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Tackling housing and homelessness in Hastings

The government’s relentless imposition of austerity naturally hits the worst-off hardest. Given the drastic shortage of social and affordable housing, finding and keeping a place to live has become a problem for many in Hastings. Peter Chowney, leader of Hastings Borough Council, told Nick Terdre how it is tackling problems of housing and homelessness in difficult circumstances.

Many of today’s housing problems can be traced back to Margaret Thatcher’s flagship Right to Buy policy in the 1980s, which allowed established council tenants to buy their homes but made no provision for replacing the houses thus lost to the private sector.

Like many councils frustrated with the lack of affordable housing, Hastings Borough Council has set up its own housing company, which has just come into operation. Initially, Cllr Chowney says, it will be acquiring homes and letting them out – at a fair rent. As a private company, its housing will not be subject to the Right to Buy.

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Cllr Peter Chowney (photo: HBC).

But the company has another objective in addition to tackling the housing shortage – it is also part of the council’s income-generating strategy to help bridge the £2 million shortfall in its budget. Eventually it is intended to make money by building homes on council-owned land and selling them.

The company will be funded by money borrowed by the council on favourable terms from the Public Works Loan Board. Transactions between the council and the housing company will have to be at market rates, otherwise they would be seen as breaking competition regulations, Cllr Chowney says. But as the company is 100% owned by the council, all profits it makes will come back to the council.

Central government support cut

This year the council’s Revenue Support Grant, which has been reduced every year since 2010, was cut by Westminster by £1.2 million, Cllr Chowney said. Nevertheless, in anticipation of growing homelessness, the council allowed for an increase of £63,000 in this year’s housing budget.

The council should also benefit from the New Homes Bonus, a government incentive to house-building. But grants are based on a rigid formula which favours areas with greenfield sites to build on rather than those like Hastings which are limited to brownfield sites. They take no account of relevant criteria such as population or the number of homes in the local plan, Cllr Chowney said. So Hastings’ current allocation is a mere £5,000, while Wealden District Council gets £460,000.

Housing associations take over

The council itself has owned no housing since the late 1990s, when its housing stock was transferred to Amicus Horizon, a not-for-profit housing association then known as 1066 Housing Association. Amicus Horizon owns just over 4,400 properties in Hastings at present, it told HOT. It currently has another 71 properties under construction or refurbishment, representing an investment of £11 million, which should be available for occupation by March next year.

Archery Ground, where Orbit plans to build 61 affordable homes.

Archery Ground, where Orbit plans to build 61 affordable homes.

Another 68 affordable houses which form part of the Archery Ground redevelopment in St Leonards will be owned by Orbit Homes, another housing association.

The Right to Buy has slowed to a trickle these days. In 2016/17, Amicus Horizon sold only seven properties under this legislation. And this right may now change – a voluntary system is being piloted by the government under which housing associations would not be obliged to sell.

But the damage has been done – not only has the stock of social housing been substantially reduced, but when considering newbuildings, housing associations have had to take into account the risk that they might be obliged to sell a relatively recently built property before they have fully recouped their investment.

There is precious little new social or affordable housing being built at present, and the situation has worsened since the coalition government eased the requirement for a quota of affordable housing to be included in planned developments – now even that quota is at risk as developers argue (without having to publicly prove their case) that it makes their projects unviable. A recent glaring example was the shedding of 31 affordable homes from the 103 dwellings planned for the Station Plaza.

Helping the homeless

Although it owns no housing stock, the council does have responsibility for helping families faced with homelessness to find a new place to live. There are various reasons why people find themselves in this predicament, such as relationship breakdown or eviction due to rent arrears, which may be another effect of austerity. But an increasingly prevalent cause is landlords ending short-term tenancies in order to push the rent up, Cllr Chowney says.

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Station Plaza, where the developer’s unproved viability claims led to the 31-unit affordable housing quota being dropped. Planning permission was originally granted in 2006, so this project may be another example of land-banking.

The number of homeless households seeking help from the council has risen steadily in recent years. From 119 in 2010/11, the first year of the coalition government, it reached 559 in 2016/17. But there are stringent rules governing those to whom the council has a ‘full homelessness duty,’ and last year only 230 applicants were accepted for rehousing.

Not everyone knows they can seek help from the council – or chooses to do so – so even the number of applications for help is an underestimate of the true number of homeless.

Larger numbers are helped under the council’s strategy of homelessness prevention, a service which it is under a statutory duty to provide. In 2016/17, the number of households which received help was 1,766, down from 2,385 the previous year. These numbers include mainly households at risk of becoming homeless who were helped to stay in their present residence or move into alternative accommodation, and a smaller number of homeless who were helped to find accommodation.

That decrease may be at least partly due to resources having to be diverted to assist the increased number of households presenting as homeless.

With the roll-out of universal credit looming in Hastings, the government’s insistence on leaving claimants on benefits without any income for several weeks – at present six, though pressure is mounting for this to be reduced – is also likely to boost homelessness as tenants become unable to pay their rent. Housing benefit has already been restricted so that it only covers part of the rent.

Benefit sanctions, which are often implemented for minor infractions, are also having a big effect, Cllr Chowney says, pushing people into homelessness because they are unable to pay their rent during the sanction period.

Private rented sector

As social and affordable housing in Hastings is in effect fully occupied, the council has to resort to the private rented sector for rehousing purposes. This sector, which is larger in Hastings than in most towns, has so far been able to absorb the households threatened with homelessness. But that situation may not continue indefinitely, Cllr Chowney warns.

Hastings is largely dependent on the private rented sector for rehousing homeless families.

Hastings is largely dependent on the private rented sector for rehousing homeless families.

“Private rented property is being bought up by people wanting to turn it back into family residences, owner occupation,” he says. “If you go and talk to estate agents in central St Leonards, they’ll tell you it’s happening on a big scale. So I would anticipate that you’ll see a reduction in the size of the private rented sector in Hastings.”

The rehousing process does not always run smoothly – often families will find themselves living in bed and breakfast accommodation for a period. In the first nine months of 2016/17, 125 families spent some time in B&Bs, almost 50% higher than the 86 who did so in the same 2015/16 period.

Social Lettings agency

Last year the council introduced the Social Lettings agency as a means of increasing its access to property which can be used to house those threatened with homelessness. In this case the private owner leases a property to the council at a fixed rate for a three-year period. The council then lets the property at an affordable rent and maintains it in the condition in which it took it on.

So far some 50 properties have been leased to the council under this scheme – that is enough, Cllr Chowney says, to make the scheme self-sufficient. It relies partly on central government funding, and as the government recently changed its funding model, the council is now reviewing its operation. While this exercise is under way, no new properties are being taken on, though the council says it remains committed to exploring all options for continuing with the agency.

Selective Licensing scheme

Many tenants in the private sector find themselves living in sub-standard conditions due to landlords’ failure to maintain their properties at an acceptable standard – electrical wiring may be unsafe, there may be damp. Although this amounts to a violation of tenants’ rights to decent accommodation, Cllr Chowney points out, they are often reluctant to complain for fear of being evicted.

The Selective Licensing scheme introduced by the council in 2015 in the wards with most private rented properties – Braybrooke, Castle, Central St Leonards, Gensing, Ore, Old Hasting and Tressell – enables the council to regulate conditions in private rented properties.

Landlords are obliged to sign up for the scheme, under which each property has to be registered. The registration fee, originally £460, is to be raised to £665 to ensure that after five years the scheme is financially neutral for the council. To date some 6,000 licences have been applied for and more than 5,000 issued.

To register, a property has to meet certain requirements – for instance, there must be a valid tenancy agreement, and the property must meet certain standards, such as having fitted smoke alarms.

To verify that these requirements are being met, council officers have to visit the property, and if they find it in an unacceptable state, they can order further inspections. This can lead to improvement notices being served on landlords, backed up where necessary by court action. In 2016/17 55 improvement notices were issued.

Voluntary agencies

Even where applicants do not qualify for rehousing, the council is still under a duty to provide them with advice and assistance, for example on where to look for alternative accommodation, or by directing them to voluntary agencies such as the Seaview Project, which helps homeless and vulnerable people, including many who slip through the net of the statutory agencies.

A rough sleeper. the number of rough sleepers in Hastings is on the increase (photo: Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0/wikimedia commons).

A rough sleeper. The number of rough sleepers in Hastings is on the increase (photo: Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0/wikimedia commons).

At the bottom of the pile are rough sleepers, whose efforts to keep a roof over their head have failed, leaving them out on the streets. Their numbers are rising fast – in  2016/17 221 people, including 11 females, were found to be sleeping on the streets in Hastings at some time or other, a 43% increase on the 155 found in 2015/16.

Most rough sleepers alternate between sleeping out and finding temporary relief – on a friend’s sofa, for example. On any one night there might be 25-35 people sleeping rough. Once a year in November, numbers are counted as part of a national survey of rough sleeping; last year 26 were found in Hastings, compared with 16 the previous year.

As Cllr Chowney points out, there would be more sleeping rough in the winter months were it not for voluntary bodies like Snowflake, which provides food and overnight shelter. The average number given emergency accommodation by Snowflake in the winter of 2016/17 was 16 a night, while the total for the winter was 56.

If the dire effects predicted for the roll-out of universal credit turn out to be correct, the number of rough sleepers can be expected to increase in the coming winter.

An empty house before it was acquired by CPO...

An empty house before it was acquired by CPO…

Tackling empty homes

In view of the number of unoccupied houses, the council has an Empty Homes strategy for encouraging owners to bring them back into use. Since 2011, it recently reported, 621 long-term empty homes have been re-occupied. Even so, it knows of nearly 500 currently unoccupied.

 

...and after it was brought back into occupation (photo: HBC).

…and after it was brought back into occupation (photo: HBC).

As a last resort the council can use compulsory purchase powers to take over properties which have remained unused for more than two years. Once a property has been acquired in this way, it has to be sold at auction. This can be done with a covenant attached requiring the new owner to bring it into use. However, the original owner has to be fully compensated, and the council is unable to reclaim the costs incurred.

So a CPO – compulsory purchase order – can prove expensive, especially if a property sells at below the market rate at auction. Currently some 50 properties a year are being acquired through CPOs, at an annual cost to the council of some £50-60,000. In July the compulsory purchase of 12 properties was approved.

Land-banking

The final frustration for the council’s house-building plans is caused when developers fail to build promptly after being granted planning permission for housing projects, whether or not they include a quota of affordable homes.

Not infrequently they sit on their land and their permission, waiting for new house prices to improve, looking to sell on or using the asset to secure tax advantages, a process known as land-banking. Although planning permission is normally valid only for three years, the developer only has to make a token start to development, such as digging some drains, and the permission becomes valid in perpetuity.

Cllr Chowney says that at a rough estimate, there appear to be some 2,000 new houses in the borough for which planning permission has been granted but which are not yet being built. He would like councils to be given powers to bring about construction.

Possibly the housing company could play a role here, taking over land-banked  projects through the CPO mechanism. It would be costly in terms of the compensation that would have to be paid, but bringing the backlog of homes on stream would significantly improve the state of housing supply in Hastings.

Posted 16:35 Wednesday, Nov 8, 2017 In: Home Ground

2 Comments


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  1. Ms.Doubtfire

    Cllr. Chowney needs to acknowledge his own council’s policies towards these developers who decide to sit on land waiting for the prices to edge up. Many a planning permission in this town has been allowed to stay dormant with the most feeble of evidence that the development has commenced. Take the West Hill Road site – vacant for nigh on 30 years now…the developer insists that an electrical cable was installed on the site before the three year cut off date. And this council has accepted this as proof of commencement of the development. Cllr. Peter Chowney needs to wise up to his own council’s activities in this direction.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Thursday, Nov 9, 2017 @ 09:07

  2. Penny

    Second homes and the rise of Air B&Bs have increased the unavailability of real homes at affordable rents here.
    If there was the political will to reintroduce “Fair Rents”, tax second homes and vacant properties to the hilt, and register / control the Air B&B industry, at least it would clarify the situation.
    Every time a previously designated “Social Housing” or Housing Association property is up for sale, it should be brought back into the public sector.
    If you see HCIS (Hastings Cottage Improvement Society) on a building in the Old Town, it was designated for rent by local people doing local jobs. Now they’re being sold, and used for tourism at high rentals. See Lindsell Cottages, Tackleway for example.

    Comment by Penny — Thursday, Nov 9, 2017 @ 08:05

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