Observer column: 24 January 2020
Homelessness continues to be a big problem in Hastings. That's bad news for the homeless households. But it's a big problem for the council too, as the cost of temporary accommodation grows every year, putting increasing strains on the council's overall budget.
Not everyone is entitled to emergency accommodation if they're homeless. The council has a duty to help everyone who reports to the council as homeless, but only 'priority' households get emergency temporary housing - mostly households with children, certain kinds of disability, or with older or vulnerable people.
Hastings Council now spends over £2m a year on temporary accommodation for homeless households. This has been going up by over £300,000 a year. But the reason it's going up is mostly not because there are more people being accepted as priority homeless. It's more because households are spending much longer in temporary accommodation - in some cases, more than a year. The council has a duty to find suitable permanent accommodation for priority homeless households, which means accommodation they can afford. That can be in the private rented sector or in social rented housing. However, there is a huge shortage of social rented housing, so most people in temporary accommodation will be permanently housed in the private rented sector. And increasingly, private sector rents are not affordable to the homeless households we have in temporary accommodation.
This makes little sense. Households in temporary accommodation are mostly entitled to Housing Benefit or Universal Credit, but the amount they're paid to cover their rent is not related to their actual rent. Rather, it's based on a notional amount set by the government called the Local Housing Allowance (LHA). And in Hastings, the LHA is 40% lower than actual rents - so households get stuck in temporary accommodation because they can't find accommodation they can afford. The cost of keeping households in temporary housing is far higher than the cost of paying Housing Benefit to the full cost of rent, so the cost to the public sector could be easily reduced by raising the LHA. But so far the government has failed to do that.
In order to keep costs of temporary accommodation down, Hastings Council has been buying properties around town to house homeless people. This is much more satisfactory for the homeless households than using bed and breakfast accommodation, which is how emergency housing is usually provided. Buying all this housing is expensive, but is cheaper than paying for bed & breakfast accommodation - so costs of providing temporary accommodation continue to rise, but not as quickly as they would without this house purchase programme.
But the real solution is more social rented housing. In Hastings, this is provided by housing associations, funded through government grants, which are not adequate to provide anywhere near enough housing. Hastings is not a housing provider, since the council transferred its housing stock to a housing association over 20 years ago. So we can't build council homes. However, we are now investigating whether it would be possible to become a housing provider again, if we can get the government grants we'd need to make that work.
For now, however, the housing crisis is still with us, especially in more deprived areas such as Hastings. Until government policy changes, the number of families who simply can't afford a decent place to live will continue to grow.
Council Leader's column