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.’

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