Lambeth council has reversed a controversial policy on housing for homeless people shortly before it was due to be challenged in court. The move could have national implications.
Lambeth council said that, under the scheme, homeless people seeking housing from it were helped to secure private rented accommodation.
HASL and PILC said that the council encouraged homeless families to withdraw applications for council housing and move into temporary private accommodation by offering them higher priority for social housing.
However, if the private accommodation was outside the borough, after two years the families were removed from the council’s register of people needing housing. Even in the higher priority category, the wait for council accommodation in Lambeth – and many other boroughs – is five years or more.
“We suspect that Lambeth council may … have designed the policy with a view to denying applicants their housing rights,” HASL and PILC said in a statement.
It added that, unlike council accommodation, there is no legal requirement for the Temp2Settled accommodation to be “suitable”.
Some families found themselves in poor accommodation miles from their community in Lambeth and under threat of eviction, leading to problems with physical and mental health.
PILC solicitor Helen Mowatt said: “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 that 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.”
Mowatt said the case was an important victory for the hundreds of families affected by the scheme.
“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,” she said.
Lambeth council said the scheme, which began in 2013, was “voluntary” and had helped more than 1,300 people secure private rented accommodation, of whom more than 400 had gone on to secure permanent social rented housing.
“Helping people in finding private rented accommodation is common practice among local authorities and stopping it would leave more families in temporary accommodation and for longer,” the council said.
It said its services to homeless people “go beyond the minimum legal requirements in many instances”.
But it agreed that “we did not make it sufficiently clear to applicants that if they moved out of Lambeth that they were unlikely to secure social housing because they would only be able to remain on the housing list for two years before losing their local connection.
A council spokesperson said: “There is huge pressure on the availability of social housing in Lambeth and we work hard to ensure the limited supply of council homes are given to those with the highest need.
“The private rented sector can provide a suitable alternative in many cases.
“We accept that some elements of the scheme could have been better explained and we apologise to former applicants. We will now amend this and contact former applicants in due course.
“Lambeth remains proud of having a very good homeless prevention service, which helps hundreds of people a year find suitable homes.
“Our homelessness strategy, record investment in new home building and our work on private sector housing regulation shows that Lambeth continues to strive to make sure our residents always have a roof over their heads despite the current housing crisis.”
Changes that will be made for homeless people accepting housing in the private sector include:
• Removing the two-year time limit on all existing cases of this type
• Removing the two-year time limit for all new cases of this type
• Reinstating all applications closed due to the two-year rule
• Reviewing the overall operation of the scheme.
The council said that, by law, local authorities are able to offer private rented accommodation without the person’s agreement, adding: “In Lambeth this is normally a voluntary option to achieve this solution to housing those in need.”
It said that many other boroughs use similar approaches.
‘Council officers cannot continue to treat us like we are just numbers which they need to reduce at any cost‘
The court challenge would have been based on the experiences of four claimants.
One of the four said: “I first encountered Lambeth council’s ‘Temp2Settled’ Scheme when I became homeless in 2017 and was at my most vulnerable.
“The council’s 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 three 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 the 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 under the radar, 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.”