Average house prices in London have risen from £55,000 in 1986 to £492,000 in 2014. Would-be homebuyers often have to rent a property, and as rents rise steeply many families face serious financial worries and even evictions.
Homelessness is complex and has many possible causes, but this housing crisis is certainly a factor: in England the number of those sleeping rough has doubled in the last five years. We now have a generation of children affected by insecure housing — either homeless themselves or growing up in an environment of financial burden.
Jess Brayne, Labour councillor for Barnet (representing the Underhill ward), says housing is pertinent to many of her constituents.
“When I hold surgeries, people come to me about problems they’re experiencing and a lot of them are to do with housing,” she tells us. It’s not hard to see why. In Barnet alone, approximately 2,700 households (with over 3,400 children) are in temporary accommodation.
As Jess points out, homelessness doesn’t necessarily mean living on the streets, the issue is not as black and white as either living in comfort, or sleeping on a cold pavement. People may also be living in unstable accommodation such as a hostel, B&B or another temporary home.
This is important. Ignoring the tough reality of temporary accommodation is damaging as it denies vulnerable people the support they need; it perpetuates the assumption that their situation is their own fault; it means we don’t demand action from those in power.
Housing in this country also reveals a stark generation gap. It was much easier to buy a house 40 years ago. Secure jobs with a decent wage were more accessible too. That means older and younger generations, with different life experiences, may have conflicting views of the issue and how to solve it.
But young people are clearly vulnerable.
First, they tend to “lack savings and earn a lot less” than older generations, says Jess, while university fees add to their worries. They may also be affected by family conflict such as disputes with parents or step-parents, a common trigger for youth homelessness. Yet often younger people struggling to afford somewhere don’t meet the criteria to be a high priority on a council housing list.
And in Barnet many people in temporary accommodation face the council’s one offer policy: if someone declines the first council house offered to them, the council rids themselves of responsibility to house them. “This policy causes huge distress,” says Jess. “It’s utterly heartless.”
It’s not all doom and gloom though, as some prevention measures are in place, Jess says. Labour councillors have worked closely with organisations such as Homeless Action in Barnet, a charity which helps those who are homeless or threatened with homelessness to take control of their lives, obtain a suitable home and keep their tenancy.
But legislation may be the only way to make decent housing available to all. Property developers are often required to build a certain number of ‘affordable’ homes with each development, and the Labour party proposes changing the definition of ‘affordable’ to a third of average household net income (compared to the current level of up to 80%).
Much more needs to be done. But with people like Councillor Jess Brayne, organisations like Homeless Action in Barnet, and a younger generation that’s prepared to shout about an unfair system, perhaps we can finally make housing work for us all.
Exposure made the following film, tackling youth homelessness in Barnet.
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