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What one family’s plight tells us about the crisis in temporary housing

As the government announces new plans to overhaul the planning system, England’s most vulnerable renters continue to be exploited.

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In Hamid’s house, cockroaches, rats and rusty nails protrude from his floorboards. Damp covers his walls and when it rains, water seeps through the ceiling, soaking his children’s mattresses. Hamid’s wife is disabled and unable to climb the stairs to the toilet or upstairs bedroom. “She has to sleep on a mattress in a downstairs room because the house is unsuitable for her needs. Most days she has to go to the bathroom outside in the back garden,” he says. “When I was in an Iranian prison, I didn’t suffer like this.”

Hamid, 47, and his family of six are currently living in temporary accommodation in Croydon. Forced to flee Iran five years ago, Hamid sought refuge in the UK. Since he was granted asylum status, his family has been placed in several buildings by the council. They now live in a three-bed house, owned by a private developer. “The house we lived in before here had rats, and at one point the fuse box melted. It was dangerous; we stayed seven days without power,” says Hamid.

Though they have been moved by the council, the family’s conditions have hardly changed. “We complained to the landlords but because our English is not so good, they ignored us. The housing agencies, they came to the house after I complained several times and they saw everything. They didn’t do anything. After years of this suffering, it has destroyed us physically and mentally.”

Unfortunately, Hamid’s family is not alone. With the introduction of lockdown measures, thousands of people have been confined to unsafe housing, ignored and abandoned by the lettings agencies responsible for the maintenance of the properties in which they live.

According to an analysis of government data conducted by Shelter, 86 per cent of the £1.1bn councils spent on temporary accommodation in England last year went to private landlords, letting agents or developers. Over the same period, the number of households placed in privately owned temporary accommodation rose by 46 per cent. With a lack of social housing in London and a growing homeless population, councils are being forced to pay landlords over the market rate to provide homes.

Last year, the Guardian reported that more than 5,700 one-off payments, of up to £8,300 each, were made to private landlords in 2018. These payments allegedly act as “incentives” to encourage property owners to accept people in need of emergency housing as tenants.

Temporary accommodation has rapidly become a multi-million-pound industry, while the pleas for basic maintenance from vulnerable occupants such as Hamid and his family are easily ignored.

“Much of this accommodation is unfit, unsafe and grossly overcrowded. These are grim places to live, let alone during a public health crisis and lockdown,” says the chief executive of Shelter, Polly Neate. “We regularly hear from families squashed into one room, where children have no space to play, and parents have little chance to work from home. Trying to follow social distancing guidance is near-impossible too, causing even greater strain.”

“It’s a sad state of affairs that so much public money is spent on profiteering accommodation providers, who know they can charge desperate councils inflated prices to house homeless families with nowhere else to go. It’s a situation we wouldn’t be facing if consecutive governments had built the social homes this country badly needs,” she adds.

On 6 August, the government announced plans to shake up current housing laws by fast-tracking the construction of “beautiful” homes across England, “modernising the planning system” to “get the country building”. Critics say that while these plans are undoubtedly attractive to property developers, the whitepaper provides little information on the future of affordable social housing for England’s most insecure renters.

Andrew Forth, the head of policy and public affairs at the Royal Institute of British Architects, says the government’s planning reforms could cause the temporary housing crisis to spiral still further out of control.

“These reforms will make it easier for unscrupulous developers to exploit the broken housing market”, says Forth. “Even the government’s own advisers described some of the homes delivered through the conversion of offices into housing [known as Permitted Development] as ‘slums’. If we want to protect vulnerable renters and build more social housing, the government needs to give local authorities the power and resources to get their own projects off the ground.”

Half an hour from Hamid’s home in Croydon is Dorchester Court, a former social housing estate that is now privately let, where residents are fighting a similarly drawn-out battle. Over the years, the 1930s estate has become neglected. Winters have passed without proper heating or hot water, while balconies are propped up by wooden beams. “There have been cases of masonry from the brick balconies falling down, falling from like a third or fourth story,” says David*, a resident at Dorchester Court who wished to remain anonymous: “The last time we mobilised against Manaquel they evicted several households that complained too loudly.”

The estate is run by Manaquel Company Limited, which in turn is owned by property mogul Heinrich Feldman, whose net worth is estimated at £209m.  For years, the tight-knit residents of Dorchester Court have complained about the dilapidated conditions of the Grade Two-listed building. “Lambeth council is well aware of our fight,” says David. “They contacted the property managers, Property Partners, several times last year but have received zero response.”

Since the Covid-19 pandemic forced residents to remain inside, these issues have become increasingly urgent. “For several days at the start of lockdown, I had no hot water,” says David, “plus mould is covering some of our walls.” At the beginning of July, residents began protesting outside Property Partner’s Waterloo offices after hearing that Manaquel planned to develop penthouses on top of the estate, which would mean the eviction of several tenants in September if the planning is approved by the Lambeth council. Manaquel has yet to confirm these reports.

“The root of the issue is that Manaquel views this estate as a short-term asset”, says David. “They see the kind of community at Dorchester Court fundamentally as an obstruction, not something that actually enriches this corner of London.”

For vulnerable renters across the city, the pandemic has exacerbated an already urgent problem, and with the latest government whitepaper further empowering large-scale property managers, adequate affordable housing remains a relic of the past.

“These developers won’t respect the law,” says Hamid. “There is no fair treatment. We are just a family, and we are tired.”

*Names have been changed 

Eleanor Peake is the New Statesman’s social media editor.