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The Latest Housing Scandal: Blaming Tenants for Overcrowding

Last week, a Southwark family won their appeal against a council which accused them of 'deliberately' overcrowding their one-bed flat – but there's only one thing worth blaming for overcrowding: the lack of decent council housing.

Last week, community group Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth celebrated an important legal victory with one of our member families after the Court of Appeal confirmed what seemed obvious to almost everyone: that their severely overcrowded housing was not in fact ‘a deliberate act’.

For more than six years, Favio and Elba and their two sons have been living in a tiny one-bedroom flat in Peckham. Alongside the cramped conditions, the family endured blame from Southwark Council for ‘deliberately’ causing overcrowding in order to exploit the housing register – which they didn’t know existed. This accusation denied them the high priority on the register that would have got them the urgent rehousing they need.

Recalling the two-year struggle over the ‘deliberate act’ statement, Favio explains: ‘I felt sad and angry at the same time. There are many families struggling; we’re not the only ones suffering. We face refusals and accusations when the council should be helping people, not blaming them.’

Of course, the real causes of the housing crisis, which has led to over 3.6 million people living in overcrowded homes, are a decade of welfare cuts, high private rents, and the sell-off of social housing. This year, the Independent reported that two-thirds of council homes sold off under the Right to Buy scheme are not being replaced; 94% of private rented homes are too expensive for families on housing benefit, so people are forced to rent housing far smaller than their needs and from whatever dodgy landlord will take them. Overcrowding in the private sector has almost doubled due to housing benefit cuts, too – and families subjected to the racist No Recourse to Public Funds rule are not even able to access these subsistence benefits.

The structural barriers to accessing decent housing are reinforced by the government’s right to rent scheme, which is a key pillar of the hostile environment and can make finding a home twice as difficult for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic and migrant households. The consequences of these measures are made clear by the fact that while only 2% of White British households are overcrowded, 30% of Bangladeshi households and 15% of Black African households are. All the HASL families who have received negative decisions blaming them for overcrowding have been migrant families.

Overcrowded housing is one of the most common problems members of our group face, alongside being stuck in temporary accommodation. Overcrowded housing already presented a public health crisis before Covid-19, but the outbreak has made these families even more vulnerable to ill health, and even death. Five years ago, Public Health England noted that poor-quality housing, which includes overcrowded housing, and which is more common in the private rented section than other rental sectors, was costing the NHS at least £1.4bn per year.

Besides the physical health consequences, most say living under lockdown in cramped housing has been mentally unbearable. At the start of the first lockdown, Favio and Elba threw away the sofa-bed that they slept on in the living room to make space for a table for their children to do their school work; nine months on, they’re still sleeping on the floor.

For the last five years, together with the Public Interest Law Centre, we’ve been campaigning against the punitive culture these families face when trying to access help. The real solution to the problem is high quality, safe, and secure family-sized council homes, and the struggle isn’t over until everyone has the homes they need. To achieve that goal, we’re helping families challenge negative decisions and providing moral support; we’ve also occupied the town hall, spoken out at a cabinet meeting, and organised a Covid-safe postcard protest in which over 200 HASL members participated.

We’ve successfully overturned numerous negative decisions, but the same decisions continue to be made. In September, HASL and PILC sent an open letter to Southwark Council with the support of over thirty local community groups highlighting how their approach has targeted BAME people and migrants. The letter highlighted one case study: a family of four, who were living in a bedsit, were told their overcrowding was a ‘deliberate act’ when the father, who had been unlawfully deported by the Home Office, returned to the family home. The council were eventually forced to overturn the decision, but only after the threat of legal action.

The reply to our open letter to our open letter yet again described overcrowded housing as a family’s ‘choice’, accused families to trying to gain an ‘unfair advantage’ over others, and suggested that they move to more affordable areas of the country. In response, we launched an email protest.

Favio and Elba’s legal victory has drawn attention to the tendency of both national and local government to blame the housing crisis on some of its worst-affected victims. There’s still a long way to go to make sure everyone gets the council housing we so desperately need – but ending policies that bar those most in need from accessing the small amount of support that does exist is a crucial first step.