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.


Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.