Britain faces an epidemic of homelessness. It should fix private renting

The most ironic image in our photo archive. Image: Getty.

The Hudson family lived in the same house on the outskirts of London for 13 years, which they rented privately from the supermarket Tesco. The rent increased, but only gradually. Then, one day, they received the letter that would change their lives drastically. Tesco was selling off its assets, including their home. 

The family – a single, working mother and two daughters – tried to find a new home. But rents in the neighbourhood had risen dramatically. Suddenly, they no longer had a roof over their heads.

This is the story of homelessness in the 21st century. A report from the Communities and Government select committee published over the summer found a that a major cause of the increase in homelessness is simply a rental contract coming to the end. As it noted: “Once an Assured Shorthold Tenancy has ended, tenants are often unable to find anywhere that they can afford.”

Not so long ago, low-paid families aspired to one day buy their own home and put down roots. Now they are haunted by homelessness. In 2005, about the time the Hudson family moved into their home, just 13 per cent of households accepted by local authorities as homeless had become so due to a contract ending. In 2015, that figure had risen to 30 per cent. “In many areas of the country, rents are increasing far faster than tenants’ ability to pay,” the report found. 

The problem is exacerbated by welfare reforms. Payments may be cut, but the rent still rises. While the government used to pay housing benefit direct to private landlords, it is trying to leave this responsibility up to the tenant. But fears of unpaid rent mean landlords are now shunning such would-be renters.

If we are not panicking about this homelessness epidemic, it is probably because it is still mainly invisible. Those tenants unable to afford another rented property don't hunker down on the street with a sleeping bag. They sleep on sofas, travel from one night shelter to another, or ride the night bus until dawn breaks.

And in the morning, the kids go to school. Shelter spoke to teachers in London schools, who said that while only five or 10 years ago, they knew which children were experiencing homelessness, it was now impossible to predict.

As Kate Webb told the committee: “It is people with stable but low-paid jobs, and they are now in the situation where they cannot assume that the children they are teaching have a bed to sleep in. That has become commonplace.”

When it comes to the housing crisis, the government has kept its focus relentlessly on the sunny uplands of buying your own affordable “starter” home, where affordable means up to £250,000, or £450,000 in London. As this report underlines, this approach is deeply out of touch. Home ownership rates have been falling – in London, where the Hudsons live, just one in three own their own home. While there is room to help first-time buyers, the reality is that Generation Rent is going to keep its name for many years to come. 

More social housing needs to be built, but given the sluggish rate at which private homes are built, this could take years. In the meantime, the government could reform the private renting sector, and borrow some proposals from a long-forgotten Labour leader. 

Ed Miliband's was widely reported as demanding “rent controls”. In fact, he proposed a fairly modest arrangement where families could agree a cap on rent hikes in the duration of a three-year tenancy (most rental contracts today are only six months or a year). He also proposed banning letting agent fees, which are often arbitrary and can erode tenants' deposits by hundreds of thousands of pounds. In Scotland, these fees are already banned. 

Finally, the government could allow more working tenants to request that housing benefit is paid directly to landlords. Fine words about “responsibility” mean little to a family turned away from every landlord they approach.

Reforming the private rental sector alone won't eliminate homelessness. But it could mean more kids coming to school after a night in their own bed, not a stranger's sofa. And that would be a start. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of the Staggers, where this post was originally published.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.