Ben Reeve Lewis takes a look at what it takes to rehouse residential who have lost their home in an emergency.
While the anger over Grenfell Tower continues and the gap between rich and poor, government and people is thrown into very hard and sharp focus by the incident, calls are being made on the homelessness unit of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) to not only rehouse people but to rehouse them locally.
More than a few MPs and community spokespeople have been insisting on it and brand new housing minister Alok Sharma went further and actually pledged that everyone will stay local. A bold claim, so I thought I would step back from the understandable emotion and crowd-pleasing speeches to write about the practicalities of how this is supposed to work.
Let me start with the legal procedures.
The legal procedures for homelessness applications
Homelessness applications are dealt with under Part VII of the Housing Act 1996.
Applicants have 5 tests applied to their life and circumstances. If they pass all 5 tests then the council will owe what is called “The full housing duty”, which in essence means the council have the responsibility to find them somewhere to live.
The council has to make thorough enquiries including examining documents which many will no longer have and the whole process, despite having guidance that it should take no longer than 33 days, often takes many months and in the case of a crisis where a sudden inrush of emergency cases knocks on the Part VII door I doubt that the normal route will be feasible.
They could cut through the bureaucracy of course and just passport everyone through the process straight to the full housing duty. This would be an easy one. The displaced residents were mostly in social housing anyway, some may even have got there by way of a previous Part VII application so it is fairly safe to assume that they would pass all tests if applied to them.
I doubt very much that the council would even consider dodging responsibility if for instance one of the applicants had been in rent arrears or involved in neighbour nuisance, the kind of thing that normally creates problems for applicants.
How can the housing duty be discharged?
So presuming that the families of Grenfell Tower get to the point of the full housing duty it then becomes a question of how can that duty be discharged? How is Alok Sharma’s brave or possibly cavalier promise going to be acted out?
For years Part VII was an emergency route to a council or housing association property, an alternative to Part VI, which is obtaining social housing from the waiting list. But the rules have changed, ince so much social housing has been sold off.
Nowadays a council can satisfy the full housing duty by sourcing accommodation for an applicant in the private rental sector..
Any offer made of accommodation must of course be suitable and there are several criteria, one of which is the question of whether or not the property being offered is affordable to the applicant?
High rents for poor tenants
We have a massive disparity in this area between private rents in one of the richest boroughs in the UK and the benefit cap. The latter of which posing no serious problem to tenants in social housing but what about determining affordability when considering making a PRS offer in the discharge of duty?
PRS properties in much of London being unaffordable to working families as well as those on benefits.
This is why so many London authorities have been sourcing accommodation in areas way out of London as the only means of finding affordable accommodation. Everyone will have seen documentaries or read articles about families being expected to relocate to Luton, Slough, Canterbury, Birmingham and even that route isn’t possible where applicants work in a particular area where a move 50 miles away means they will have to give up their job.
I have seen various Grenfell Tower residents stating that they can’t leave their family or support networks in the area or take their kids out of school. These are ever-present concerns expressed by nearly all homelessness applicants, where tough decisions are made each down in the normal round of Part VII work.
Alok Sharma’s promise can only be upheld if the council use the local PRS for more than a few people and how many of those displaced tenants want to leave the long-term security and low cost of social housing for a home in a sector where the rents, especially anywhere in the RBKC district are astronomical and short term tenancies are the norm?
Why tenants may be unwilling to move to the private sector in RBKC
Someone in the news this last week suggested lifting the benefit cap but how long for? If the council discharge duty in the private sector on the basis that the property might be affordable without the cap what happens when the cap is imposed again after, say a couple of years?
Then the tenants can’t afford the rent and get evicted for arrears.
Alok Sharma’s pledge that all will be rehoused locally is an easy one to make but he isn’t the one who is going to have to fulfil it. That’s going to be the job of RBKC now he has waved his regal hand and it is going to be some while before RBKC gain anyone’s sympathy or trust for cases where they screw up.
The media are quite rightly on the Grenfell Tower resident’s side and decidedly anti-council while Alok Sharma can make crowd-pleasing assurances and then blame the council when they don’t deliver his promises.
What about requisitioning properties?
Jeremy Corbyn, rapidly swapping his position as the national pariah for people’s champion has suggested, as have others, that empty luxury properties in RBKC district should be taken over to house the displaced families.
An initial response may well be that this is not practical but why? It’s a national emergency.
If there is currently a law against it then change the law and introduce an emergency power.
Why should foreign investors allow properties to sit empty whilst local residents have nowhere to go in the midst of a recognised emergency incident?
Any resistance to this remedy is but another example of the source of national anger at the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the poor. Yet again money is given priority over people.
A historical precedent?
Shortly after the end of the second world war, those dispossessed by bombing complained to the government about the by then empty military barracks sitting around unused. The government refused to allow the populace to occupy them, so what did they do? Just went in and occupied them anyway and nobody stopped them.
The Protesters managed to get into RBKC Town Hall last week easily enough.
So come on Mr Sharma. Following Jezza’s suggestion might genuinely just make you a man of your word.
Note – Information about the support available for people affected by the Grenfell Tower fire can be found here.