In London, there are 54,000 homeless households living in temporary accommodation — often in shabby bed and breakfasts or run-down private flats.
The crisis has got so bad that families have even been handed one-way tickets to seaside towns on the south coast due to a lack of suitable housing in their home city.
To help improve the situation, London Councils has set up the not-for-profit Pan-London Accommodation Collaborative Enterprise (PLACE), which builds on a successful project in Lewisham two years ago that saw 24 two-bedroom modular homes made available for the borough’s most in need.
NewStart went to Tower Hamlets to meet the director of the project, Mark Baigent, and hear about how the scheme is set to be replicated across London, making the most of the city’s many ‘meanwhile’ sites awaiting development.
‘They took quite a risk doing that on their own,’ says Baigent when discussing the Lewisham scheme which has formed the blueprint for what PLACE hopes to achieve.
By working collaboratively as a group of boroughs, Baigent says they can spread that risk and buy in a larger number of units.
The concept is that PLACE will buy 200 units with a 50-year lifespan and the flexible nature of modular housing means they can rotate them around boroughs according to need and space.
More importantly, it will provide high-quality temporary accommodation for homeless families in need.
So there may be a site awaiting development in Tower Hamlets where the units can be placed for several years before being moved on to a different part of London.
It removes the risk of a council being lumbered with an excess of modular units and no space to put them.
In April, PLACE was given a major boost when the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan pledged £11m of City Hall innovation funding for the project.
Since then, Baigent has been busy growing the company and getting boroughs to come on board.
After a design competition, PLACE chose Dublin-based ExtraSpace Solutions for the £40m contract to manufacture the units, who say they are committed to ‘innovative design with a community feel.’
Baigent says PLACE has earmarked four sites in Tower Hamlets which they are looking to take into planning, and they are currently talking to housing associations, TfL and other public sector bodies to secure more land.
The first units are expected to be on-site next year and could be the kind of collaborative and innovative approach to homelessness that helps to reverse London’s deepening temporary housing crisis.
All boroughs benefitting
The biggest hurdle for the project will be financial viability.
‘We’re not running it as a profit-making exercise but it needs to break even,’ says Baigent.
The funding they secured from City Hall doesn’t cover all the capital costs, meaning they will have to rely on rental income.
Baigent says the rent will sit within the Local Housing Allowance level but depending on where you are in London that can obviously vary a lot. ‘If we had a scheme in Westminster that would pay for itself very quickly,’ he says.
‘Whereas in Bexley or Barking it wouldn’t really be viable unless we had a huge number of units on a low-cost site.’
This is where the collaborative nature of the scheme really will come into its own, Baigent believes. Units will spend part of their life in a high-value area and part in a low-value area to balance the books, with all boroughs benefitting in the long run.
Snakes and ladders
The PLACE scheme will succeed if it builds a platform for people to move beyond the temporary housing game of snakes and ladders and onto a firm path to independence.
Much of the temporary accommodation in London at the moment is called nightly paid, and it has increased dramatically over the past decade.
A quarter of homeless families were placed in nightly paid accommodation at the end of 2016-17, which differs slightly from bed and breakfasts as it offers a private kitchen and bathroom.
However, it’s far from conventional accommodation and there have been regular reports in the press of mould and rat-infested dwellings, which sound more in keeping with a Charles Dickens novel than a modern, 21st-century city.
At any time the owner of the property, typically a private hotel, can end the arrangement and the homeless person or family is abruptly forced to move on.
Families can be moved over and over again across different types of temporary accommodation, hoping to be placed in more permanent housing but never succeeding.
However, the PLACE scheme could see these families in a home for several years, making local connections and providing a solid base for them to gain skills and support a family.
The stability will also mean that they are more likely to be offered a council house or a place in a housing association flat.
‘We can set some standards and maintain the quality,’ says Baigent, who believes that once a unit is on-site, the council could place a family in a home for a whole ten years.
Living in limbo
London boroughs are spending staggering amounts of money on temporary accommodation for homeless families.
In May, the London Assembly’s Housing Committee published Living in Limbo: London’s Temporary Accommodation Crisis, which revealed Newham council spent £61.1m in 2017/18.
Hackney has also more than doubled their spend in five years, forking out £54.8m in 2017/18.
But more shocking than any figures on a local authority’s balance sheet is the number of families forced into temporary accommodation since 2010. In London, it’s risen by 35% and Baigent is hopeful that PLACE can help buck the trend.
‘There’s so much work going to improve the options for people at the same time there are the implications of the housing market, which is still in a crisis,’ he says.
‘We’re not building enough homes and there’s not the same price inflation but there are big issues around affordable and rental affordability.’
‘Homelessness will continue but we’re doing everything we can.’