While government regards the housing crisis as relative, a London borough facing fast-rising poverty is getting down to what could be done.
Already a trailblazer among councils redefining affordability, Enfield pitches housing reform as a priority in response to an independent report on deprivation.
The Enfield Poverty and Inequality Commission found deprivation in the borough has increased in recent years, and called on the government to review its funding arrangement for councils to tackle rising poverty.
Run by the Smith Institute, the independent commission returned 27 recommendations – with reform of the private-rented sector (PRS) prominent among them.
The Commission is clear that the struggle poorer households face trying to find decent, affordable housing is the borough’s single greatest challenge.
“One barrier the Commission was particularly worried about is the lack of affordable housing in Enfield,” said chair Baronness Tyler of Enfield.
“The council have ambitious plans to build more affordable homes, but without more grant funding for local authorities to build, this will take time.
“As a consequence many poorer families are stuck in privately rented accommodation, so it’s crucial that councils like Enfield have the powers to regulate the local private-rented sector (PRS) so it works for all residents.”
Enfield has risen from being the 12th to the 9th most deprived London borough between 2015 and 2019. Just under a third (27%) of households in the borough are in poverty after housing costs, and one in three children is living in poverty.
Homelessness is up 250% since 2011/12, seven in 10 private renters claim housing benefits, and 48% of all homelessness cases are from the end of a private tenancy
19.7% of all households in one ward alone live in overcrowded homes.
Enfield has historically low levels of social housing, but as the population has increased and levels of deprivation have risen, the council has acknowledged a lack of resources to provide additional homes.
Crucially, this has been exacerbated by the loss of over 800 affordable homes through ‘Right To Buy’ sales since 2012.
There are 5,215 households on the council’s Housing Register, with just 461 socially rented homes becoming available in 2018/19.
The council has set an ambitious target of building 19,000 new homes over the next 10 years, 50% of which will be affordable housing tenures – 70% of those affordable homes are intended to be at London affordable rents or below.
And 3,500 will be owned directly by the council.
But, as the report acknowledges, the council programme will take time to realise – so the council has to invest in new affordable homes at the same time as managing the fast-growing PRS.
“Our vision is to not only lift people out of poverty, but to remove the root causes of poverty in our borough,” said Enfield council’s leader, Cllr Nesil Caliskan.
“The first step has been to acknowledge how bad the problem currently is. The inequality is significant in Enfield, and we have to do a better job of telling the story of poverty which affects so many families in the borough.
“We are already working to tackle poverty by shaping and investing in our key frontline services because we know the task of supporting those most in need over the coming years will fall to councils such as Enfield.
“Government spending cuts of £179m since 2010 have seriously affected our ability to help those most desperately in need, but we will be implementing all the recommendations made by the commission as rapidly as possible,” she said.
One initiative already in place is the ‘Enfield Housing test’, which established the principle that people on or below the Enfield median income level of £33,830 should not spend more than a third of their income on housing costs.
Which brings PRS into play as a player.
Of the 120,000 dwellings in the borough, just 8% are council owned with a further 7% owned by other registered social landlords – including housing associations.
So, as the report says, lower income residents are reliant on the PRS, which makes up 27% of homes in Enfield.
The Commission noted that inner London boroughs, which Enfield now more closely resembles in terms of deprivation levels, typically have much higher levels of social housing to support residents facing high and rising private-housing costs.
In Haringey, for example, 25% of all dwellings are owned by the council or registered social landlords; while Southwark, sitting just one place higher than Enfield on the list of most deprived boroughs, has a combined 41% of all homes owned by the council or social landlords.
The PRS has grown faster in Enfield than in other boroughs, increasing by 60% between 2006-2016.
Over a five-year period between 2012 and 2017, the number of privately rented properties grew by 7,356, and the number continues to increase every year.
But if the size is similar, the composition is different.
Comparisons of Housing Benefit claims in Enfield suggest almost seven in 10 PRS households claim housing benefit – the highest for London.
Enfield has 34 evictions per 1,000 households – also the highest rate in London.
The Commission took witness evidence of letting agents refusing to engage with potential tenants who claim Housing Benefits, and residents reported landlords failing to maintain properties to a decent standard and landlords increasing rents to unaffordable levels with eviction in mind.
To help those on lower incomes access housing that meets their needs, the Commission recommends a ban on landlords and letting agents from discriminating against people on benefits through ‘no DSS’ policies – screening out potential tenants who claim housing-related benefits or any other discriminatory practices.
That would see the council should working with housing charities on high-profile action against the worst offenders to send a message out to the wider market.
Such measures, the commission says, should be introduced alongside Enfield’s plans for a licensing scheme for private landlords to drive up standards.
Enfield has also experienced a rapid increase in homelessness – up 250% since 2011/12.
Termination of assured shorthold tenancy in the PRS accounts for 60% of the increase between 2010 and 2016.
In March last year, there were 3,410 households in Enfield’s temporary accommodation, a 74% rise since 2012, making Enfield the second-highest provider of temporary accommodation in England.
The Commission has urged the council to push for government to make reforms to LHA rates in order to reduce poverty and homelessness in the borough – done by working with other boroughs and housing campaign organisations lobbying government to return LHA levels to the 30th percentile.
Meantime, the Commission sees scope for more immediate action to intervene to prevent the ‘toxic trio’ of benefit problems, debt, and rent arrears from driving families into temporary accommodation.
That would include specialist ‘one stop’ housing advice available in schools and community venues to troubleshoot issues and coordinate support toward immediate solutions.
The Commission also recommends reform of processes for offering financial help in cases of acute housing problems – speeding up the process for discretionary housing payments and providing crisis loans for those in housing debt.
Despite the Commission’s findings, Baronness Tyler said the story of Enfield between the lines is that of a “vibrant, diverse, and young borough” that has huge energy and potential.
“But to release that potential, local government, national government, local public services, and the voluntary sector must come together to remove the barriers they face,” she said.
- The Commission report is due to be launched today (20th January) at 11.00am in Committee Room 3, House of Lords