May 19 2022

Coronavirus, overcrowding, mutual aid and legal battles

Coronavirus, overcrowding, mutual aid and legal battles

Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth is a group of families and individuals struggling with homelessness and other bad housing, such as severely overcrowded private rented accommodation. We support each other with our housing problems and we take action together for the safe, secure, good quality council homes we all need and deserve – and we are continuing to find new ways to do this during the pandemic. This April is also the group’s seventh birthday.

Overcrowding was a serious public health crisis before the coronavirus hit. Welfare cuts, sky high private rents, and the sell-off and cuts to social housing has meant that families are forced to rent single rooms in shared houses, tiny studio flats, or maybe a one-bedroom flat in the unfit for purpose private rented sector. These cramped conditions cause serious physical and mental health problems, with many families enduring these conditions for years. A GP wrote a letter for one family about how the cramped conditions were affecting their toddler’s physical development. Another family have a daughter aged seven who has lived in statutory overcrowded housing (a legal definition of severe overcrowding last updated in 1935 that the last Labour government said needed to be improved because the threshold is so high to reach) her entire life.

Now research confirms what is obvious and what families in overcrowded housing have been fearful of since the coronavirus – that they are at greater risk of coronavirus as overcrowded households. Rebecca is a 17 year old from Southwark who lives in a studio flat with her brother and parents. The family’s living space, bedroom and kitchen are all in one room with a separate small bathroom. Her dad is still going to work each day as a cleaner at a shopping centre and the family are terrified that he will catch coronavirus. She explains that he was ill two weeks ago with body pain, no energy and diarrhoea. There was nowhere for him to self-isolate. Now her mother is ill with similar symptoms, ‘we don’t know where she can go for isolation and we are worried that it is coronavirus’.

This is on top of suffering from some of the worst lockdown conditions where overcrowded households are now trapped 24/7 in already unbearable living conditions. The debate about access to parks two weeks ago in the mainstream media reminded some that not everyone has access to gardens and spacious and comfortable homes. Speaking with Rebeca before coronavirus, she explained that she would go to the gym and volunteer at the local Park Run in order to relax and escape the flat. ‘It is so stressful, my head cannot focus. I have to just go outside the flat to get some air to deal with the stress because the flat is too small, I cannot think in there.’ Now she no longer has these options. ‘Me and my brother are stressed, we can’t do much at home and we are all together in one room, we don’t have space where we can relax.’

The scale and severity of overcrowding in London is huge and it’s a problem that also goes beyond London to the rest of the country as well. A recent report showed that 3.6 million people are living in overcrowded housing. With 94% of private rented homes being too expensive for families on housing benefit, people are forced to rent housing far smaller than their needs and from whatever dodgy and exploitative landlord will rent to them. Overcrowding in the private rented sector has almost doubled due to these housing benefit cuts. HASL families explain that when they are trying to find housing, private landlords refuse to rent to them because they claim benefits and because they have children.

One of our members, Freddy, explained:

‘We want to rent a two-bedroom apartment but it is very expensive and the agencies ask you for many documents, and they ask us what you work for, how much you earn, how many hours you work. If you have benefits we cannot rent you. Why so much inequality?…And there are people who take advantage of us, there are private agents and they take £500 commissions. It’s not fair. Everyone has the right to have a normal life.’

Many of our members are migrant families who will also face racist discrimination from private landlords. This has been reinforced by the government’s racist right to rent scheme which has made renting even more difficult for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic and migrant households. The consequences of the discrimination faced by BAME households accessing housing is shown in the disgraceful statistic that while only 2% of White British households are overcrowded, 30% of Bangladeshi households and 15% of Black African households are.

While individuals face numerous barriers and discrimination trying to navigate the private rented housing market, local authorities with paid staff, time and resources, including ludicrous landlord ‘incentives’, are unable to secure suitable accommodation with more and more families being housed in temporary accommodation that is overcrowded.

Whilst the government initially made a big deal about a three month eviction ban and providing homes for every rough sleeper, nothing more has been said on protecting and supporting homeless and vulnerably housed people. The government has so far completely ignored urgent plans and reports detailing the support needed for both overcrowded households and homeless people living in hostels. The funding provided so far is inadequate. This current situation is so far away from the urgent overhaul of the welfare state that is needed. While on the ground it is business as usual for some local authorities as the gatekeeping of rough sleepers continues, councils churn out negative decision letters, and go to considerable lengths to deny overcrowded families the assistance they need.

One of these negative decision letters was issued to Rebecca’s family by Southwark Council in the midst of the coronavirus. Written by the housing officer from the comfort of their home, whilst Rebecca’s dad still goes out to work as a cleaner, the letter confirmed that the council believes that the family deliberately caused their overcrowding for renting somewhere that they knew was too small for them. The decision places them at the bottom of the housing register with no hope of ever getting social housing. After suffering discrimination in the private rented sector, leaving the family with no other option than to rent a studio flat, the council simply reinforces this discrimination. With the root causes of overcrowding being so obvious, and particularly the additional barriers that migrant families face, it is impossible to understand why the council are instead placing the blame on individual families.

A number of migrant families in our group have received similar decisions blaming them for overcrowding. This treatment of overcrowded families is unacceptable anytime, it just feels even more surreal during a global pandemic. Rebecca highlights herself how their treatment by the council feels targeted and racist:

‘I feel really bad because it is like the treatment of us is racist, they are being really strict to us, they don’t care about the family. Sometimes it feels like really embarrassing for us to apply for housing. We are immigrants so applying for housing makes us feels embarrassed, every time they say no to us, you cannot apply for housing. But we feel like Southwark is our home.’

Around the corner from the family’s studio flat is Elephant Park with rows of family-sized homes sitting empty. This was the site of the former Heygate council estate.

Freddy’s family are also statutory overcrowded with the family of 4 living in a small 1 bedroom flat. Freddy’s son gives a tour of the tiny flat on his mobile phone. The family’s lives and hobbies are crammed into the tiny space. He points out that stuff is everywhere even though the family have made creative storage solutions. There is not an inch of space that isn’t storing something, clothes, school books, karate kit. A keyboard takes up half the corridor. He explains that the family have to ‘squeeze’ through the corridor navigating these obstacles. The home is also full of damp which Freddy’s son explains affects him as he has asthma. He spends time showing us the medicine cabinet with his asthma inhaler.

Before the lockdown Freddy explained the difficulties of living in such cramped conditions:

‘When they get home my children do not have a place to do their homework, I have a small table, they both start to discuss, and I have to tell them one to do at the table and the other in bed, so the fight starts and my son says: I want a room and a place where I can do my homework. I understand their anger that they are 14 years old and they need their space … at night when they went to bed to sleep, they sleep together in a bed because there is no space at all sides.’

Now under lockdown, Freddy’s children must do all their school work at home. In order to create more space for his children to do this, Freddy has thrown away the sofa bed that used to be in the living room to create more study space. With the sofa bed gone, Freddy and his partner now sleep on the floor. And the family no longer have a sofa to relax on. Freddy’s son remarks how he misses the sofa.

Southwark council have also decided that the overcrowding is Freddy’s fault, reducing their position on the housing waiting list and denying them the chance of a quick move to permanent housing. We have been supporting the family to challenge the council’s bizarre decision and their case is due to be heard in the High Court this Wednesday. Due to the Coronavirus, the hearing will be remote. Does Southwark, a Labour council, really think that it is an acceptable use of public resources during this crisis to go to court to deny a severely overcrowded family urgent re-housing?

These families are long-term members of the group who have worked tirelessly on their cases for the last two years, trying to prove that they did not choose to live in overcrowded housing. They have had to navigate the distressing decisions and the difficult legal process to get this far. As they do not speak English as their first language, this has been an added difficulty that they have encountered. They have listened to, supported and interpreted for other families in similar situations in the group. In more ordinary circumstances overcrowded families struggle to access the good quality council homes they need, now in this pandemic, as their housing situations are even more unsafe, they face being completely ignored by the government who feels no need to address this hidden homelessness.

Our demands for good quality, safe, secure council homes for everyone, and especially 3, 4, 5 bed family-sized council homes seem further away than ever right now. But this does not mean that other urgent action cannot be taken to support overcrowded families through the coronavirus crisis. While new council housing cannot be built, England’s 200,000 plus many empty homes should be reclaimed and used to house people in decent conditions. In our neighbourhoods in south London, what looks like thousands of homes lie empty on new private developments as well as council estates earmarked for demolition. Other vital steps include undoing the housing benefit cuts and caps which have caused overcrowding and hardship for the poorest renters over the last decade. The Local Housing Allowance cap on housing benefit needs to be completely removed to ensure people can stay in their homes and allow families to afford bigger housing, a vital short term measure until there are enough council homes. Ending right to buy to protect the current and future housing stock is a simple measure that could be taken immediately. As we regularly see, councils are effective gatekeepers of homeless people, it’s time they used these tactics to stop the sell-off of council homes. Immigration rules such as No Recourse to Public Funds must be removed to ensure that everyone has access to decent housing.

We want our local councils to support residents suffering the most overcrowded conditions, the blame game we have seen must stop immediately. And a true commitment to council housing from both central and local government must be made clear, with the most vulnerably housed being prioritised to make sure that overcrowded households, those in temporary accommodation and others suffering poor housing conditions do not have to endure them a moment longer.