Racheal Wells has spent the last five and a half months living with her three children in a single room in an East Croydon bed and breakfast. Danny, her youngest, is now 15 weeks old and has only ever known these four walls and those of a previous, smaller, room to call home. “I can’t complain,” says Rachel, “the people who run it are nice and it’s quiet for the kids. But it’s not home.”
Lily, Iris, Danny and Racheal will soon join the 170 families who have spent more than six months in bed and breakfasts due to Croydon’s growing housing crisis. Under the Suitability of Accommodation Act 2004 it is illegal for families to spend more than six weeks housed in this way. However, with many residents spending over a decade on their waiting list, Croydon Council claim there is simply no alternative.
Racheal was eight months pregnant when she was given a Section 21 eviction notice from her two-bedroom flat in New Addington. She was moved seven and a half miles away to a bed and breakfast in Thornton Heath, north Croydon. It was a two-hour journey by public transport to take Lily, her eldest, to and from nursery school every day.
Two months later, the family were moved to their current room – and removed from the waiting list for social housing without being given a reason why. Despite phoning and emailing on a daily basis, Racheal has received no definite answer on when she may be permanently housed: “sometimes they say it’s five months, sometimes they say nine, sometimes they say a year.”
According to a Freedom of Information request issued by Eastlondonlines, there are currently 71 households with children or pregnant members who have been in bed and breakfasts for more than six weeks. In 2011, that number was five and the year before there were none.
The borough has 11,000 council properties, of which only 50 to 75 come available monthly and only 40 new properties scheduled to be built this year.
Racheal says the council have at points mentioned rehousing her in Wandsworth and the Midlands and have told her that other families have been moved out of the borough. Jane Pritchard, a solicitor for TV Edwards, who specialises in providing legal aid for those in social housing said that councils are using properties outside of London as “a veiled threat”.
“We’ve had one family who were offered a property in Scotland. Another family were to be moved to Milton Keynes while one of their children was doing their GCSE’s. Without seeking advice, a lot of people feel there is no other option and are forced into the private sector.”
“We’ve had cases of a dad with one child in one room and a mum with another child next door. Often, when we challenge them on the legality of a situation, they’ll simply move the family down the corridor to a ‘self-contained’ unit or an annex.
“If a room has a sink and a hob and a toilet and shower in the corner, it is classed as ‘self-contained’, which is the magic word. In many cases, Croydon council are paying for the refurbishment of bed and breakfasts so that they can meet this classification.”
Councils are increasingly reliant on the private sector to pick up the slack. However while Croydon Council found 393 private rental properties in 2011, the number dropped to just 31 last year.
“We went to 50 estate agents and found that are many private properties available. But private landlords often want six months rent up front from the council if it is a social tenant. Landlords are business people, they’re under no obligation to take social tenants.
“What’s worse is that the housing benefit cap [which came in last year] incentivised private landlords to evict long-term residents and offer their properties on a short-term basis to councils desperate for accommodation,” said Prichard.
Asked why the situation had occurred, Croydon Council responded: “Like many local authorities, the council is currently experiencing a shortage of temporary accommodation and we are having to make greater use of emergency accommodation such as bed and breakfasts to house homeless families.
“Until around 2008/9, the council was able to source private rented accommodation, which provided sufficient properties to meet the demand for general needs temporary accommodation and homeless prevention.
“However, one of the consequences of the economic downturn and its impact on the housing market is that the supply of private rented properties available to the council has virtually dried up.
“This has meant we have had to use bed and breakfasts to house families.”
Pritchard says one thing is certain: “Neither the council nor government have any future plan for this.” In April, the £12 per week bedroom tax, and the £500 per week benefit cap will come into effect in Croydon, along with the abolition of council tax benefit. It is believed this will put further strain on housing in the borough with people having to move to smaller and cheaper properties. In addition, it is estimated that 550 families will move to the borough from more expensive areas of London when the cap comes into effect across the capital from June.
In the meantime, Racheal remains optimistic that she will be able to move back to New Addington where she has the support of her friends. She hopes that the situation will be resolved in time for the start of the children’s school term when she hopes to return to college to train as a midwife.
Reporting by Tomas Jivanda and Oscar Quine