Shale Ahmed, project leader of the Local Conversation in Lozells in Birmingham, talks about the problems facing social and private renters and how his organisation is supporting them to improve conditions and people’s health.
Ours is a wonderfully diverse neighbourhood with the church, the mosque, the temple, and most of the shops on the roads are made up by local people so there’s a great sense of community. My mum could go out for milk without her purse and it would be fine, she could pay later or the next day.
One of the things about having a great neighborhood is that lots of people want to live here and residents want to remain here no matter what. We see an average of 300 families that walk through our doors every week and 280 of them need support with housing issues.
We’ve done some amazing work in supporting our residents to improve their housing conditions but the problems aren’t going away.
Rising price of rent and declining living conditions
Many of the houses are privately owned and rented out by landlords who know that demand is high. When we first started the Local Conversation, the average rent on a two-bedroom house in Lozells was between £500-550 per month; eight years later it’s £1,200 a month.
The conditions of the private and social rented houses are getting worse. Some of the cases we’ve dealt with include windows not opening, leaks, widespread mould. Some landlords don’t bother to fix them because there’s no necessity for them to do it. If a tenant raises a problem, they’re threatened with eviction. The house is given to someone else the following month with minimal or no repair. They’re lucky if the house gets a lick of paint.
People are scared to complain to landlords; what happens if you’re served notice and you have to leave the neighborhood where you’ve lived for years, where your children go to school? The next thing you know you can be 40 miles away. If you're constantly worried and feel like you can't talk about the damp or the window not opening, that has a huge burden on mental health and wellbeing and we’ve seen firsthand the effect it has on many family environments. We’ve heard people say they would rather live in a damp house with a towel on the mattress with a one year old child than being uprooted from this neighborhood.
Lack of homes and insecure housing
In Birmingham the waiting list for council housing is around 20,000 families when there are only around 1,800 available houses. In Lozells, an average household has between 3-4 children so you need a minimum of a three-bedroom house, and the council are not building these kinds of homes any more.
Temporary housing is something we see a lot of, either from people who have recently moved to the area - migrants or refugees - or who have been made homeless by the rising cost of housing. Where we see the biggest health and wellbeing benefits is in families who have moved from temporary to stable housing.
There was one family who were moved from pillar to post, living in a series of hotels for around four years. Despite this, they were classified as Band C by the council, which means a lower priority and often takes years to find accommodation. The family didn't know what kind of paperwork to submit to upgrade them to Band A where they’d be a top priority for a permanent house. We helped them compile and submit the right evidence, showing that their accommodation was overcrowded and that they've been stuck in temporary accommodation for a long time. Within three months they secured a house down the road from where we’re based. The difference in their wellbeing is incredible. It's hard to quantify, but just by looking at them you could tell in their smiles, the way they responded to you, that their quality of life had improved.
The best thing for us as an organisation is that we don't want to continuously see the same people. We want to help people to get to the next stage of their life. This family used to drop in to our sessions nearly every day and now they don’t come. We see them occasionally on the street and they get really excited. They give us Asian sweets as gifts and tell us we have to visit them in their new house. They say the kids have space to study and their family is close by. Being house proud or being able to bring people over to socialise is so massive. They don’t feel ashamed or where they live any more.
Housing system not fit for purpose
The system to apply for social housing is so complicated and it provides a lot of barriers that don’t get mentioned enough. We were supporting an older man who uses a mobility scooter living on the eighth floor of a flat where the lift was always broken. It was taking him half an hour to climb the stairs.
We got him classified as Band A using some of this evidence to find more suitable housing and the council offered him a home. The problem with the process is you have to bid on a house when it’s offered to you before you’ve even had a chance to see it. If you refuse a house you’ve bid on, you’re pushed down the line and it takes a long time for something else to be offered to you.
This man bid on a house and when he saw it for the first time his mobility scooter wouldn’t fit through the front door and the only bathroom was upstairs, when he’d requested a bathroom and bedroom downstairs. The house wasn’t fit for his needs and he rejected it but this meant he was moved down a band. The process is the wrong way round – someone should have their needs taken into consideration and at the very least be able to view a house before they’re made to bid on it. We worked with him to have the council overturn their decision and find him an appropriate house. It’s exhausting having to argue the case for our residents and fighting with the council every step of the way. It shouldn’t be this difficult.
We’ve built a great community in Lozells and done some excellent work helping our residents improve the quality of their lives and health through housing. It shouldn’t be so difficult for people to find secure and stable housing that’s in a good condition. The difference it makes to people’s lives is enormous but major changes are needed at a local level in Lozells, and nationally, so that more people can feel the change of living in a better, more secure home.
Shale Ahmed is the project lead for Aspire and Succeed's Local Conversation in Lozells.