Hidden homeless investigation: Building a way out of homelessness
- Credit: Havering Council/Keith Brown
In the final of our Hidden Homeless reports about the rising tide of housing need in Havering, EMMA YOULE finds out how the council is planning to build its way out of the homelessness crisis.
Tucked away in a quiet close behind Eastern Avenue Retail Park in Romford is a striking row of new houses.
With sleek sandstone-coloured brick fronts and gleaming solar panels on the roofs, they look like a new luxury housing development.
But the nine two and three bedroom properties are council houses, part of the Havering’s flagship programme to bring thousands of new homes to the borough over the next decade.
As the Recorder’s Hidden Homeless reports have shown, the need for new homes has never been more pressing as the number of people presenting as homeless to the council has risen steeply over the past five years.
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Housing boss and deputy council leader Cllr Damian White, says in 2014 the borough did not have an issue with homelessness and the council was even considering closing its hostels.
But by the following year the picture had altered radically, partly spurred on by benefit changes under the government’s austerity drive.
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“Because rising property prices dragged up rental levels, by about 2015 we started to see an increasing number of families presenting to the council because of evictions through rent arrears, or the landlord wanting to put rent up, or rents going over the benefit cap for the first time,” he said. “So we then found ourselves in an increasingly challenging environment to be able to provide quality accommodation.”
The council had already launched a complete review of its housing service and Cllr White believes the policy decisions taken as part of this ambitious restructure will allow Havering to deliver the new homes the borough desperately needs.
Work is already under way to develop smaller “infill” sites, such as the new Lombard Court development in Poplar Street in the shadow of the retail park. The site was formerly a sheltered housing scheme.
All of the new Lombard Court houses will be available either for affordable rent, calculated at 80 per cent of market prices, or under low cost home ownership schemes.
But far more ambitious plans are afoot as Havering prepares to select a development partner to undertake the regeneration of 12 council estates and sites over the next decade to provide 3,500 new homes.
“Instead of selling them off we are creating a joint venture with a private house builder that has the expertise and the knowledge and also the capital of finance to be build and regenerate these schemes,” said Cllr White.
Under the groundbreaking initiative, provision of other community facilities such as doctors’ surgeries and schools will also increase, he said.
The housing boss believes Havering has “quite literally been put on the map” by Crossrail, as the new Elizabeth Line has seen Romford Station join the Tube network, and he says perceptions of the local authority are changing.
“The interest from the market to be our development partner has been unprecedented,” he said. “We were bowled over by the appetite of the private house builders to create a longer term strategic partnership with Havering.”
It is anticipated the new homes will be split a third for affordable rent, a third for shared ownership, and a third for private sale.
Cllr White also promised that all council tenants are “guaranteed” a right of return to their estates.
But some are uncomfortable at the idea of any homes on council sites being sold off for private sale.
“Unfortunately because of the land values in Havering, you would never be able to redevelop an estate and build 100 per cent affordable homes without any public subsidy,” said Cllr White.
He also said a vibrant social mix was key, adding: “I think it’s incredibly important that we do not create ghettos of affordable accommodation. We need to create mixed communities so that it doesn’t create social problems in the longer term.”
He appears to fervently support the view that building more council homes is the way out of rising homelessness in the borough.
“I think there is a great cross-party consensus on housing now that we must address the failings that have come about with the housing market,” he said. “And I do not think there is one political party that will solve this. It’s very much about a consensual approach for the delivery of good quality accommodation.”