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.”

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