Housing scheme launched to help struggling Waltham Forest families

The £2 million families in need programme will target households that can no longer afford privately rented accommodation in the borough, reports Josh Mellor, Local Democracy Reporter

A scheme to help Waltham Forest families who are at risk of homelessness has been launched amidst London’s deepening housing crisis.

The families in need programme, approved last week with a £2million budget, will target households that can no longer afford privately rented accommodation in the borough.

Privately rented homes – accounting for about a third of all housing in the borough – have seen some of the highest increases in rents since 2011 and account for half of the average resident’s income.

To help cope with the demand and cost of housing families in temporary accommodation, which is a legal obligation for the council in some cases, it has published a plan to “reshape” its homelessness support.

This includes hiring a new “tenancy sustainment team” who will identify families at risk and ensure they have the “skills, services and opportunities” to maximise their income.

Council leader Grace Williams first announced the scheme a year ago following a series of controversial cases of single-mother families being told to move hundreds of miles from the borough if they wanted to continue receiving housing support from the council.

Speaking to cabinet, she said: “We are seeing a growing number of residents who are in housing need and who come to us rightly expecting help.

“But obviously we have a housing shortage and we need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to mitigate this crisis, which is really difficult.

“[This plan is] really a recognition that with the situation being so complex and so grave, it requires a completely different level of support for our residents who are in housing need.”

In recognition of concerns about the way the council has managed homelessness cases, it is bringing back face-to-face housing assessments, addressing staffing issues and has asked charity Shelter to review its housing service later this year.

A report on the plan admits that the council’s housing service has faced “significant staffing [issues]” causing long waits, a lack of “upstream” homelessness prevention and “unmanageable officer caseloads”.

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To tackle this, it will hire “experienced agency staff” on an interim basis while it works out how to improve staff recruitment and retention.

The admission follows a change of leadership in the council’s senior team, with corporate director of housing strategy and options Modester Anucha leaving her role in March this year.

The tenancy sustainment team of four staff due to launch this month will use software to identify low-income families living in privately-rented accommodation who are at risk of homelessness.

The team will help households that have council tax arrears, have asked the council for support in the past or are impacted by the benefit cap, which restricts the amount of low-income households can claim.

Through employment support, the council hopes to help families avoid the benefit cap by increasing their household income to at least £658.66 per month – equivalent to sixteen hours of work on the national living wage.

Alongside this, a £750,000 fund has been set aside to help families “modest, targeted” sums of money which the council hopes will prevent it from needing to provide temporary accommodation.

The council is also considering following the advice of the affordable housing commission, which issued its findings last month, by hiring staff to offer tenants advice on their rights.

Currently, free and independent housing advice focusing on homelessness prevention and “regulatory matters” is available at the Waltham Forest Community Hub in Walthamstow, funded by the Trust for London.

If the council hires tenants’ rights officers, they could offer additional advice on finding housing, understanding tenancy agreements, finances and eviction laws.

Ahsan Khan, the council’s lead for housing and regeneration, said the government did not offer him “the courtesy of a reply” to a recent letter calling for the chancellor to “unfreeze” local housing allowance rates to make renting affordable to households on benefits.

He added: “We are housing residents in some instances at a considerable distance from the borough.

“That’s something that I’m not entirely comfortable with but I understand that at times we have no other option.

“Our policy is always at the first instance to place people in the borough or as close to the borough as possible.

“Unfortunately, there are not enough homes.”

To read the full council report, click here.

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