November 4, 2016 / 7:10 AM / 3 years ago

Locked out by sky-high rents, London's 'nomads' fight for a secure home

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lillie Basil supposes she was one of the luckier residents of Boundary House, a block of short-stay apartments in rural Hertfordshire for Londoners squeezed out by the capital’s chronic housing shortage.

When she found cockroaches crawling across her three-year-old daughter’s cot, she still had family in London the pair could return to for support.

But for thousands in Britain who have been rehoused outside their communities into temporary homes such as Boundary House, squalid and unsafe conditions can be hard to escape, as they find themselves stranded far from traditional support networks.

Figures from the UK Department for Communities and Local Government show that more than 73,000 households - a growing population bigger than the city of Oxford - now live in emergency accommodation.

That represents a 9 percent increase on a year earlier, and a rise of more than 50 percent since 2010. Of those, 20,000 households, almost a third, are forced to live outside their home borough.

URBAN NOMADS

Paul Watt, professor in urban studies at Birkbeck College, London, said those families make up an “increasingly nomadic” tier of the housing system.

Across global cities, many low-income families are forced to routinely leave jobs and schools to shuttle between government-provided homes, as housing shortages put private rental costs out of reach, he said.

Basil, 22, has been living at her parents’ home in east London since leaving Boundary House in October but told the Thomson Reuters Foundation there isn’t enough space there for three generations of the family.

Now heavily pregnant with her second child, Basil exudes anxiety and says she suffers both a heart condition and mental health issues, including depression. The prospect of setting out again on her own frightens her, she says.

The local council, Waltham Forest, has encouraged Basil to look for a new home in the private rental sector, but she cannot afford the 1,000 pounds ($1,244) per month properties in London they have suggested.

When she first applied for government housing in March, Waltham Forest council officers told her she would be found a home in her local area of Chingford, Basil said.

Instead, she was offered only Boundary House: a block of around 40 small apartments that had previously been used as accommodation for individual student nurses, a 40-minute drive away in the town of Welwyn Garden City.

There, she found a cramped third-floor room with no space for her daughter to play and no way to secure the windows shut. On one occasion, the young mother caught her child as she tottered toward the open window’s edge.

‘WORKING WITH TENANTS’

The apartments are managed by Theori Housing Management Services Ltd, a private contractor that oversees a growing housing portfolio of more than 500 million pounds ($622 million) in value for seven London boroughs including Waltham Forest and neighbouring Newham, according to its website.

Both Basil and Elina Garrick, 38 - another former resident who was placed in Boundary House with her three children by Newham Council - said they experienced days-long outages of hot water, dirty communal areas and mouldy walls. When they called Theori, it often took weeks to fix the problems, they said.

Basil took her daughter to the doctor three times for respiratory illness and chest infections she believed were caused by the mould in her room.

Theori said in a written statement that Boundary House meets statutory requirements and the company works with tenants to ensure homes are safe and well maintained, but did not respond to questions about specific housing conditions.

In March, Newham Council offered Garrick another house in Basildon, Essex - even further away from central London.

Basil said she wishes she had stayed and fought for a better home. But as her depression worsened in the absence of friends and family, she abandoned Boundary House.

“I wasn’t going to take the risk of harming myself when I have a child, and one on the way,” she said.

A TEMPORARY LIFE

Garrick’s local council, Newham, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it had moved all 15 families from the borough out of Boundary House.

The decision was taken after finding a lack of affordable homes in Welwyn, which meant limited opportunities to house the residents in the area long term, it said.

But Waltham Forest continues to place tenants in the building. It said it had met with a number of residents in recent months to discuss concerns over conditions and worked with Theori to address them.

Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter, a housing rights charity, said councils are “stuck between a rock and a hard place” because of severe cuts to their budget by central government and a rising number of families in need of government-supported housing.

But they must try to better understand the needs of families, he added.

“All too often... we hear from homeless families who’ve been forced to wave goodbye to schools and jobs, and move their whole family into a cramped and dingy room somewhere with no idea when they will have a place to call home again,” he said. 

Freedom of Information requests submitted last year by Inside Housing, a magazine for housing professionals in Britain, showed that across London, 3,700 households had lived in temporary accommodation for at least five years. Of these, 690 had been without a permanent home for more than a decade.

Temporary accommodation has become a way of life for many tenants, said academic Watt, who researches social housing in global cities. “Their entire existence for the foreseeable future is characterised by more-or-less constant churning from one insecure tenancy to another,” he said.

But solutions aren’t “rocket science”, he added. Councils must receive proper funding and commit to building homes that people on lower incomes can afford to live in, he said.

The private rental sector must also be reformed to bring down soaring rates and make lease agreements secure for longer periods, he said.

Garrick said her own moves from a London hostel to Boundary House and, now, still further away from London have meant months out of school for her children and cost her an offer to study at university.

For today’s “nomads”, insecure housing means an insecure existence, she said.

“It’s not just temporary accommodation, it’s a temporary life,” she added.

($1 = 0.8038 pounds)

Reporting by Matthew Ponsford, Editing by Paola Totaro and Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, traficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org

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