Revealed: How Covid Has Made The UK's Bitter Housing Crisis Even Worse

There have been steep rises in people living in temporary accommodation since Covid hit.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: HuffPost UK

Covid has made Britain’s desperate housing crisis worse, with the pandemic fuelling a sharp rise in the number of homeless people living in temporary accommodation, HuffPost UK can reveal.

Our investigation has identified the shocking rate at which homelessness increased in the early months of the virus outbreak – and looks set to spiral further as the chaos and economic hardship inflicted by coronavirus continues to affect families across the country.

We can exclusively reveal:

  • The number of homeless households living in temporary accommodation in England (98,300) is now at its highest level since 2005 – and includes 62,700 families with children.
  • The total figure soared by 6,110 households – or 7% – in just three months between March and June this year, according to government figures.
  • The government says this is largely due to the national drive to move rough sleepers off the streets during the first wave of the pandemic, but homeless charities fear the upward trend will continue as more families are at risk of losing their homes now the government’s Covid-19 amnesty on evictions has been lifted.
  • The number of private renters in arrears reached 442,000 adults in July – double the same period last year, according to the charity Shelter.
  • Meanwhile, the government has still failed to fund 60,000 “shovel-ready” schemes to build houses in the capital, despite asking councils for details of them at the height of the pandemic.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “People should be as shocked by the housing situation in the UK as they are by the healthcare system in America. There is no safety net for people and that’s why people are forced to live in these vulnerable circumstances – and that is a choice we are making.”

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter
Courtesy of Shelter

The revelations come after HuffPost UK’s investigation on Monday shone a spotlight on how the crisis is affecting homeless families, including some who are consigned to live in rooms the size of one or two parking spaces for months on end.

A heavy burden is also being placed on councils.

Government data published in October show local authorities in England spent almost £1.2bn on temporary housing for homeless people in 2019/20, with 87% of the cash spent with private landlords, lettings agents or companies – or £1bn.

The total spend is a jump of 9% compared to the previous year, and a rise of 55% over the last five years.

While London boroughs are by far the worst affected by the crisis, Birmingham, Manchester, Luton, Milton Keynes, Bristol and Coventry are all among the top 25 areas in England with the highest numbers of homeless households, according to the government data we analysed.

Levels of homelessness also soared in other parts of the UK.

The number of homeless households in temporary accommodation in Scotland (14,229 in September) has risen by 22% since March. Wales saw a huge increase of 53%, from 2,324 in March to 3,566 in August this year. The most recent figures for Northern Ireland from 2017/18 show 3,354 households were affected.

The damning findings have led to urgent calls for the government to build the affordable homes families on low incomes desperately need.

Council leaders told HuffPost UK spending £1bn with private landlords was “completely illogical” and had done nothing to alleviate the growing crisis.

“It’s very sad that we now effectively see a market in temporary accommodation,” said Rebecca Rennison, cabinet member for housing at Hackney Council. “That shouldn’t exist. We shouldn’t have that number of households homeless.”

‘Exceptional returns’ on housing the homeless

Finefair lettings agency works with councils in London to accommodate homeless households
Finefair lettings agency works with councils in London to accommodate homeless households
Emma Youle/HuffPost

HuffPost UK has found evidence that the housing crisis is driving demand for property owners to convert rental flats and houses into the type of one-room bedsit accommodation used by many councils to house homeless people – and sometimes, as we revealed this week, even whole families.

One major operator in the sector, Finefair Ltd – a lettings agency working with councils in London to accommodate homeless households – advertises how lucrative converting properties can be.

The company’s website promises home owners “exceptional returns” by turning their properties into HMOs (houses of multiple occupation) and hostels.

The firm’s annual report in 2019 also highlights how the increase of homelessness year on year is driving demand for this type of housing. The company made £1.8m in profit in 2018-2019 on revenue of £22m.

We approached Kamran Naseem, founder and managing director of Finefair, for comment. In response, a spokesperson said: “We provide much needed accommodation which meets the required standards, and operate within guidelines in respect of rent charges set out by the local authority.”

The families living in one room

Jankhana and her family (left) lived in one room, sharing a kitchen and bathroom, in a building in Plaistow. Pictured (right) is the kitchenette in the room.
Jankhana and her family (left) lived in one room, sharing a kitchen and bathroom, in a building in Plaistow. Pictured (right) is the kitchenette in the room.
HuffPost UK

HuffPost UK on Monday revealed the difficulties faced by homeless families living in one-room accommodation with shared kitchens and bathrooms. We reported on conditions for two families in the capital who were crammed into rooms the size of one or two parking spaces. Both had seen cockroaches and one had problems with mice.

Finefair Ltd was the agent renting out one of these properties – a loft conversion in Ilford, east London, where a mother and her two-year-old daughter had been placed by Hackney Council.

Finefair and the owners of the property, former City lawyer Uzma Naseem and tax adviser Abid Karim, told HuffPost UK all the rooms met space standards set by the government and said any complaints of pest infestation were responded to within 24 hours.

A mother and her two-year-old daughter lived in this loft room (left) at a house in Ilford. Pictured (right) are two cockroaches that were found in the property.
A mother and her two-year-old daughter lived in this loft room (left) at a house in Ilford. Pictured (right) are two cockroaches that were found in the property.
HuffPost UK

The other property we reported on, a block of homeless housing in Plaistow in east London, was used by Newham Council to house a family of four who lived in one room, sharing a kitchen and bathroom with two other residents.

According to Land Registry records the block is owned by Eve Investments Ltd, an offshore company registered in Jersey.

It was not possible for HuffPost UK to establish the identity of the company’s owner because this information is not made public in Jersey.

The Jersey-based agents for Eve Investments Ltd did not comment when contacted by HuffPost UK.

The property is managed and operated, through a leasehold agreement, by Elan Management Solutions Ltd – a UK company owned by the property developer and human rights activist Edwin Shuker.

Elan Management Solutions Ltd told HuffPost UK: “Our building provides local authorities with emergency and temporary accommodation to people who find themselves in a wide range of incredibly difficult circumstances. Our facilities are set up to provide safe shelter for a few days or weeks, rather than as a long-term housing solution.”

The company added: “Operating in this sector is, unfortunately, far from easy. The circumstances that lead to our residents’ arrival at our door are rarely happy and frequently heartbreaking. Our dedicated team of local staff provide and maintain a safe and secure environment for our residents, including staff being on site 24/7 and a large garden for use by the residents.”

Occasional incidents of pest control or malfunctions in heating are dealt with as speedily as possible by an in-house maintenance team or rapid response contractors, the company said, adding that it takes its responsibilities “incredibly seriously”.

“This is a highly regulated industry and we always strive not only to comply with all the regulations but to deal with each resident client with respect and dignity,” Elan said.

Elan said that according to its last set of accounts its profit was £30,061.

Both Finefair and Elan Management Solutions said they played no role in selecting or allocating who is placed into the buildings, which is the sole remit of the local authority.

In the case of the family housed in the Elan property, we understand that when the local authority made the booking it was to place a mother and her two children in the room. The family later made it clear to the council the children’s father would also be living there. Elan says the booking was made for three occupants and it was unclear how the council had ended up allocating four people there.

Priced out: not enough affordable rental homes

A high street in Newham. The east London borough has the highest number of households living in temporary accommodation in the country.
A high street in Newham. The east London borough has the highest number of households living in temporary accommodation in the country.
David Mbiyu/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Local authorities are required by law to offer temporary accommodation to homeless households.

While this type of accommodation is designed to be short-term, the unaffordability of more stable housing for thousands of the country’s poorest families means they can end up living there for months or even years.

There is no legal limit to how long councils can place households in temporary accommodation before offering them more suitable homes.

The councils HuffPost UK spoke to said they faced an “impossible task” in trying to house rising numbers of homeless people when there is not enough affordable rental accommodation.

Newham and Hackney, the councils who placed the two families HuffPost UK reported on, are the areas of England with the highest and second highest numbers of homeless households living in temporary accommodation.

Rennison said soaring house prices and rising rents had left Hackney Council effectively operating as a landlord to thousands of homeless households priced out of the rental sector.

“We’ve got over 3,000 households in temporary accommodation and it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s not temporary any more – families and households will often stay until they get a permanent home.

“We keep pursuing every avenue, trying to identify every opportunity – everything from our own social house-building programme to campaigns we do to identify properties people might be able to afford in the private sector and move out to. But the whole system is broken.”

The Labour councillor said placing families into temporary accommodation for long periods of time could have very damaging effects, particularly on children.

“It’s a choice no council wants to make,” she said. “And all we can do is continue to work and try and improve the quality of what we have. But it is heartbreaking. Children are growing up in cramped accommodation.”

Rennison called on the government to invest in social housing and acknowledge that incomes have not kept track with soaring rental prices. “Remove the benefits cap and actually give people on low incomes a chance of finding a property in the private rented sector,” she said.

60,000 ‘shovel-ready’ housing schemes

Darren Rodwell
Darren Rodwell
Courtesy of London Councils

Darren Rodwell, deputy chair of housing for London Councils – a body that represents all councils in the capital – echoed calls for investment in new affordable homes.

He told HuffPost UK the government had asked local authorities at the height of the pandemic if they had any “shovel-ready schemes” to deliver housing and infrastructure projects. London councils had identified 60,000 housing schemes, asking for cash to get them off the ground.

Yet London was not awarded a penny to build any new homes, instead receiving what Rodwell described as the “meagre” amount of £22m for other building projects.

He called on the government to make money available to fund the housing schemes, saying: “It would help the economy and it would help the housing crisis.”

“The prime minister’s line is that we should ‘build, build, build’. Well to ‘build, build, build’ you need the investment,” he said.

The government said the projects supported nationwide by the scheme – the £900m Getting Building Fund – are projected to deliver 64,000 homes, albeit none of them in the capital.

Rodwell, who is also a Labour councillor and leader of Barking and Dagenham Council, admitted the pressure on local authorities and a lack of properties to place people into did sometimes result in families living in accommodation that did not fit their needs.

“The problem is we don’t have properties to give to people,” he said. “They’re not there. We can’t move people to something that’s not there.

“People have got to understand how big a problem it is.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson visits a construction site in Warrington in August. The government has been slammed for failing to fund 60,000 housing schemes in the capital
Prime minister Boris Johnson visits a construction site in Warrington in August. The government has been slammed for failing to fund 60,000 housing schemes in the capital
PHIL NOBLE via Getty Images

Councils are also braced for a further escalation in homelessness following the lifting, on September 20, of the government’s temporary ban on evictions due to the pandemic.

As yet the true impact of this change is unknown as landlords have to give tenants six months’ notice if they wish to evict them under the Covid-19 temporary rules. So the fallout will not become apparent until March next year.

“We don’t know how many families will be kicked out of properties because they may have lost their job through no fault of their own,” said Rodwell.

But Barking and Dagenham is anticipating up to 40% of working-age people in the borough potentially being unemployed once the furlough scheme finishes, he said.

Newham Council told HuffPost UK it has worked “tirelessly” during the pandemic to ensure everyone was in safe housing, including moving 400 families – such as Jankhana’s, who featured in our first story – into self-contained homes.

Newham says it no longer places families into rooms with shared kitchens and bathrooms unless there is no other option.

The council said the Covid-19 pandemic had “disproportionately impacted” the borough, with more than 27,000 additional people needing to claim benefits and almost 17,000 on furlough.

“The government must do more to help local authorities meet the costs of supporting residents through the crisis,” a spokesperson said.

Gentrification: the problem is spreading to other cities

A residential street in Birmingham. The city has the third highest number of homeless households living in temporary accommodation in the country.
A residential street in Birmingham. The city has the third highest number of homeless households living in temporary accommodation in the country.
JUSTIN TALLIS via Getty Images

The crisis is not only affecting London. Other cities are also reporting substantial numbers of homeless families now living in temporary accommodation, according to government data.

Birmingham has the third highest number – 3,291 households as of June 2020 – and Manchester the ninth, with 2,313. The rest of the top 10 are London boroughs, but Luton, Milton Keynes, Bristol, and Coventry all have hundreds of households affected.

Jane Williams is the founder and CEO of The Magpie Project, a charity in Newham supporting mums and under-fives living in temporary accommodation.

“I think in larger cities it’s definitely an issue because of the way the housing market works,” she said. “As Manchester house prices go up and as the market evolves, and places get gentrified, then you will see the same thing happening.”

She said the crisis would worsen over the next six months: “I think unless there’s something extraordinary done, I can’t see how it wouldn’t.”

Mums at a drop-in session at The Magpie Project, which works to support families with children under five living in temporary accommodation
Mums at a drop-in session at The Magpie Project, which works to support families with children under five living in temporary accommodation
The Magpie Project

The Magpie Project supports about 170 homeless mums at any given time by providing a drop-in centre, food parcels, and access to legal and immigration advice. Williams says in their experience only about 20% live in temporary housing that is of adequate quality.

“The rest have issues,” she said. “And I think what’s really shocking is, when I set up the project three years ago, I thought these issues were when things had gone wrong. I thought these issues were odd cases where the system had broken down. But the creeping realisation came about that, no, this is the system.

“This is the system working.”

She said local authority housing teams are at “the mercy” of large private landlords because they’re competing with other councils to place families within homes that are available.

Speaking about the conditions families can face, she said: “What we tend to see is one room around the size of a parking space for a mother and child. Not necessarily any windows, or [there are] broken windows, poor heating, infestations, severe overcrowding, sharing bathrooms and kitchens.

“You can’t imagine ever being able to bring up a child in these circumstances.”

‘The government is ignoring this crisis’

Two rough sleepers drag a mattress down the road in London's Mayfair in November
Two rough sleepers drag a mattress down the road in London's Mayfair in November
Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

While councils and charities are braced for the numbers of new homeless households needing temporary accommodation to continue rising as the impact of the pandemic deepens, Shelter chief executive Polly Neate said the issue has been completely absent from the government’s policy agenda.

“I get really het-up about this because it’s completely ignored in the discourse about homelessness,” she said. “So the government keeps talking about ending homelessness, but what they mean by that is rough sleeping. It’s not to say rough sleeping isn’t important, but it means these families just get completely ignored in the political discourse about homelessness.”

For context, government figures show 14,610 rough sleepers were housed during lockdown. That compares to 98,300 households in temporary accommodation, enough to fill a large UK city.

Neate said Shelter works with homeless families living in temporary accommodation “all the time” and emphasised many of them are in work.

She accused the government of doing nothing to help low-income families priced out of the private rental sector who cannot afford to buy shared ownership properties or first homes, and who make up a substantial proportion of those now living in temporary homeless housing.

“Usually the government talks as though the housing crisis is rough sleeping at one end and people wanting to own their own homes at the other end,” she said. “The housing crisis is actually in the middle of that. The housing crisis is the fact that there is not any properly affordable housing. And are they dealing with that? No, they’re not.”

She condemned the current system, saying: “We are pouring taxpayers’ money into the pockets of private landlords instead of investing taxpayers’ money to build housing that people on low incomes can actually live in. It’s kind of the biggest nonsense that nobody really knows about.

We’ve got to acknowledge the real choices we are making. By not building social housing we are choosing this situation and we need to own up to that.”

The government, however, defended its position.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said it had spent £700m this year to tackle homelessness – a figure less than the £1.2bn spent on temporary accommodation by councils in 2019/20.

The department did not dispute the rising numbers of people in temporary accommodation, but did say the number of families with children living in temporary accommodation in England had fallen slightly by 270 from March to June this year – from 62,970 to 62,700.

MHCLG told HuffPost UK the overall rise in figures was likely due to the “Everyone In” programme to house rough sleepers during the pandemic having resulted in more individuals living in temporary housing organised by councils.

The government also announced a further £15m funding last month targeted at areas with the highest numbers of rough sleepers.

But the council leaders HuffPost UK spoke to said there had been no equivalent funding injection to help councils with the costs of housing the rising numbers of families in temporary accommodation.

HuffPost UK asked for comment on the issues highlighted by this investigation from housing secretary Robert Jenrick and housing minister Christopher Pincher.

They did not comment. But an MHCLG spokesperson said: “Everybody should have somewhere safe to live, and temporary accommodation plays a role in ensuring people are getting the help they need.

“We’re spending over £700m in total this year alone to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. This will help transform the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society.

“We are also investing £11.5bn through the Affordable Homes Programme – the highest single funding commitment to affordable housing in a decade. We will deliver a wide range of affordable homes of different tenures all across the country.”

Neate, however, pointed out many of these homes, which are aimed at those looking to buy a property, are nowhere near “affordable” for actual low-income families.

“The people who are priced out of the private rented sector aren’t people who can afford shared ownership or first homes,” she said. “All of these home ownership products are not helping this group of people.”