Press release: SIGNIFICANT VICTORY against Southwark Council.

Cross posted from the Public Interest Law Unit. The original post can be found here.

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“Further to a successful legal challenge by the Public Interest Law Unit (PILU) and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL), it has become apparent that Southwark Council have been incorrectly applying the ‘space standard’ test for statutory overcrowding as contained in s.326 of the Housing Act 1985.

Had Southwark applied the law correctly, it would have been recognised that the family in question were living in statutorily overcrowded conditions, and that in accordance with their allocation scheme they should have been placed in Band 1 and given an additional ‘Priority Star’ to reflect that status.

The evidence provided by HASL and as a result of a Freedom of Information Request suggests that the error in fact forms part of a wider unlawful practice.

Since December 2017, HASL have come across five cases where households have reported to Southwark that they are overcrowded according to the space standard for the number of people in the property and the number of rooms, that in each of these cases Southwark has proceeded to measure the size of the rooms and that in only one of the cases has the household been placed in Band 1 on Southwark’s allocation scheme.

The Council’s response to a Freedom of Information request showed that since February 2018, 46 banding decision had been made which had involved assessing whether a household was statutorily overcrowded, all of these cases had been assessed with reference to the space standard set out in s326 Housing Act 1985, and all had been assessed solely with reference to floor area as opposed to the number of rooms. 13 of those cases had been found not to be statutorily overcrowded.

Southwark Council have now admitted that the test for statutory overcrowding had been incorrectly applied the case in question, and while the Council have been reviewing previous decisions made on this basis, it is unclear whether everybody affected will notified and awarded the additional priority that they are entitled to.

Helen Mowatt, solicitor from PILU said:

Southwark Council has formally adopted the measure of overcrowding contained in Part 10 of the Housing Act 1985 within its allocation scheme and is required to properly apply this when allocating social housing. A failure to do so is a breach of the Housing Act and amounts to an unlawful failure to follow a published policy.

Southwark have been erroneously applying the space standard contained in s326(3) Housing Act 1985, by assessing overcrowding solely with reference to floor area and not also with reference to the number of rooms, as required.

The error in our client’s case is material. Had Southwark correctly applied the space standard, his household would have been deemed statutorily overcrowded months ago, they would have been placed in Band 1 of the allocation scheme and awarded an additional priority star.

This was also not an isolated error on the part of the Council. The evidence we have obtained from HASL and as a result of our Freedom of Information Request shows that Southwark have been consistently misapplying the law in every case. It is therefore likely that many households have wrongly been assessed as not being statutorily overcrowded and placed in the incorrect housing Band.

We know that there may have been as many as 13 cases since February 2018 which must now be reviewed, but we are unclear as to how many households may have been affected before this date. We will be seeking assurances from the Council that they will review all relevant cases, but if anyone thinks they may have been affected, please contact HASL and/or seek legal advice.

Elizabeth Wyatt from HASL has said:

Overcrowded housing in the private rented sector, but also in Southwark’s own council housing, is one of the main problems we come across in our group and is one of the more invisible sides of the housing crisis. We know many families forced to live in single rooms, studio flats and one bed flats because of discrimination and extortionate rents in the private rented sector. We know first hand the devastating impact that overcrowded housing has on people’s lives particularly their mental and physical health. We have been raising the problem of overcrowding with Southwark council for years but the council have failed to engage and take meaningful action.

Southwark council should be supporting their residents to access their housing rights and the secure council homes they need, instead it took a legal challenge before the council would accept that it had been wrongly denying that our families were statutorily overcrowded. Together with PILU, we will be making sure that the council goes back to review all previous decisions and applies the law correctly for all future cases. 

Southwark residents and all Londoners desperately need good quality, secure, 3, 4, 5 bed council homes in our communities. We welcome anyone struggling or worried about housing problems to get involved in our group to support each other and take collective action for good housing for everyone.” [ENDS]

For more information please contact Helen Mowatt at hmowatt@lambethlawcentre.org or Elizabeth Wyatt at elizabethwyatt1988@gmail.com

 

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Southwark Council – No more evictions from temporary accommodation

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Last Monday, we supported one of our members to stop the eviction of her and her daughter from temporary accommodation provided by Southwark council. By emailing and tweeting Southwark councillor Stephanie Cryan and the manager for housing, we were able to get Southwark to stop the eviction.

You can read our tweets here and thanks to everyone for the retweets and tweets in support as it makes such a difference (please keep on following our social media and sign up to our email alerts for future online support).

D and her daughter had only been given a weeks notice from the council that they would be evicted. Due to this short notice, they had not been able to get an appointment at the Citizens Advice Bureau. The eviction was due to rent arrears caused by problems with Universal Credit. D had been in touch previously with the council and they were aware that she had taken steps to deal with the arrears. D is a single parent who does not speak English as her first language. So why were the council being so quick to evict her?

This attempted eviction is not a one-off case. Threats of eviction from temporary accommodation due to rent arrears has become a familiar problem in our group. We have supported 5 other members with this problem this year. There must be many more people who our group has not met who are affected by this problem. One of these families was forced to leave her home but was re-housed the same day after we supported her at the housing office – during the move from one temporary accommodation to the other, her 3 year old daughter broke her leg. Homeless households are already a vulnerable group. Why are Southwark council being so quick to evict them?

Problems with universal credit, low paid and insecure work, and high temporary accommodation rents all mean that it is very easy to fall into rent arrears. Instead of evicting people, homeless households need support to deal with these problems. No one should be evicted from temporary accommodation.

As well as being wrong, we think that some of these eviction threats by Southwark council may be unlawful as the council have told families in temporary accommodation flats that they must leave, but the council have not got a court order which can be required for some types of temporary accommodation.

We are calling on Southwark council to stop all evictions from temporary accommodation and give support to homeless households who are in rent arrears. Homeless families need secure, quality, council homes not evictions!

Funding Drive! We need 100 supporters!

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Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth and our sister group, Haringey Housing Action Group, (together making up the London Coalition Against Poverty) are in need of funds. As two active grassroots groups we currently have over a 100 active members who are learning our rights, helping each other to enforce these, providing vital moral support, and organising collective actions and campaigns. Through our years of organising in north and south London we have built up really strong support networks that organise practical support on housing and other poverty issues on a daily basis. However, as we have grown so have our costs, and we currently spend £5000 a year for our basic running costs of hall hire, refreshments and leaflet printing.

To cover these costs we want to sign 100 people up to standing orders of £1 a week (or £4 a month). We could try and raise this by charging membership fees, but our members are already struggling with rent arrears, Universal Credit delays, high rents and low paid work. We encourage our members to support our group by their active involvement in running the group and this is really effective and how we have been able to achieve so many important wins. That’s why we want to find 100 supporters to pay the equivalent of fees, so our members don’t have that extra problem.

We provide long-term support and solidarity on housing and poverty problems for each other. To continue doing this, we need this long-term sustainable funding!

If you would like to set up a standing order with us please email haslfinance@gmail.com and we’ll send you our bank details. We’ll also ask you to confirm whether you would like to receive our email newsletter which we send out every 2 months or so.

Please share this message with others and help us get 100 people signed up!

Southwark council, don’t evict our member F, a survivor of domestic violence

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Southwark council pledged to improve their treatment and provision for vulnerable survivors of domestic violence, yet one of our members F is facing street homelessness again after Southwark council have refused her a full homeless duty and are ending her temporary accommodation next week.
Our member F suffered domestic abuse for 5 years, she then faced months of sofa surfing and a year and a half in 5 different unsuitable hostels. She does not speak English and she suffers from a number of medical problems which she has struggled to get treatment for due to language and cultural barriers. Yet the council have deemed her not to be vulnerable enough for a full homeless duty.
Southwark’s approach to domestic violence survivors is made clear in this statement in the decision letter:
I have considered that you have previously been a victim of domestic abuse; I do not however consider this would render you vulnerable.
A number of other similar broad and unsubstantiated statements are made about how F is not vulnerable, despite us submitting detailed information about the many vulnerabilities she faces and deals with every day.
If a survivor of domestic violence is not considered to be vulnerable, there is something very wrong with the test that Southwark council are using.
Why is Southwark council not taking domestic violence seriously? Why are they still failing to support survivors? How can they justify making our member street homeless?
F must be given the full homeless duty that she needs so that she has some stability and security. She must be able to access the safe, secure council housing that she needs and deserves.
Southwark must support all survivors of domestic violence and support them to get the safe, secure housing they need.
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Some first thoughts on the Homelessness Reduction Act

On 3rd April 2018, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 came into force across England.

The Homelessness Reduction Act brings significant changes to the assistance that homeless people will receive from their local council. Under the old homelessness law, single homeless people were often not given any help. This new law is supposed to change that.

However, under the old law we know that many families and individuals who were entitled to assistance were turned away without any help – a practice called gatekeeping.

Will this new law change the culture of gatekeeping that we’ve faced (and challenged!) in the housing office? Will the Homelessness Reduction Act really reduce homelessness?

We know what will reduce homelessness – secure, quality council homes in our communities for everyone, higher wages, higher benefits and an end to racist rules and immigration controls (including Right to Rent, No Recourse to Public Funds, restrictions on EEA benefits being some we’re familiar with).

Unfortunately, the Homelessness Reduction Act doesn’t include any of these. There are really basic homeless law changes that could actually help reduce homelessness such as abolishing priority need which Scotland have done and phasing out intentional homelessness as Wales are doing but it doesn’t even include these good steps.

So what does the Homelessness Reduction Act mean and how does it work?

We’re still trying to understand it fully. There’s a flowchart here which is a useful starting point.

We certainly had strong criticisms of the old homelessness law and process. Many of us in the group have had very bad experiences of it. But trying to understand the HRA makes us miss the fairy simple old homeless law and process.

Our experiences so far of the HRA has included Southwark council’s trial of it over the last year, a homelessness assessment at Lambeth’s housing office and a workshop we attended by Doughty Street Chambers. All of these experiences have given us some deep concerns about the HRA.

There are a number of changes that we believe make things much worse for homeless people under the Homelessness Reduction Act and we are very worried about their impact:

More stress for homeless people – Personalised Housing Plans are patronising

The Personalised Housing Plan that every homeless person must follow is deeply patronising. It brings in the harmful conditionality that has been running out of job centres where the blame and responsibility is placed on the claimant/homeless person. During this severe housing crisis, homelessness law is placing responsibility on homeless people to solve homelessness themselves. Homeless people often visit the housing office as a last resort after exhausting all their other options. As if being homeless wasn’t difficult enough, as if people haven’t done everything to prevent their homelessness already, they are being given extra tasks under threat of sanction.

Under the old law homeless families could get interim/ temporary housing from the council – alongside this, if they wished, they could look for alternative housing completely voluntarily, so the PHP simply acts as a coercive and patronising tool.

Worse rights for homeless people – 6 month private tenancies create a cycle of homelessness and poverty

The new law allows the council to discharge their duty to a homeless household with a section 193A offer. This is a 6 month private tenancy. This offer is far worse than the previous private sector discharge offer that a council could force on a homeless household under the old law. Under the old law, a council could discharge their homeless duty by offering a 12 month private sector tenancy with 2 years protection if they became homeless again. This private sector tenancy had to meet a list of criteria to make sure it was decent quality. If the household became homeless within 2 years of the start of the tenancy, then they would have an automatic homeless duty with the council.

6 month private sector tenancies for homeless households is the exact opposite of what homeless households need – after enduring homelessness, you need security that you will not face this again. Secure council tenancies provide this. A 6 month private tenancy means that homeless households will face a cycle of homelessness, insecurity and poverty.

The new law is even more complicated than the old law

The new homelessness process and law is not easy to understand. Flow charts appear to be the favored way to explain it, it is much more complicated than the previous law. These flow charts show many routes and options – but getting to secure, quality council housing looks further away than ever before. Before, we were able to use our clear and simple leaflet with the 5 tests that a council would do to investigate for your case. Whilst the old law was still difficult to understand, it was simple enough that we could know and share our basic rights. We have certainly struggled to get our heads around the new law.

Slowing down and drawing out an already difficult process

Under the old law, the council had 33 working days to investigate a case and make a decision on whether the applicant was owed a full homeless duty. Now, if you are homeless, the council have 56 days under the relief duty to investigate your case and come to a decision. This increased wait will simply mean more stress and delays for the homeless household awaiting their decision.

Some positive developments?

Of course, ensuring that everyone who approaches the council as homeless or facing homelessness gets help is a welcome development. Although under the old law, the council did have a duty to provide ‘advice and assistance’ to anyone who approached as homeless. Most councils just regularly chose to gatekeep single homeless applicants instead from this duty.

The new law also possibly provides better support for those households who are in priority need and deemed ‘intentionally homeless’ as a duty under section 190(2) arise. Although again under the old law councils were supposed to give households a reasonable amount of time to find other accommodation. Nearly Legal confirms that the new law ‘potentially’ gives households more time than under the old law.

What’s been happening in Southwark who piloted the Homelessness Reduction Act?

Southwark council explain their pilot of the Homelessness Reduction Act

Southwark council were featured in a Guardian article on the Homelessness Reduction Act. They explain the ‘positive effects’ of the Homelessness Reduction Act in the borough:

  • Numbers of households being put up in temporary homes have halved in a year, and the use of unsuitable and expensive bed and breakfast accommodation has been eliminated.

The dramatic halving of households provided with temporary accommodation cannot be denied, but how exactly was this achieved? What has happened to those families now? (By the looks of it they have been housed out of borough in private rented housing – see next bullet point.)

Before the HRA the council had been able to avoid the use of B&B accommodation to house homeless families. It was only in June 2016 when the council first started using B&Bs. Before this they had not used B&B accommodation at all for homeless families. It is already unlawful to house families in B&B accommodation for over 6 weeks (and the law says that councils should do everything they can to avoid housing families in B&Bs at all) so homeless households already had protection against this and Southwark should not have been housing families in B&B accommodation.

  • People threatened with homelessness were helped to find homes in the private rental sector – though this was often many miles away in outer London boroughs.

Housing people outside of their communities in private rented accommodation cannot be seen as a positive effect. This is social cleansing. Being re-housed in outer boroughs also means that they will no longer be entitled to be on Southwark’s housing waiting list so that they will not stand a chance of moving back to their home borough in council housing. Southwark council says that 358 households were placed in private rented accommodation (although it does not say whether this was in or outside of the borough). These families will have missed out on the protections afforded to them that you do have in temporary accommodation with a homeless duty (for example, the ability to review suitability of temporary accommodation, immediate rehousing if the temporary accommodation private landlord wants you out, ‘reasonable preference’ on the housing register and certain standards in the quality of the private rented accommodation with private sector discharge).

  • The borough provided mediation to rehouse young people at home after they had been thrown out by their family following a row.

What was the quality of this mediation? Was it really effective or did young people just give up on pursuing a homeless duty? Young people cannot remain in their family home forever and often family tensions and rows arise from being forced to live together, something mediation cannot resolve.

  • In some cases it paid off tenants’ rent areas.

This is of course a positive thing.

  • In the first year Southwark topped up the £1m government grant it received to test the new system with £750,000 of its own cash.

Depending on the true outcomes for homeless households and those threatened with homelessness that will determine whether this was money spent in support for vulnerable families or gatekeeping and socially cleansing them.

Our experiences of the Homelessness Reduction Act in Southwark

Same old gatekeeping – reducing homelessness by pretending it doesn’t exist?

Our member M approached the council as homeless. M and her family were living in M’s mother’s flat. The two families were very overcrowded living together in the small flat and M’s mother asked her to leave. M approached the council to make a homeless application, but they told her that they could not open a homeless application until after 56 days had passed.

J and his family faced a similar situation living at J’s mother in law flat which was two small to house both families. J, his wife and his two children all share a single room. The stress of the situation lead J’s mother in law to ask his family to leave. They made a homeless appointment with the council but again it seemed the housing officer was reluctant to open a homeless application. They were told that they could remain in their current housing situation while they looked for other places to live. The housing officer suggested that they have mediation between J and his mother in law so that J’s family could remain in the home. Since the first homelessness appointment, J heard nothing from the housing officer (despite making a complaint about this) and 3 months have passed.

Our member F made her homeless application in October last year when the council were trialling the Homelessness Reduction Act, yet she heard nothing from the council about her application for months. When she faced eviction from her hostel this April, it took a twitter storm before the council would confirm temporary accommodation for her.

We have been supporting all of these members with their cases.

Another HASL member met a young street homeless man on the street. He was a care leaver. He told her he had been to the housing office for help but was turned away.

What can we do?

We’ll be organising leafleting sessions to speak with people about their experiences of getting housing help from the council and we’re also organising a Homelessness Reduction Act workshop with Southwark Law Centre to learn our rights together.

Join your local housing action group to support each other with housing problems and fight together for the good quality, secure homes in our communities that we all need and deserve! The Homelessness Reduction Act won’t reduce homelessness, it’s up to us!

HASL protest in support of Ruben and all Lambeth families living in bad housing

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No more overcrowded housing – we need family council homes now!

Our member Ruben and his family have been living in overcrowded private rented housing for 5 years. Today marks the 5th anniversary of when he first joined the housing register hoping to access secure and spacious council housing in their local community. But 5 years on and they are still waiting for the council home they need and deserve while Lambeth ignore vital medical evidence about his son’s health.

Ruben has submitted medical evidence to the council about his son’s health condition. This evidence shows that the overcrowded living conditions are making his son’s health worse. But Lambeth are ignoring this important evidence. They have also failed to respond to his complaint at the handling of his case.

This morning we visited Lambeth’s new Civic Centre to show our support for Ruben and his family and to demand that the council recognise the medical evidence they have submitted. Many of the families who joined us are also suffering from poor housing conditions and our protest highlighted the need for secure council housing for everyone.

The presence of our large group, big banners and chanting meant that a senior housing officer came to speak with us about Ruben’s case. Ruben spoke very powerfully about the impact of the overcrowding on his son. The housing officer has promised to review their case so we are waiting on their response. We made our message clear:

Lambeth council must accept this vital medical evidence which should see the family placed in band B.

We shared cake marking the 5th anniversary of Ruben’s time on the housing register – as well as HASL’s 5th birthday! We also spoke with lots of interested and supportive passersby.

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We know many other families are facing long and unacceptable waits for the council homes they need. We know that overcrowded and poor quality housing has huge and damaging affects on our lives, our health and our communities.

Shamefully, Lambeth council have only built 17 new council homes in the last 4 years and at the same time they have been trying to knock down a number of council estates. This is a disastrous housing policy in the middle of a severe housing crisis.

Get involved in Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth to take action together for the good quality, secure, spacious council homes we all need.

Southwark must support survivors – house F now

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When F went to Southwark housing office in September 2017 for the second time to ask for a homeless assessment, she was given this instead. Unlawful gatekeeping.

UPDATA 30th ARPIL 2018: Our member F was housed in temporary accommodation by Southwark council. She is very happy in her temporary accommodation because the location is close to her community and she has use of her own bathroom for the first time in almost 2 years. But the council have still not confirmed a full homeless duty for her. They must  give F the peace of mind and security of a full homeless duty where she can then bid for secure council housing. Southwark council must support survivors.

Original post:

Our member F was made homeless by domestic violence. When she visited Southwark housing office for help she was gatekept on two occasions – turned away without any housing assistance. With our help, she was finally able to open a homeless application, but 6 months later the council have failed to give a decision letter or temporary accommodation, leaving her threatened with street homelessness this month.

Southwark council’s treatment of our member, a vulnerable survivor of domestic violence, is unacceptable. F does not have English as a first language, a factor that is often used by housing officers when refusing help and which makes her more vulnerable in general as it harder for her to access basic support services. She suffers from a number of health issues and is experiencing severe stress and anxiety caused by homelessness. The council’s unlawful gatekeeping and delays has meant that she has been forced to live in unsuitable hostel accommodation for the last year and a half. During this time, one hostel she was staying in evicted everyone with days notice and she was forced to move to another.

If the council had acted when she first approached for help in October 2016, she might have been in secure council housing by now, instead, she is fearing street homelessness yet again.

The council must accept a full homeless duty and provide her with suitable temporary accommodation.

The council must also seriously reflect and investigate how F came to be so seriously mistreated in this way over this last year and a half. This gatekeeping and mistreatment has had a devastating impact on F’s life for the last year and a half.

We know that F is not the only person to face gatekeeping and poor treatment at the housing office. Southwark council must take urgent action to end unlawful gatekeeping of vulnerable homeless people and ensure they are treated respectfully so that a situation like this does not occur again.