing. Lambeth’s housing allocations policy demotes homeless families into band C, below those who take the risky “homeless prevention” option. Homeless families are stuck Too Long in Temporary!

We’ve been supporting our member Janeth and her family’s case, who have been in temporary accommodation for over 6 years. Janeth made a video about her case which we launched in September and we’ve been campaigning on Janeth’s case and in support of all homeless families. The South West Londoner and the Brixton Blog covered Janeth’s case and the situation for families in temporary accommodation. Janeth is still waiting for a medical decision from Lambeth council in response to the review letter that her lawyers submitted in August.

Lewisham overcrowding challenge

One of our Lewisham members is living with her family in overcrowded private housing. Because they do not yet meet the 5 year residency criteria Lewisham council have refused the let the family join the housing waiting list. We think this is unfair and that it discriminates against migrant families who are less likely to have built up time in the borough and also face additional difficulties and discrimination in the private rented sector meaning they are more likely to live in overcrowded conditions. Our member is taking a legal challenge against Lewisham council and we will be campaigning for Lewisham council to support their overcrowded residents and review their decision to apply the 5 year residency criteria to people with a housing need.

Another Lewisham family in temporary accommodation was suddenly told by the council that she was being moved into temporary accommodation in a Harlow office block that has been in the national and local news for it’s terrible conditions. We supported her to challenge this decision and she was able to remain in her suitable temporary accommodation.

Other important victories

Just before lockdown, a Lewisham family who are long-term members of the group moved into a permanent council home. 2 other Lambeth members also moved into permanent council homes after they were finally awarded the correct medical priority with the help of HASL and PILC. These two women were both suffering serious medical problems which were made worse by their bad housing. After getting band B for welfare needs, they were both able to successfully bid for council housing which meant that during lockdown they at least had suitable housing. 

We have supported 3 families overturn wrong benefit decisions which saw them returned a total of almost £15,000. In one case, a single mum had her Universal Credit wrongly stopped in February and spent most of lockdown with no income. With the help of Osborne’s solicitors this decision was overturned and she was refunded £7,500. All of these families had been facing serious hardship and the threat of eviction due to these benefit issues but they are in a much more secure position now.

While we recently celebrated our win against Lambeth council’s Temp2Settled scheme, one of our members had been wrongly kept off this scheme, leaving her lower down on the housing waiting list. With the help of GT Stewart solicitors, she was able to fight for higher band B priority on the housing waiting list that she should have been entitled to from the start.    

With the help of Z2K a HASL family was able to overturn a negative PIP decision and get the benefits that they are entitled to.

With the help of housing lawyers, we helped to overturn 2 ‘intentionally homeless’ decisions that lead to evictions and have a devastating impact for families. These two families now have a full housing duty.

When bidding reopened around September, a number of HASL families have been able to successfully get permanent council homes after help from HASL making sure they have their correct position on the housing register. 2 families who were statutory overcrowded in 1 bedroom homes have both been able to move to the 3 bed council homes they need.

Our group has also helped families to make homeless applications and challenge unlawful gatekeeping, helped people get their correct banding on the housing register, helped people understand their rights, helped people to find lawyers for their housing cases, helped people to request suitability reviews which has seen them re-housed closer to their home borough, and provided emotional support as well. In our group zoom meetings our members have been incredible at providing support, sharing experiences and rights information.

Workshops and events

Our regular housing support group with  English for Action students has now been running for over 1 year. We’ve loved working together with EFA students and teachers working on the housing issues they face. EFA students have been amazing at supporting HASL campaigns as well.

We also ran housing rights workshops with our friends Mums Space and Espacio Mama over zoom. In June, we ran a housing rights and Covid 19 zoom webinar attended by over 60 people. We ran a workshop with our members explaining about the judicial review process.

We’ve enjoyed speaking at a number of events. In March, our member Ximena spoke at the Law Centres Network Latin American Rights conference about HASL and our organising on homelessess and housing rights. Pamela and Fowsiyo spoke at about how we organise together at a Brent Transformed event where we had the chance to meet up with housing campaigners in north London. We joined the Housing Law Practitioners’ Association for a zoom discussion on ‘access to justice’ and we also spoke on a panel at their annual conference. It was really lovely to speak and attend the HLPA annual conference listening to great speakers and learning the latest updates on housing law.

We joined New Economics Foundation for a zoom talk about what happens after the eviction ban ends speaking alongside the brilliant Magpie Project and we also spoke at the wonderful RebLaw event about our experiences and perspectives on the Homelessness Reduction Act. One of our members was involved with Greater Manchester Housing Action helping to organise a series talks about the housing crisis.

Social housing not scapegoating

We were proud to support this important solidarity statement organised by Shelter and Baobab Women’s Project calling for Social Housing Not Scapegoating in response to the far right targeting hotels where asylum seekers were being housed. We will always fight for migrants rights and housing rights. No one should be homeless, everyone deserves a safe, secure, good quality council home.

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HASL go to the Court of Appeal fighting for the rights of overcrowded families

Join HASL and PILC’s email protest here calling on Southwark council to stop penalising families living in overcrowded housing.

Southwark council have been telling families in some of the most severely overcrowded housing in the borough that their overcrowding was a ‘deliberate act’ by the families. These cruel decisions deny these families band 1 on the housing register which would allow them the urgent move into the permanent, more spacious council housing they need.

As well as punishing these families by refusing them the urgent re-housing they need, due to their apparent ‘deliberate act’, these decisions are also offensive, harmful and deeply distressing.

It is widely accepted that the causes of the housing crisis, where there are over 3.6 million people living in overcrowded homes, are high private rents, benefit cuts and a lack of family sized council homes but for some reason, Southwark council are choosing to ignore these and to blame families instead.

On Thursday 10th December, a HASL family’s case against Southwark council’s decision that they deliberately caused their overcrowding will be heard in the Court of Appeal. A summary by the family’s barrister Ed Fitzpatrick on the original High Court case in May this year can be heard on the HLPA podcast at 9 minutes 50 seconds and there is a blog post here.

This is an important case for many severely overcrowded families in Southwark, as it challenges the council’s widespread use of the phrase “deliberate act” to blame families for their overcrowding and which leaves families stuck in completely inadequate housing for years. A positive outcome in the Court of Appeal could mean that other severely overcrowded families would also benefit if Southwark council’s use of “deliberate act” is more limited. This is just the most recent action in an almost five year campaign by HASL families protesting against the ‘deliberate act’ policy where we have occupied the Town Hall, spoken out at a cabinet meeting, canvassed canvassing councillors, submitted an open letter with over 30 community groups and provided practical support and help with challenging these decisions.

What happened in Favio and Elba’s case?

Over 6 years ago, Favio and Elba and their two young sons moved into a 1 bedroom private flat in Southwark. They had been looking for a suitable flat and this was the only landlord who would rent to them and where the rent was affordable with housing benefit. As everyone knows, finding suitable housing in the private rented sector is extremely difficult – if you have children, claim benefits and do not speak English as your first language, like in Favio’s case, it can be an impossible task.

The consequences of the discrimination faced by BAME and migrant households accessing housing is shown in the disgraceful statistic that while only 2% of White British households are overcrowded, 30% of Bangladeshi households and 15% of Black African households are.

Local authorities with paid staff, time and resources, including ludicrous landlord ‘incentives’, often struggle to find suitable housing with more and more families being housed in temporary accommodation that is overcrowded or far away from their community. It’s not surprising that families searching by themselves have no choice but to rent housing that is overcrowded and often has other problems of damp and disrepair.

When the boys were younger, the level of overcrowding was uncomfortable but just about manageable. But as their sons grew up, the cramped living conditions have become more and more difficult. When their oldest son turned 10 years old, the family met the high threshold of ‘statutory’ overcrowding. With the help of HASL, they were able to join the housing waiting list but Southwark council decided that the overcrowding was a ‘deliberate act’ and refused to award the family band 1 for their statutory overcrowding.

Instead of awarding band 1 for being statutory overcrowded, the family were given band 3 which is for households who are ‘overcrowded’ which also includes families living in mild, non-statutorily overcrowded housing. Here the waiting times for social housing is longer and this banding does not reflect the severely overcrowded circumstances that the family are living in.

Southwark council’s reason for refusing band 1 was that the family’s overcrowded housing was a ‘deliberate act’ by the family, because the overcrowding was not caused by a “natural increase”.

This may seem confusing, because surely overcrowding being caused by children getting older is exactly what “natural increase” is. What Southwark meant was: the overcrowding was the family’s own fault, because the one-bedroom flat would eventually have become statutorily overcrowded and that Favio and Elba must have known that it would eventually become statutorily overcrowded (even though Favio and Elba did not even know about the social housing waiting list, let alone the details of all the rules or what ‘statutory overcrowding’ means).

The legal challenge

Favio and Elba’s lawyers took Southwark to the High Court in May. This type of case is called ‘judicial review’ and these types of cases are very difficult. You cannot simply say that you don’t like the council’s decision, or that you think that the decision is wrong. Instead, you have to show that the council has acted unlawfully.

Judges are generally very reluctant to find that councils have acted unlawfully in council housing allocations cases even if most people would think the council are wrong. Court judgments in earlier legal challenges have established that judges are required to give councils a lot of freedom in deciding and applying their housing waiting list rules.

In order to work out who should win the case, the High Court judge had to decide what the word “deliberate” meant in Southwark’s policy.

The judge in May this year ruled in the council’s favour and agreed with the Council’s argument. He decided that the word “deliberate” could include cases like Favio’s, even though Favio’s family had not done anything wrong, and even though they did not even know that the council housing waiting list existed when the “deliberate act” took place.

The decision also has supported a bizarre and worryingly broad definition of the phrase “deliberate act” that Southwark have come up with, which means statutorily overcrowded families have to wait very different times for social housing depending on if they happen to meet very arbitrary criteria. Strangely, the High Court decision said that “deliberate act” does not require any intent by the family to actually cause their overcrowding in a deliberate attempt to get higher priority. And actually the only way to obtain band 1 overcrowding priority is to become statutorily overcrowded by giving birth to more children while living at the property. This created a strange distinction which means having more children is not “deliberate”, but renting accommodation that will become statutorily overcrowded in the future through children growing up is “deliberate”.

What does HASL think about the case?

We cannot understand why Southwark council continue to insist that families would deliberately live in such overcrowded housing. We have repeatedly pointed out how the council’s actions are targeting families from BAME and migrant backgrounds. The council must immediately stop this culture of blame which punishes families in overcrowded housing and direct its time and resources to the real causes of the housing crisis – high private rents, benefit cuts and a shortage of family-sized council homes.

In Favio and Elba’s case, the council’s decision that their severe overcrowding is a ‘deliberate act’ by the family is insulting, cruel, and simply and obviously wrong – we hope that it will also be found unlawful and that this could help other families in similar situations. We have seen many similar decisions and the devastating impacts that these decisions have on some of the most overcrowded families in our borough.

Getting to this stage has not been easy for the family. They have worked tirelessly on their case trying to prove to Southwark council that they did not choose to live in overcrowded housing and they have been navigating what is a complicated legal process.

It is disappointing that Southwark council are willing to go to such extreme lengths, using public money and resources to deny severely overcrowded families the help that they need. Southwark council claim that they are committed to helping people to fight against the housing crisis. But they have very publicly shown their commitment to these punitive rules.

Favio explains: “We want to rent a two-bedroom apartment but it is very expensive and the agencies ask you for many documents, and they ask us what you work for, how much you earn, how many hours you work. If you have benefits we cannot rent you. Why so much inequality?…And there are people who take advantage of us, there are private agents and they take £500 commissions. It’s not fair. Everyone has the right to have a normal life.

When they get home my children do not have a place to do their homework, I have a small table, they both start to discuss, and I have to tell them one to do at the table and the other in bed, so the fight starts and my son says: I want a room and a place where I can do my homework. I understand their anger that he is 14 years old and they need their space … at night when they went to bed to sleep, they sleep together in a bed because there is no space at all sides.

We are very anxious, nervous and very worried about the decision [The Court of Appeal] they will make. We are only waiting for a flat with 2 bedrooms so that my family is stable. When the children grow up it is more complicated, they need more space.”

His partner Elba explains: “The council have treated us a bit badly, all the decisions they have sent us have been negative. Since Covid 19, the situation for families in overcrowded housing has been very bad.

During the lockdown, the children have been studying at home online, we have been doing our best, we have made a small space for each son to study. It has been very difficult for children to study. I hope there will be a change because coronavirus has made things very bad. Now we are waiting for what we hope will be a positive outcome for us and that it will help and support other families as well.”

Their eldest son aged 14 explained: “With the small flat we would try to be outside more but with virus, we are in 2 little rooms. My brother is always cheeky every time when I do my homework. Especially when I had virtual lessons, there’s not enough space for me to concentrate, my brother is playing with toys and it disrupts me when I’m doing my lessons.

I have allergies which give me watery eyes, my nose gets itchy, and I’m asthmatic mostly when I’m at home, when I’m outside, it calms down. We’ve mostly been at home because of the virus and my allergies have got worse for me especially.

We hoped we would have a house for Christmas last year, then I hoped maybe for my birthday, so many times we have had our hopes up but it never happened.

I feel like it’s too long for us to be living in one room, we never had experience of having 2 or 3 rooms, of having my own room.

[What would he say to Southwark council?] Most of them live in their own rooms, so try to think about others, how do they feel.”

Lewisham council – don’t ban overcrowded families from the housing register

A judge has granted permission for a HASL member’s case to be heard in the High Court. Our member, whose family live in overcrowded housing, is challenging Lewisham council’s decision refusing them access to the housing register because they have not lived in the borough for 5 years.

We are a family of 5 people, I have 2 sons aged 14 and 16 and a 7 year old daughter. We live in a small 2 bedroom flat. My 2 sons sleep in one room and my husband and I occupy in the other room with our daughter. This situation is very uncomfortable because we have very little space. That is why we requested to join Lewisham’s housing waiting list but they rejected us 2 times for not living in the borough for 5 years. We feel very upset by this situation and we feel that it is very unfair and oppressive. We are challenging this decision and we hope it will also help other families as well. Thank you to HASL for your help and your guidance.

Overcrowding is one of the biggest housing problems our members face and an issue we have been supporting each other with and campaigning on together for years. High private rents, benefit cuts, widespread discrimination by private landlords and a desperate shortage of council homes mean that families are forced to rent smaller flats than they need. Even before Covid 19, these living conditions had serious impacts on families mental and physical health. With lockdowns confining people to their homes the situation for overcrowded families has been even more unbearable. Overcrowding itself is a serious public health issue.

The obvious solution to overcrowding is 3, 4, 5 bed high quality, safe, secure council homes. So why is Lewisham council’s response to overcrowding to increase the local connection criteria to make it more difficult for overcrowded families to join the housing register?

We believe that it is blatantly unfair to apply a strict residence criteria to families suffering with a housing need. They are forcing overcrowded families to endure these living conditions for 5 years before they can even join the housing register for the chance to access more spacious social housing. It’s not acceptable for children to spend over 5 years of their childhood in overcrowded housing and for this to be the council’s policy.

In HASL, we see the discriminatory impact this has particularly on migrant families who are less likely to have accumulated this time in the borough – many migrant families face additional difficulties and discrimination when trying to find housing in the private rented sector meaning that they are more likely to end up having to live in overcrowded conditions. Often, they may have had already moved homes several times trying to improve their housing conditions making it harder to build up time in a particular borough.

The consequences of the discrimination faced by migrant and BAME households accessing housing is shown in the disgraceful statistic that while only 2% of White British households are overcrowded, 30% of Bangladeshi households and 15% of Black African households are. Policies such as Lewisham’s only deepen these inequalities and injustice.

It should not take legal action for Lewisham council to support their residents living in overcrowded housing and we hope they will urgently review their decision to apply the 5 year residence criteria to people with a housing need. Alongside the legal challenge, we’ll continue our campaigning in support of overcrowded families and for the 3, 4, 5 bed council homes we all need and deserve.

How you can help!

Please share our blog and tweets to Lewisham council in support of overcrowded families and feel free to write your own tweets.

Lewisham council recently announced that they will be reviewing their housing allocations policy and will undertake a consultation exercise with local residents and stakeholders. If you’re a Lewisham resident, please think about engaging in this consultation – in HASL, we’ll be discussing how we want to respond to this consultation and we’ll be publishing our ideas and guidance about responding to this consultation soon.

Lewisham council must give more support to severely overcrowded families

Back in January, Lewisham council’s housing committee discussed including ‘statutory overcrowding’ in their housing allocations policy recognising the ‘public health impact’ that it has. Our member explains her case below and we outline why her family and many other Lewisham families in similar situations need their serious overcrowding recognised with band 2 on the housing register to allow them the urgent move they need to more spacious social housing.

We have been living in Lewisham for 8 years since 2012.  We have 2 children, they were 2 years old and 4 when we started living here in this flat. Today they are 12 and 10 years old. We join the housing register in 2014 and were placed in band 3 for council housing.

The flat where where we live is small, with only one small bedroom and below us we have a fast food business and the smoke rises a lot to our house until our house fills with smoke, the ventilation is very bad. For 6 years we are fighting with the council asking them to pay attention to us, my children have grown up and they are not small, my young son has constant absences from school due to his asthma which has not improved. In 2015 he was admitted to hospital for breathing problems. He has even developed an allergy to the constant dust that comes from the street.

My eldest son has been medically presenting problems with concentration and anxiety, and many detentions at school, difficulty sleeping, constant fights between siblings due to lack of space.  All this for us is hard to fight every day with the lockdown that we have.  Since 2013 I have been presenting neck and back pain due to the much stress that I live day by day, my health has worsened year after year today I have Osteoarthritis with severe pain and I have been dealing with depression for several years, I have had migraines since  7 years ago, and I have insomnia.  We ask the Lewisham council to pay full attention to our case, please.

Overcrowding is one of the biggest problems our members face. High private rents, benefit cuts, widespread discrimination by private landlords and a desperate shortage of council homes mean that families are forced to rent tiny studio or one bedroom flats. As well being severely overcrowded, these flats are often in very poor condition as well. Even before Covid 19, these living conditions had serious impacts on families mental and physical health. With lockdowns confining people to their homes the situation for overcrowded families has been even more unbearable. Overcrowding itself is a serious public health issue.

Our member describes her family’s situation above. The family of 4 live in a tiny one bedroom flat. They meet a legal definition of overcrowding called ‘statutory overcrowding‘ – an incredibly high level of overcrowding. She describes how the family’s health has been seriously affected by the overcrowded and poor living conditions. Her sons are growing up fast creating even greater overcrowding. As you can see from the photos, every inch of the home is used with a bed almost inside the small kitchen space positioned between the fridge and the boiler, and storage cupboards and shelves from the floor to the ceiling trying to use every bit of space there is.

Their position in band 3 on the housing register where they have been waiting for 6 years does not reflect the family’s very high housing need as ‘statutory overcrowded’ and their urgent need for a quick move due to the related serious medical problems. With the help of housing lawyers, the family applied for band 2 which would allow them the urgent move into permanent council housing that they desperately need. We are waiting for a decision from Lewisham council but Lewisham council have recently been discussing recognising ‘statutory overcrowding’ and the ‘impact on public health’ in their housing allocation policy.

Back in January, Lewisham council’s housing committee discussed a report by the housing manager on overcrowding. In the minutes, they noted: “the importance of having statutory overcrowding as an extra measure given the potential impact on public health”. In conclusion, they resolved to look into “adopting the statutory definition of overcrowding as an additional measure of overcrowding within its Housing Allocation Scheme“.

We hope they will follow up these discussions with the urgent action needed and award this family band 2 for the serious overcrowding and health conditions as well as updating their housing allocations policy by including statutory overcrowding. This would be a very welcome and urgently needed measure to recognize and support families living in severely overcrowded housing who have been stuck in these conditions for years. Lewisham acknowledged the public health impact of overcrowding before Covid 19. With Covid 19, the harmful impact of overcrowding housing has been even greater.

Too Long in Temporary! Janeth’s family

 

Watch the short video we made with Janeth where she speaks about the difficulties of living Too Long in Temporary and the impacts on her family’s health.

In July this year, it marked the 6th year Janeth and her family have been living in temporary accommodation. Originally from Lambeth, the family have been housed in 5 different temporary accommodations across London. Lambeth council place homeless families in band C at the bottom of the housing waiting list meaning that Lambeth’s homeless households may never get the permanent, safe, secure council homes they need. We are supporting Janeth’s case and all homeless households who have spent Too Long in Temporary.

Janeth’s oldest child, aged 9, has spent over half his life living in temporary accommodation. Her other 3 children have spent all their lives living in temporary accommodation. The temporary accommodations have often been very poor quality – they have lived in a hostel, a severely overcrowded flat, and many of the properties have had infestations and damp and mould issues. The poor quality housing and constant moving has seriously affected the family’s health with the children developing coughs, asthma, skin rashes, and anxiety. They have suffered these health conditions for many years. Her oldest son is constantly worried that he will have to move home again and change schools. Homeless households and others suffering from bad living conditions are also at higher risk of catching and being worse affected by Covid 19, a Lancet article highlights the particular vulnerabilities of young children in temporary accommodation.

The family have submitted strong and detailed medical evidence to Lambeth council about the impact of their housing conditions on their health. The children’s school has stated that the housing situation is negatively impacting the children’s health and their future educational outcomes. Their GP called for an urgent move. Yet, despite this evidence, Lambeth council have refused to award the family band B on the housing register for an urgent medical move. The family received a very short and vague decision letter in July this year which failed to properly engage with the evidence submitted. Camden Community Law Centre are helping the family to review the decision and the family have now been waiting over a month for a response.

We are calling on Lambeth council to award the family band B based on the serious health issues they continue to suffer in temporary accommodation so that they can move into the permanent council housing they desperately need. As well as supporting homeless families who have an urgent medical need to move to permanent council housing, Lambeth council must also urgently change their housing allocations policy so that homeless households are not stuck at the bottom of the housing register with no hope of council housing.

We know there is a desperate shortage of high quality, safe, secure family-sized council homes in our communities. We campaign together for high quality, 3, 4, 5 bed council homes we need!

Stop blaming families for overcrowding! Community campaigners launch open letter to Southwark council

Read our open letter supported by 30 community groups to Southwark council on the treatment of overcrowded families here Thank you to all the groups who have signed and supported our letter and campaign.

Press release:

Over 30 groups and individuals including grassroots housing and migrant support groups, anti-gentrification campaigns, legal aid law firms, unions, health workers and a local church have written to Southwark council concerning its treatment of severely overcrowded families.

Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth and Public Interest Law Centre drafted the letter to Southwark council after supporting a number of severely overcrowded families who were being blamed and penalised by the council for ‘deliberately’ causing their overcrowding. In some cases, Southwark council demoted families to band 4 at the very bottom of the housing register where they would never be able to access the permanent council housing they desperately need.

These decisions continued during the peak of the Covid 19 pandemic when the heightened vulnerabilities of those living in overcrowded housing were clear.

The letter highlights how the council’s policies on overcrowding are not properly or fairly defined with vague concepts such as ‘deliberate act’ and ‘deliberate worsening of circumstances’. This has led to a ‘culture of refusal’ that seems to have been adopted by housing officers towards some of the borough’s most severely overcrowded and vulnerable residents.

While overcrowded housing is caused by high rents, benefit cuts, discrimination in the private rented sector, and a shortage of family-sized council homes, the council has been using their policies to place the blame on individual families who had no other options but to rent overcrowded housing. In one case, the council deemed statutory overcrowding a ‘deliberate act’ when a father returned to his home after being unlawfully deported by the Home Office.

The letter highlights how the council’s policies and practices on overcrowding penalise households from low-income and BAME and migrant backgrounds who simply cannot afford or access less overcrowded housing and face additional barriers, reinforced by the government’s racist Right to Rent policy.

The groups and campaigners call on the council to end the use of ‘deliberate act’ so that overcrowded families are supported rather than penalised and in order to stop the culture of blame and refusal which it fuels. Other steps to ensure that severely overcrowded families are awarded the correct priority on the housing register are also requested.

Helen Mowatt from PILC says:

‘In this letter we highlight the Council’s failure to apply its housing allocations scheme and support overcrowded families, in a fair, open and transparent manner. We have now supported several families who have felt the harmful effects of the council’s policy and practice on overcrowding. We have found that cases with similar facts are being treated very differently under the scheme by council officers. This inconsistent approach to decision making supports our feeling that a culture of blame and refusal has developed, where some officers are unfairly reducing the priority of families, which encourages others to follow suit. These decisions are only overturned when either HASL or a lawyer intervenes – which is worrying as many families are unaware of their rights under the scheme, the existence of community groups like HASL, or their right to legal representation.  Something must be done to ensure that the council’s policy on overcrowding is both fair and clear, that officers are correctly applying it, and that families facing hardship are properly supported moving forward.’

Elizabeth Wyatt from Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth says:

‘The decisions we have seen blaming families for overcrowding are offensive, harmful and deeply distressing. It has only been through the extraordinary efforts of the families themselves in challenging the council’s decisions that has seen many of them be overturned. In some cases, this has taken years. But these decisions should never have been made in the first place. The council must immediately stop these policies and practices which punish overcrowded families and direct its time and resources to the real causes of the housing crisis – high private rents, benefit cuts and a shortage of family sized council homes. Even before Covid 19, overcrowded housing was a public health crisis. The Covid 19 pandemic saw these families trapped in cramped, unbearable living conditions during the lockdown and at higher risk of catching and spreading the virus and of becoming seriously ill. The need for high quality, safe, secure, 3, 4, 5 bed council homes has never been more urgent.’

A 17 year old living in a studio flat with her brother and parents says:

‘It affects our studies because the flat is too small. Because we have the beds and the kitchen next to each other and we just have a small table where we eat and do our homework. Whilst my mum is doing the food, I am trying to do my homework and it is really distracting and really stressful. My brother is playing too so it is hard to focus. Because everything is together in one room, there is the smell of food when I’m trying to sleep this means that it affects my studies as well because I cannot sleep well.

It is so stressful, my head cannot focus. I have to just go outside the flat to get some air to deal with the stress because the flat is too small, I cannot think in there. I don’t have any privacy, to change my clothes I have to go to change in the toilet and it is really uncomfortable.

I can’t bring my friends home because it is too small – my parents are there and my brother is there. My friends could not fit inside. 

I feel really bad because it is like the treatment of [by the council] us is racist, they are being really strict to us, they don’t care about the family. Sometimes it feels like really embarrassing for us to apply for housing. We are immigrants so applying for housing makes us feels embarrassed, every time they say no to us, you cannot apply for housing. But we feel like Southwark is our home. I have my friends here, my church, I go to the gym to relax and get away from the flat. I do volunteering which makes me feel good.

It feels like we’re treated like we have done a crime because of the way they have treated our case. They are asking us for so many documents about all our life.’

HASL member’s section 21 and the end of the eviction ban

 

A mother and her young daughter were served with their 3rd section 21 in April during lockdown. The Covid 19 pandemic actually gave her a feeling of ‘temporary relief’ because she knew that the eviction ban in place they had more time in their home. Our HASL member has good form in taking on section 21s but having been homeless before, being repeatedly threatened with homelessness is taking it’s toll. To make things worse, the home they are fighting to stay in has had serious disrepair and is overcrowded – but as she points out, it’s still better than other private rented homes or going through the homeless process again.

Originally from Lambeth, our HASL member and her young daughter became homeless in December 2017 and approached Lambeth council to make a homeless application. Lambeth council found the family a 1 bedroom private flat in Croydon where they are still living. The offer of this private flat came under Lambeth council’s misleading ‘homeless prevention’ scheme ‘Temp to Settle’ – which our member took on and also successfully challenged!

Housing homeless families in private rented housing does not prevent homelessness as she experienced when her landlord served the first section 21. Over the last 2 and a half years, she has faced so many battles to make her home livable, to remain in her home, and to keep her rights to stay on Lambeth’s housing register. She explains how being part of HASL has helped her to get through all this. For her, secure social housing feels so far away that it would be like winning the lottery.

Our member describes her experiences including being served with a section 21 during lockdown and her feelings about the eviction ban ending.

 

Moving in – disrepair creating an environmental health hazard

When I viewed the property in December 2017, it was like a show room – what I didn’t realise is that all the white walls were painted in anti-mould paint. After 3 weeks of being there in winter time, mould started to come through very quickly and the worst places in the kitchen and the bathroom. So I spoke with the estate agent and he was really rude to me and he said, “we’ve rented this property out for 10 years and we’ve never had any complaints about the damp and mould, you’ve caused this and you need to pay for it”. It was a battle. And I said “how dare you, even if I washed and dried the whole street’s washing in this property, the amount of mould that has appeared so quickly could not have been accumulated from me”. The day I was moving in, the previous tenant warned me against renting the property, he said it’s not healthy and had given him asthma. 3 weeks later, I knew exactly what I he was talking about. I went straight to environmental health, they had a look around and served them a notice and said to the landlord you have a certain amount of time to do the work. So the landlord ended up paying £4,500 putting in insulation boards. When environmental health came to check the work, he noticed I didn’t have a smoke alarm or Co2 alarm and the landlord was directed to deal with this. Lambeth council gave the all clear for this property knowing there was not a smoke alarm or Co2 alarm. They don’t care. The work is basically putting a plaster on it because structural problems still remain.

Now the winter is coming again, it’s going to start getting damp, and I hope it doesn’t affect my daughter. She caught a cold and virus she was in hospital for 3 days on a nebuliser. She might be asthmatic but the doctors cannot test this until she is 5 years old.

I thought I was safe here and I never thought I would be asked to leave without a good reason. The quality of the property was poor and I was left feeling unhappy realising that the housing system just didn’t care how they treated us.

 

Section 21s

 

In April 2019 I got my first section 21 and it worried me and I knew what was to come after attending your meetings. It was a very stressful and worrying time for me as I did not know what would happen if I lost at court. Fortunately, I won that case but I knew it would be a matter of time before I was served another and I was on 9th December 2019. Then I was served another section 21 on 24th April. This was served at the beginning of the pandemic – I was slightly relieved because everything was put on hold and I knew it gave me a bit more time. But it was always at the back of my mind as I knew things eventually would start up again.

 

When I received the notice, my heart dropped, I was deflated, I thought “here we go again”. It is a horrible and scary feeling not being in control especially having a 3 year old daughter and not knowing what will happen to our future.

 

I was housed here and set my roots here in Croydon and I knew my daughter would need to go to nursery and I would need to make these important decisions, but these were made highly stressful for me not knowing what my future would hold.

 

This all happened at a hard time for me, although the pandemic gave me a feeling of temporary relief I knew it was not forever. Although I wanted the pandemic to end so we could all move on and go back to normal there was a part of me that was happy that it was affecting the housing situation, if that makes sense.

 

The end of the eviction ban

 

I feel very anxious and nervous about the eviction ban ending, it means that my hell will reopen again putting me in a helpless and worrying situation that I have no control over. It means this journey I do not want to be on will start up again causing me a lot of worry and stress especially as my daughter starts nursery in September, it’s making me depressed. I’m stuck just waiting, laying low, I’m waiting for my name and number to be called basically when my hell will be reopened, until then, I’m just here.

 

When my name is called, I’ll just have to handle it head on. I wouldn’t be sounding so confident and ready if it wasn’t for knowing that you guys will be there to help and support me along the way.

 

End section 21

 

I think the rules on section 21 being served without any good reason should be stopped – it’s not fair that landlords can serve these without a valid explanation which causes so much disruption to families being served them. This is allowing the councils and landlords to participate in a business rather than a service. [In HASL, we have come across a number of times where private landords who rent to homeless families through the council, threaten eviction in order to get another ‘incentive payment’ from the council]. The landlords can accept more tenants from the council and get another incentive which they keep and then the landlords can just get rid of the next family and do the same again. So it’s basically a business rather than a service. Until we stop section 21s, this won’t change. I believe that it should be compulsory that a valid reason should be given until you can serve one, because until then none of us have any security and until this changes, the housing pandemic will never end, it is a vicious cycle and has no sense in trying to help people like myself who go to the council for support.

 

It’s ridiculous how section 21s can be served. It’s not right at all. You can’t sack someone without an explanation because if you’re unfairly sacked you can go to a tribunal.

 

Trying to be settled

I’ve settled here, it’s not fair on my daughter, they think it has no effect, my daughter is young and I don’t know what effect this could have on her, we’re sowing our roots. I want to stay here because I’m settled, I’m starting a life here now, and my daughter is at a crucial educational start of her life and I’m doing the best I can. It’s not easy to up and go and start again. I’ve made the best out of a worst situation and you can’t expect people to just up and move. We need that security so that we can make future plans.

 

Solutions

 

There is not enough council houses and they’re not making any more and it goes back to money – its renting, renting, renting. Myatts field estate which is now called the Oval Quarter, the whole estate was council and now 5% is council and the rest is private rented. And it is about £2,500 a month.  And they’re like caravans, you can hear your neighbours, the quality of the places are poor. They just want to rush and take everyone’s money, they pop them up like it’s a ping up tent, it’s greed. If you want to resolve the situation and you’re going to get people social housing, you need to make social housing, because everything goes up except for the wages so how do you expect us to survive.

 

Social housing

It would be like I’ve won the jackpot, it would be such a weight off and load off my mind. For my daughter not needing to worry. I do not know what the future holds. The rug could be pulled from my feet and I have to pack and go. To have that security it should be a basic necessity, but unfortunately we are being denied this, it would be a dream come true, I can’t explain. It’s so far away from it that it doesn’t even cross my mind. When that day comes, I’ll be so happy. But I’d also feel sad knowing there are people that are going through hell and I’ve had the opportunity. I never even thought about it, I’ve never thought about it that far down.

 

Joining a housing action group

If it wasn’t for me attending your meetings, I wouldn’t be where I am today because I definitely guarantee, I would have gone down the wrong avenue and I would have shot myself in the foot. I wouldn’t be where I am right now without the support that you give for us to take action to tackle what they chuck at us, we are only able to do that with your support and knowledge and your determination because I tell you from now I’m not stupid, but I never would have thought to have done what you guys have, you’ve held my hand and taken me along and where I am today with my head still above water, I would drowned if it was not for you lot.

Lambeth’s Temp to Settled Scheme – what has changed and what happens now?

HASL visit Lambeth council’s Civic Centre last March protesting against the Temp2Settled policy

Were you homeless and housed by Lambeth council outside of the borough in private housing?

Were you placed in band B on the housing register?

Did your housing register bidding account get closed?

Did you hear about Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth and Public Interest Law Centre’s successful legal challenge which means your bidding account should be re-opened?

Our leaflet can help you understand your situation and your rights.

LEAFLET IN ENGLISH

FOLLETO EN ESPANOL

Following HASL and PILC’s important legal and campaign victory in June over Lambeth council, we have produced a new leaflet to explain what this means for families who were affected by the Temp to Settle scheme and who were removed from Lambeth’s housing register. Families affected by this scheme still could face problems in the future so please do get in contact with HASL so that we can support each other with our cases.

Many families who approached Lambeth council as homeless were not even aware that they were put on this Temp to Settle scheme – many only found out when their bidding accounts were closed. But if you were housed outside of Lambeth in private housing and were put into band B, it is likely that you were affected by this scheme.

If you are a Lambeth family (or if you used to live in Lambeth) who is  concerned or confused about your situation, please do get in contact with us by email or SMS/ whatsapp (details in leaflet)and we will do our best to help.

Victory for Milton’s family

Overcrowding is a public health crisis – we need 3, 4, 5 bed council homes now!

Southwark Council has spent more than two years blaming Milton’s family for being severely overcrowded and punished them by placing them into band 4 of the waiting list where they would never be able to get the permanent council housing they desperately need. Even during the height of lockdown, when Milton was still going to work as a cleaner, worried that he would bring Covid19 home to his family and their tiny studio flat, the council insisted they were to blame for the overcrowding.

But last week, with the incredible solidarity of HASL members and Public Interest Law Centre, Southwark Council finally placed the family into band 3 on the housing waiting list. This is a huge step forward for Milton’s family and they are overjoyed, but they are STILL awaiting the statutory overcrowding priority that they are owed!

200 Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth members joined together across London to
support Milton and the family’s campaign. It was really moving to witness such a strong display of unity in a time when the group has been forced to remain apart. We shared our photographs from home and our workplaces in an ever-growing twitter thread!

Sky-high private rents, welfare cuts, low wages and the long-term sell off of council housing cause overcrowding. Nobody chooses to live in cramped, often unsanitary conditions in which it is immensely stressful to cook, sleep and home-school.

So why are Southwark council so intent on blaming their own residents who are living in some of the most severely overcrowded housing in the borough?
We know that Milton’s case is not a one-off. We’ve seen many other similar decisions blaming families for overcrowding and we’re supporting our members to challenge them and campaigning in support of all overcrowded families.

The Coronavirus has highlighted and compounded the existing immense health risk of living in overcrowded housing. We’ve been making videos of our experiences of overcrowded housing during lockdown. Sharing small and crowded conditions has huge impacts on mental and physical health. It’s now clear that these households are also at a significantly greater risk of the virus.

Many HASL members are from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority groups who face extensive racist prejudice from landlords and local government on a daily basis. While only 2% of White British households are overcrowded, 30% of Bangladeshi households and 15% of Black African households are. When this appalling statistic is considered alongside recent data from Public Health England and the New Policy Institute that states the significantly increased risk of BAME people to suffer from Covid, it is even more shocking that local government is willing to deprive anybody of their right to access safe, secure and decent housing.

Milton and his family should never have been treated like this by Southwark Council. They deserve good quality housing, and not to be blamed for their situation. The council should be focussing it’s resources on how to help people, especially during a pandemic. They need permanent council housing now, and no other family should have to go through this again!

Lambeth council’s social cleansing scheme stopped!

HASL visited Lambeth council’s Civic Centre last March protesting against the Temp2Settled policy

Thanks to our friends Public Interest Law Centre for writing this press release about the legal and campaign victory that we have worked on together.

There is great coverage in the Brixton Blog here. 

We will be producing an information leaflet for those affected explaining about the legal victory, what your rights are now and what more needs to be done!

 

Important win for homeless families in Lambeth

Lambeth Council agrees to amend a housing allocations scheme that had resulted in hundreds of vulnerable families being removed from its social housing register 

Lambeth’s Temp2Settled Policy 

Since 2014 Lambeth Council has been encouraging its homeless families to withdraw their homelessness applications, and to move into temporary private sector accommodation, by offering them higher priority for social housing. However, in very many cases, the deal that Lambeth was offering actually prevented these families from staying on the social housing waiting list at all.

Under the ‘Temp2Settled’ Scheme, those approaching the council as homeless were told that if they agreed to forego their rights under the housing and homelessness legislation, they would be placed in Band B (rather than Band C) and therefore have a ‘much better chance’ of successfully securing council housing or housing association tenancies.

However, what these families were not told was that if they were placed outside the borough (as hundreds were) they would almost certainly be removed from the housing register altogether before they were able to bid successfully for social housing and be rehoused. That was because they would lose their ‘local connection’ to the borough after two years.

These families never had any real prospect of securing permanent accommodation, as the average wait time for securing permanent family-sized accommodation in Band B has always been more than five years. We therefore suspect that Lambeth council may have designed the policy with a view to denying applicants their housing rights.

Other consequences – suitability of accommodation and eviction 

Apart from being removed from the housing register and losing their local connection, these families also felt the wickedness of Lambeth’s policy in other ways.

Unlike the accommodation provided under the homelessness legislation, there is no statutory requirement for  ‘Temp2Settled’ accommodation to be ‘suitable’, and there is no right to challenge the suitability of the offer of accommodation by way of statutory review. Families therefore often found themselves in unsanitary or uninhabitable living conditions and forced to stay there as they were unable to challenge private sector accommodation that was unconstrained by suitability requirements.

Given the unstable nature of the accommodation, many families faced threats of eviction from private landlords. On top of all this, having been placed many miles outside the borough of Lambeth, some had no choice but to travel long distances in order to retain their support networks and to get to and from work or school.

The legal challenge 

The Public Interest Law Centre, with support from Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL), brought a legal challenge on behalf of four families affected by the ‘Temp2Settled’ scheme. Each client had either faced eviction or felt forced to reside in unsuitable or uninhabitable living conditions. In many cases this led to them and their children suffering a deterioration in their mental wellbeing and physical health.

As a result of the challenge, and not long before the case was due in court, Lambeth agreed to amend its policy and reinstate the four families to its housing register with immediate effect. Applicants who opted for the Scheme (only to be placed in private rented accommodation outside of the borough and removed from the housing register after two years) are also to be reinstated.

Barristers Nick Bano and Liz Davies (Garden Court Chambers) and David Wolfe QC (Matrix Chambers) were instructed.

Quotes:

Elizabeth Wyatt from HASL says:

“Our members told us they were tricked and deceived by Lambeth council when they visited the housing office as homeless. More and more people were coming to the group telling us they had been removed from the waiting list with no idea why. This allowed us to build our legal challenge, but there are still hundreds of households who have been struggling alone. 

Lambeth’s Temp2Settled scheme is yet another example that so-called homeless prevention which pushes families into the private sector does not work and is not fair. 

PILC and HASL have successfully challenged it here and we will continue to do so wherever these schemes fail to act in the best interests of homeless people. 

Real homeless prevention is safe, secure, high quality council housing in our communities, and a welfare system accessible to everyone that ensures a dignified life free from poverty.”

Helen Mowatt, solicitor at PILC, says:

“This case is an important victory for the hundreds of families who have been affected by the  ‘Temp2Settled’scheme, and we hope sends a message to councils – that it is not acceptable to place targets above the needs of the community. We know that there is a culture in housing departments that regardless of how vulnerable you are, the ultimate goal is to get the numbers down. Schemes like ‘Temp2Settled’ are adopted to further the gentrification agenda, as it is in the commercial interests of councils to get as many homeless and low-income families out of the borough as possible. 

Of course, this mentality trickles down from central government and is linked to the limited housing stock and to a decade of austerity measures. But councils need to be pushing back against this—and not taking it out on homeless families who approach the council for support. We must continue the campaign to ensure that those families no longer feel forced to reside in uninhabitable living conditions, are protected from eviction, and have access to secure council-owned accommodation.”

One of the four claimants had this to say:

“I first encountered Lambeth council’s ‘Temp2Settled’ Scheme when I became homeless in 2017 and was at my most vulnerable.  The council officers sugar coated the nature of the Scheme and persuaded me to agree to enter into it – they told me that it was the best option for myself and my baby as we would be provided with permanent council accommodation in our home borough within a matter of weeks. However, I later discovered that relying on this advice had put myself and my daughter at great risk. The conditions of the property I was placed in were very poor and it was not safe for us to live in. I have also been threatened with eviction on several occasions. 

My intention has always been to do right by my daughter and to do the best for her. I believe that Lambeth Council took advantage of this and of me when I was at my most vulnerable and when I had no choice but to place my trust in them. When given the option of a stable and secure home for my daughter, of course I was going to take that – even if it meant living away from our home borough for what I was told would be a short period of time. 

My daughter is now 3 years old and at the crucial age of starting nursery and settling down for the starting of her educational life. This should be an exciting time for us, but the consequences of the council’s scheme (the suitability of accommodation, threats of eviction and being forced away from the place I call home) had impacted us both greatly – causing so much stress and anxiety. Not knowing what my future for my daughter looked like and whether we would be able to return to our home borough, made making important life decisions for me very hard. 

Without HASL and the Public Interest Law Centre, who dedicated their time in helping us not only get justice, but also to expose the way me and others were treated, this would still be happening undetected, and Lambeth council would be able to continue to treat families in this way without any accountability for their actions. 

I am proud of myself and of all the other residents who stood up to the council and I hope this sends them a message that council officers cannot continue to treat us like we are just numbers which they need to reduce at any cost. We are human beings and have families, just like they do.”