NEWS
03/07/2018 12:41 BST | Updated 13/07/2018 10:58 BST

Birmingham's Housing Is In Crisis – These People Are Working To Fix it

'Everyone could be in that situation of potential crisis in the next five minutes.'

Mark Radford
Lee Blake co-founded a website to help homeless people find empty rooms

Shane got kicked out of home by his mum when he was 15, as he didn’t get on with her new boyfriend. He started using the street drugs spice and mamba while sofa surfing for two or three years. 

Finally, he was referred by a youth homelessness organisation to rent a flat from Lee Blake, a co-founder of Homeless Rooms Birmingham, a website which helps homeless people in the city find supported accommodation.

“For the first six months it was all good - he paid his rent, paid his top-ups, it was fine,” explained Blake. “But then after a while he started to smoke too much cannabis, and just kind of stopped paying his rent. He got sanctioned by the job centre because he couldn’t be bothered to get there.”

“So I said, ‘Ok, we need to come up with a plan.’ I knew he didn’t have the money, and was unlikely to ever have the money, so I said ‘I’ve got a new property, could you come and paint for me and we’ll work off your debt that way?’”

Blake’s gesture led to Shane turning his life around. He discovered a skill for painting and decorating: “It turned out he was really, really handy and much better than I’ve ever been with handy work.” 

Shane, still only in his early 20s, is now thriving. “He’s doing really well. He’s earning good money and he’s got that sense of pride, that he’s contributing to something.

“He used to say he didn’t want a job and now he’s up at six in the morning, grafting and saying he’s knackered. He still likes to play xBox though - he’s still young!” 

For Blake, Shane’s story shows the luck involved for someone to make it out of homelessness to a more secure life. “It’s a bit like [the film] Sliding Doors. If he’d have had another landlord and not used our website, then he might have just gone back onto the streets, and he might have found it easier to go back to spice and mamba and maybe hard drugs.”

Everyone’s looking after their own turf Victoria Quinn
Mark Radford
Victoria Quinn says the housing system has no watchdog

Blake was one of a group of locals and housing experts from Birmingham who shared their thoughts at a HuffPost UK Listening Circle event, which invited a group of people from across the city to share their experiences on housing, as part of HuffPost Listens.

Another guest, Victoria Quinn, was was a councillor for eight years until May said the housing system is chronically disjointed. “There’s no one place to go to get somewhere to live. You could be told to go to a private letting agent, and don’t know that they are a crook, or don’t know that they don’t take people on any form of benefits. There’s no watchdog over it.”

“Everyone’s looking after their own turf: private landlords are looking after their bit. Owner occupiers are not bothered, they are just NIMBYs. The council only looks after their tenants.” 

She said it was everyone’s responsibility to understand how someone can easily reach a situation of homelessness because “everyone could be in that situation of potential crisis in the next five minutes.”

Mark Radford
Barrie Hodge explained how easily someone could lose their home without support such as that from family

Barrie Hodge, the head of fundraising and communications at St Basils, a youth homelessness charity which hosted the event, said he’d realised the precariousness of housing himself when he was a young man.

“I was 25, I was living in Newcastle, I’d just moved there. I moved into this lovely flat, and then I realised rather quickly after three weeks that I didn’t have any money in my bank account. It was another week until I’d get paid.

“It was at that moment that I realised I was totally ill-prepared to actually have my own place. I didn’t have the life skills, I didn’t know how to budget money, I didn’t know how to cook for myself, clean for myself, I didn’t know the realities of life.”

Hodge was able to ask his parents for support, but so many young people can’t, he explained, which is why St Basils works with more than just providing a roof for young people who find themselves homeless. “If you don’t have those life skills and understand those things, then unfortunately you’re never going to succeed in life.”

If they don’t have the money, what happens to them? Will they sleep on the streets Leona Leung
Mark Radford
Leona Leung said landlords feel the Right to Rent scheme can discriminate

Leona Leung, a letting agent and landlord in Birmingham, said that the government’s Right to Rent scheme, which forces landlords to check the migration status of prospective tenants, was leading to homelessness and problems for landlords who were being asked to act as border agents.

The government has been taken to court over the scheme which critics say discriminates against tenants who aren’t British or are from an ethnic minority. 

Leung said it could be impossible for landlords to tell if a passport or identity document was real. “Is it fair on overseas tenants that we don’t know what their passports are like? There are really good fake ones now.

And if EU citizens don’t have a passport with them, and they don’t have birth certificate, how do you know if they’ve got that passport or not?

“We’re scared because we get imprisoned and fined £3,000 [if we don’t do the check right]. 

“Or let’s say if we believe they have a real passport, but it takes days or weeks for the home office to issue a letter confirming that, where are they going to live?

“If they have money they could stay in hotels, but it’s very expensive. If they don’t have the money, what happens to them? Will they sleep on the streets. It also means empty properties while we pay council tax.”

Mark Radford
Andy Reeve believes things are changing for the better

Andy Reeve, the co-founder of Birmingham Impact Hub, a social enterprise, who also works with data to tacking housing issues in the city, said there was opportunity for new homes in the “huge” amount of unused land owned by the city’s council and public bodies. 

“There is this huge bank of small and unusual sites which haven’t really been explored yet because they’ve not been suitable for the open market, and they’ve been a bit difficult for the council to activate themselves,” he explained.

“In the era when we built a lot more parks, there are bits that have have fallen into disrepute and are too expensive to keep so the council has just put a big fence around it, so it’s just a wasteland where people chuck their rubbish.

Reeve is working with community groups and the council to try to come up with ways to use this land, and says the rise of schemes like community land trusts suggest a change in our approach to how housing should be run.

Reeve feels that the media conversation around housing nationally hasn’t helped the current issues. 

“It has been about pitting people against each other so new development is often talked about as if you’re a NIMBY on one side or a developer on the other. There’s an unfortunate media perception which creates battles in the housing market.

The actual bigger issue is lots of things interacting which creates this big mess of stuff that we’re in. There’s always a guy somewhere you can blame, but I think there’s lots of opportunities for us to collectively work together.”

HuffPost UK

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