16 Dec 2022

Dispelling myths about migrants and housing

Migrants are often blamed for housing shortages, but the truth is they stand less of a chance of getting social housing than people born in the UK. This blog details some of the common myths we hear about migrants’ housing rights that are untrue or only partially true, to dispell the myths with facts.

  • Migrants have a right to social housing

New migrants arriving in the UK aren’t eligible for social housing except in very limited circumstances (e.g. a spouse forced to leave home because of domestic violence). Most people who come to the UK on visas to work or study have ‘no recourse to public funds’ and can’t receive benefits or get help with their housing. In any case, many councils now have ‘local connection’ rules which favour longstanding residents in their allocations policies, rather than newcomers such as migrants. So migrants generally have less ‘right’ to a social home than people born in the UK, and often have far less chance of getting one even if they are eligible.

  • Without migration, Britain’s housing problems would be solved

Of course, migration adds to housing demand. Over the next ten years, the Office of National Statistics projects that more than two million people will migrate to the UK. However, because births exceed deaths, population is still expected to grow by only about three per cent in a decade. In other words, without migration the population would decline. However, the gap between supply and demand is so big that even if migration stopped completely, new house building would still fall well short of what’s required.

Recent headlines point out that migration over the last year hit record levels. About 504,000 more people are estimated to have moved to the UK than left in the year to June 2022, up sharply from 173,000 in the year before and nearly double the previous record. However, this was an unusual period, with travel recovering after the pandemic, more international students arriving, and exceptional numbers of refugees being welcomed to the UK from Hong Kong and Ukraine.

  • Migrants without permission to stay can still ‘access everything they need’

This phrase was used by a past Home Secretary in a newspaper interview. But migrants now face document checks in England before they get tenancies. The same applies when they use the NHS, they go for a job or open a bank account. Migrants trying to regularise their documents must overcome formidable legal obstacles and pay massive fees. This so-called hostile environment aims to deter undocumented migrants, but it in practice it affects all migrants and even British citizens such as those who don’t have passports, as we saw with the ‘Windrush’ scandal when thousands of people who had lived here most of their lives, lost jobs, their homes, and their benefits.

  • Asylum seekers and refugees get free council housing

People who apply for asylum get very limited help from the state. If they are ‘destitute’ they get free accommodation, now provided by private companies like Serco and normally in older properties leased from landlords. They can’t get council housing nor are they allowed to work. They get just £40 per week to pay for food and all their expenses.

Asylum seekers who are accepted as refugees are eligible for social housing, but few succeed in getting it because they have a maximum of 28 days to leave their asylum accommodation and arrange all their paperwork. They are given five years permission to stay in the UK and often are (wrongly) discriminated against because they only have limited, not indefinite, leave to remain.

Only the small numbers of refugees who come direct to the UK on special schemes (like some Syrians resettled from refugee camps and those evacuated from Afghanistan) get social housing – and even then, they may spend long periods in hotels beforehand.

  • Migrants put a strain on public services like housing

The Migration Observatory has collated all the evidence on whether migrants pay more in taxes than they receive in services, and almost every study shows that they do. And despite the growth in the percentage of people in the UK who were born abroad, foreign nationals still account for only 8% of new lettings made by social landlords. Of course, the percentage is higher in places where more migrants live, but the overall picture is that nine out of ten new lettings go to British nationals.

One factor to bear in mind is that new house building, care services and many other parts of the economy depend heavily on migrant workers. Tougher migration policies might make it more difficult to solve Britain’s housing problems, not less.

Don’t fall for the myths, use the CIH and BME National housing rights website and read our quarterly bulletins to stay up to date.

Written by John Perry

John is a policy advisor here at the Chartered Institute of Housing. He edits the UK Housing Review and also advises on a wide range of subjects including planning, local authority finance, plus much more. John is a chartered CIH member.