Homelessness prevented by government action during pandemic say councils
• Suspending evictions and raising the Local Housing Allowance rate have had a major impact say councils in annual survey of English local authorities
• However, nearly all councils warn of an increase in homelessness when protective measures end
English councils have stressed the combined impact that key policies like raising the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) and suspending evictions have had in preventing homelessness during the pandemic, while also laying bare England’s critical lack of affordable homes.
More than eight in ten (82%) councils surveyed for The Homelessness Monitor: England 2021 - commissioned by Crisis and led by Heriot-Watt University - said making housing benefit available to many more people living in poverty, by raising the Local Housing Allowance rate, has been important in tackling homelessness.
The suspension of evictions from social and private rented tenancies was identified by 87% of councils as very important in preventing and minimising homelessness. This compares to 76% that said the same for the ‘Everyone In’ scheme, which between March and November provided emergency accommodation to 33,000 people rough sleeping or at risk of rough sleeping.
The researchers found that these and other temporary, protective measures resulted in no immediate overall increase in the numbers of people seeking support from their local authority because they were either at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness. This was helped significantly by measures removing barriers to support, with ‘Everyone In’ accessible to people with no recourse to public funds, at least initially.
But despite this progress, the pandemic has further exposed England’s severe shortage of affordable homes. In some regions, rents are so high that even with the Local Housing Allowance rate raised, the benefit cap has meant people still cannot access the private rented sector (PRS).
As one local authority in the South said “We are one of the most expensive rental markets in the county, yet do not benefit from London weighting for the cap. This means in practice anyone not working will still struggle to access the [private rented sector], even with the increase in LHA, due to the cap limiting their benefit income”.
And with Local Housing Allowance rates set to be re-frozen again in April, the poorest households across England could again be locked out of the private rented sector and forced into homelessness.
Post-lockdown, 94% of councils said they expect to see an increase in people made homeless after being evicted from the private rented sector. Some councils reported that the eviction ban itself has made it harder to place people who are homeless in private rental housing because fewer homes were becoming available. The ban on bailiff-enforced evictions currently lasts until the end of March.
England already has a severe shortage of affordable homes and 94% of councils surveyed also expect to see an increase in newly unemployed people made homeless by the pandemic, with one local authority in London saying : “In recent years, due to welfare reform and an overheated private housing market, our PRS has sadly been "hollowed out" of tenants on lower incomes . COVID19 will impact people who previously would never have been at risk of homelessness in [name of authority], or at risk of needing statutory support - i.e. those on median to higher incomes”.
A majority of councils surveyed said it had become harder to place homeless households in both social rented and private rented sector housing during the pandemic, with supply of new vacancies, competition in the market from non-homeless households and social distancing all given as reasons.
The report found also that on any given night 200,000 people in England are experiencing the worst forms of homelessness, including sleeping rough, sofa surfing and stuck in unsuitable accommodation like B&Bs. Without sufficient government intervention, that number could rise by 27% over the next ten years, with a post-pandemic recession likely to hit those already in poverty the worst.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “Homelessness in England was already perilously high before lockdown but the Westminster Government rightly recognised the unprecedented risks of the pandemic. Its bold action, along with the tireless work of councils across the country, has stopped thousands of people being forced onto the streets at the most dangerous of times.
“But ending policies like the evictions ban and the raising of the Local Housing Allowance rate prematurely could force devastating numbers of people to the brink. In this week’s budget, we desperately need a one-off package of financial support for the hundreds of thousands of renters in arrears.
“But to make real, lasting change, we need the Westminster Government to ensure the urgency and commitment to tackling homelessness this last year becomes permanent.
"Removing barriers to accessing help must not be just emergency measures, but part of our long term strategy to ensuring everyone has a secure home."
Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Heriot-Watt University, the report’s lead author, said: “This year’s Homelessness Monitor provides encouraging evidence that the radical and rapid response to some of the most extreme forms of homelessness has saved lives.
“As we look ahead, we must take this opportunity to transform the homelessness system for the better, ensuring everyone has access to their own safe and stable place to call home. However, the research highlights the failure to build sufficient affordable housing over consecutive years against the backdrop of welfare reforms are making it increasingly difficult for councils to help people access a home. It must be our ambition that we build back better and invest in permanent housing not more temporary accommodation.”
Notes to Editors
The Homelessness Monitor: England 2021 is commissioned by Crisis and led by Heriot-Watt University. First published in 2011, it includes a national survey of councils, statistical analysis, and in-depth interviews with council and national government representatives and charities working with people who are homeless.
An online survey was sent to England’s 326 local authorities in July to October 2020. Of these, 148 councils responded (47%).