Tenants need to be seen as people not just bodies

Overcrowding is a hidden problem. Unlike rough sleeping, society is never confronted with the daily misery of the families struggling with no room to live with dignity.

Twenty-five thousand families live in houses so small for them that they would need two or more extra bedrooms to meet the basic standard set by the government.

Almost ten times as many people need another bedroom to live with the kind of space most of us take for granted.Furthermore, this problem is getting worse as the recession brings rising unemployment and housing market chaos.

The National Housing Federation warn that an extra 350,000 people would be forced to live in cramped and unsuitable conditions by 2011 if the recession continues to produce a sharp downturn in the construction of new affordable homes.

The LGiU’s latest research report Room to Move, commissioned by Westminster City Council, has found that there should be an overhaul of the current housing system to loosen the constraints on councils so that they can build more houses and tackle the complex conditions that lead to overcrowding.

The report highlights the perversity of a system where there were 441,000 social housing tenants who were under-occupying with two or more bedrooms than required – almost double the number of people living in overcrowded homes.

Getting under-occupiers into houses more suited to their circumstances is one way that leading councils have been tackling overcrowding. Because of the nature of social housing tenure, a tenant who raised a large family will ordinarily have no reason to move on once children are grown.

Camden has a fund which they can deploy to address the reasons tenants might have not to move. For example, reproducing in a new property a kitchen they had installed themselves in their existing property.

Councils such as Westminster are also looking at the needs of overcrowded households as they await larger housing. Health and education support, counselling and household adaptations can also make life easier for families in overcrowded conditions.But practices such as these will not be enough in the long term.

That’s why we have advocated a range of proposals which provide a comprehensive plan to eradicate overcrowding. There are clearly things only central government can do.

Constraints on borrowing and investment vehicles need to be loosened so councils can open up new options to finance new homes and increase supply.

Councils should be able to borrow off the public sector balance sheet – like other housing organisations can.

Central government also needs to give space for councils to investigate other tenure options. It is easy to assume that people will always choose security of tenure, but without testing this assumption this remains guesswork.

The report advocates offering a range of tenure types to build a body of knowledge about what different kinds of tenants want.But local government needs to lead on this issue as an equal partner.

While some councils are prioritizing this issue and making the most of what is available to them, not every council matches the performance of the best. Councils should demonstrate their commitment to meeting housing need through enhanced public accountability, such as annual reports on meeting housing need.

They can also do more to look at the needs of their tenants more broadly than housing, supporting them with employment, skills and healthy lifestyles. Tenants would be better served if they were always seen as people and individuals, not just bodies to occupy housing space. Housing for everyone is not an unachievable dream.

But it is only achievable if local authorities are freed to try new options and to discover what works, and local leaders are trusted to find solutions that work for their communities. If the stranglehold on councils is not removed even their current good work will not be enough to meet the growing need for more room.


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