The council’s bill for housing vulnerable families in temporary accommodation this financial year alone is estimated to be £41.8m, compared with £25.5m last year.
The Observer reports;
“The government’s clampdown on benefits is forcing up, rather than cutting, the cost of housing low-income families in wealthy areas, as people are shifted into hotels and bed and breakfasts, according to new figures obtained for the Observer.
Charities are also reporting a chain of misery and chaos as children are forced to move schools, and parents have to spend much of their time ferrying them large distances to classes.
Data obtained through freedom of information requests shows that at Westminster council – one of the wealthiest areas in the country – the bill for homelessness has shot up by 63.5% since last year as new temporary accommodation has had to be found for those hit by cuts. The figures show that it has cost Westminster more to place thousands of people in temporary accommodation, including hotels, than the council has saved through the government’s welfare clampdown.
The council says it cut “around £40m” from its costs, thanks to the introduction in 2011 of restrictions to housing benefit. However, replies to FOI requests obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism show that it has cost the council £135.83m to rehouse homeless people since 2009.
With average monthly rents in London reaching £1,100, a rise of 8% in the last year, new figures released by the government last week showed that the number of households made homeless in England in the financial year to March 2013 has hit 53,540 – a 6% average increase on the previous year and a 16% increase in the capital.
Alarmingly, rents are now rising so fast in London that charities are seeing people who found new homes after being evicted in the first round of benefit cuts being made homeless again as costs soar.
Westminster is also potentially facing expensive legal action for keeping families in B&Bs beyond the statutory minimum six-week limit.
Karen Buck, Labour MP for Westminster North, said: “We are now seeing the costs and consequences of the government’s salami-slicing approach to housing benefit as homelessness rises and millions are being spent keeping families in hotels and bed and breakfast. Not only are there massive costs associated with homelessness, but the lives of children and families are being damaged and disrupted, with a particular impact on children’s education.”
In a statement, Westminster council said: “The effect of reform in Westminster was always going to be more pronounced than any other area, with limited space to build new housing and with high rents.”
It argues that it is “misleading” to link the cash the council has saved from housing benefit reform with its temporary accommodation budget. Most people forced out of rented homes because of housing benefit restrictions are not “long-term residents of the borough”, Westminster maintains, and it says it is working hard to renegotiate the costs of rents to save housing benefit bills.
Jonathan Glanz, the council’s cabinet member for housing, said: “Increased demand, coupled with an endemic undersupply of housing across London, has resulted in more households coming to us as homeless.”
An investigation last month by the bureau showed that London’s authorities have rehoused 32,643 households outside the city, with often devastating effects on families, jobs and children’s education. It also adds to the pressure on “dumping ground” councils such as Slough, already struggling with housing shortages and school places and now being stretching to breaking point by the influx.
Charities say cases such as that of Zara Mahamat, whose family were evicted from a three-bedroom flat in Pimlico, Westminster, in January, are common. She and her family had to leave because the housing benefit cap meant they could no longer afford the rent.
Within days the family will expand with the arrival of her new baby, and she does not know where everyone will sleep.
Westminster council acted quickly to move the family first into a hotel in Paddington, where they stayed for four months. Then they went to a serviced apartment where they are now, several miles away in the borough of Southwark, in an eight-storey block mainly populated by tourists and short-term workers visiting the capital. “We’re struggling now,” said Mahamat. “Similar properties can be rented for £169 a night.”
Hamza, 11, is preparing for school exams, but much of his time is spent travelling. “It’s very frustrating,” he said. “I used to be able to get to school in two minutes and now it just takes like an hour. It’s really tiring.”
In the past two years Westminster council has secured more than 360 properties outside its own borders to house vulnerable households such as Mahamat’s. The family are booked to stay until 25 July, but she has no idea what will happen after that date.
They are being offered support by Zacchaeus 2000, a London-based anti-poverty charity that helps low-income households affected by welfare reform and debt, including those being forced to relocate. Romin Sutherland, its project manager, said London housing is in meltdown: “Residents placed outside of the borough are being forced to commute back in to get their children to school, and often spend the whole day waiting for them in order to minimise costs.”