Stories behind the stats – what’s really going on behind the homelessness figures?
The leading cause of homelessness in England is private rented sector tenancies coming to an end – but why? CIH policy and practice research officer Yoric Irving-Clarke explores the stories behind the data.
The proportion of homeless households citing the ending of an assured shorthold tenancy with a private landlord as the reason they lost their home now stands at 30 per cent. This figure has almost tripled from 11 per cent in 2009 – less than 10 years ago. But what the data doesn’t tell us are the reasons why these tenancies are being ended – so CIH spoke to a sample group of local authorities across England to find out what was happening on the ground.
As you might expect the answers we got were varied and the situation was not the same in every council. However, there were some common themes running through the responses. All the councils we spoke to told us that the situation with homelessness was getting worse – particularly in the last 18 months. Some had not used bed and breakfast for months or years but were now being forced to in order to house homeless families and other priority need cases. All the authorities we spoke to were finding that that the volume of approaches they were dealing with were such that they struggled to be pro-active in taking action to prevent homelessness – although the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 will force them to do so.
We also found that for most of the authorities we spoke to local housing allowance (LHA) rates were not meeting the actual cost of some private sector rents. CIH has published research on the gap between LHA rates and private sector rents and on the 50 areas where the gap is the largest. The shared accommodation rate (where help with housing costs for under 35s is limited to the amount they would receive if they rented a room in a shared house) is causing particular problems in most areas, meaning the impact on younger people is more pronounced. This will get worse now that 18-21 year olds have lost the automatic right to claim help towards their housing costs.
There were also issues relating to the housing market generally. Pressures that were once unique to London are spreading to other parts of the country. Landlords looking to increase rental yields are moving out of London and buying properties in cheaper areas. This is distorting the market in those areas and pricing low income households out of the sector. Unable to resolve their housing situations, they are forced to approach their local authorities for assistance.
And people who rely on housing and other benefits are increasingly seen as a high risk for private landlords who can easily let their properties to households who can afford the rents. Increasing house prices are locking these people out of ownership.
The research also highlighted the varied approaches taken by local authorities and the very different positions they now find themselves in as a result. For example, one council had in the past invested in hostels and temporary accommodation that were now largely defunct due to cuts to the Supporting People programme and local authority funding generally. This made dealing with homelessness in the area problematic. Another authority had invested in leasing large numbers of homes from private landlords. While it was still experiencing problems with housing the increasing number of homeless households, staff remained confident that they have a solution for some, as well as a strategy for providing further housing for homeless households.
Lastly, the research highlighted some strong examples of innovative approaches to dealing with the increases in homelessness. These ranged from working with private sector landlords to prevent homelessness or to house homeless households, to converting disused office blocks into accommodation. This was also sometimes linked to providing accommodation for under 35s under the shared accommodation rate.
Despite these difficulties, we found that all the local authorities were engaging with the issues and, in many cases, carrying out prevention work to keep people in their homes. Given that the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 is now law and once implemented will place a statutory responsibility on local authorities to prevent or relieve homelessness, it was heartening to find authorities “ahead of the curve” in this regard.
My colleagues Terrie Alafat and Faye Greaves have rightly branded current homelessness levels a national disgrace. We’re calling on the government to use the Autumn Budget to make sure that councils have the resources they need to carry out their new duties under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, and also to establish an expanded ‘Housing First’ programme aimed at halving rough sleeping by 2022 and ending it by 2027.
These findings only strengthen those calls, as well as the case for more investment in genuinely affordable housing. They also highlight both the diversity of local housing markets and the importance of allowing councils the freedom to find solutions to suit local need.