Hostels to Homes

“If you’ve got council property, you pay half the rent. Half, and that’s why I wanted to get council property, because I knew that if I got a council property, when I did actually work, I could make ends meet. But I knew that if I got a private property I couldn’t make ends meet. It wasn’t I wanted to be rich, or go on holiday abroad every year, I just wouldn’t be able to get by at all. And unfortunately they turned me down. Because they said, because I sold my house, I’d made myself ‘intentionally homeless’. And I said ‘Well I’m sorry, I’ve been born in Hackney, brought up in Hackney, I am a single mother with three children, and there is no way for me get by. I need a place’, and they wouldn’t have it.” [Georgina, interview with Hackney Housing Oral History Project]

In The Way Home you hear people’s experiences of homelessness and what it was like asking the local council for help. For those who would like to learn more, below is a brief history of housing provision focusing on how homeless people are treated by local authorities and how that has changed since 1945.

In the severe housing crisis during the Second World War bombed out homeless people were kept in ‘rest centres’, which were often old workhouses. After the war the number of homeless people kept increasing and by 1949 London’s homeless population had tripled in size. The 1948 National Assistance Act said people in ‘urgent need’ had to be given temporary accommodation. This law was not meant to help everyone; it was used by welfare departments (now called social services) to help people who were in trouble that they could not have foreseen. If someone had owed money on their rent  then they would not be helped. While women and children were housed, their husbands and  fathers were not allowed to live with them. In 1951 the London County Council were housing 3,500 households in temporary accommodation. [Greve, 1971]

In the mid-1950s the government decided to concentrate their housing policy on clearing the slums, meaning that allocation of London County Council housing  fell from 400 a year to only 50. [Greve, 1971] Welfare departments started turning more people away. To make the process as hard as possible families were admitted to night reception units and had to apply again at the housing office every day until a decision was made on their case. The welfare departments tried to make families rent privately and evictions from temporary accommodation rose. Children were often taken into care because their families were homeless, as would later be shockingly depicted in Ken Loach’s (1966)  film Cathy Come Home.

In the 1960s increasing numbers of families were becoming homeless and being placed in temporary accommodation by welfare departments.  Overcrowding was growing at the same time as expectations were changing; younger people did not want to share with their parents and grandparents.  Hackney was one of the most overcrowded places in London at the time.

“they says to me ‘We’ll, we’ll grant you this exchange, providing that you will put in for a three bedroom flat in two years’ time’. I was thrilled, I thought ooh, you know, they’re going to give me a three bedroom flat later on, took ‘em nine years. I was there for nine years. As my children grew older I bought a put-u-up settee, I put that in the front room for me and my husband, and the two bedrooms we had was for the two boys, and my daughter, that’s how we separated them. And for nine years we put that settee up and down every day, night and morning, and it broke after nine years just as we was moving into here” [Mary, interviewed by Hackney Housing Oral History Project]

There was a shortage of private rented housing – in 1971 only 9.1% of all housing was privately let – and middle class people were buying houses, so poor families had ‘double up’ and crowd in to what was left. (Greve, 1971) People looked towards council housing, which unlike private accommodation was growing, as a solution to their problems. Immigrants from Commonwealth countries found themselves stuck in the middle; while the London County Council (and most councils) applied a five year residency rule before you could apply for rehousing, (White, 2001) private housing was scarce and many landlords discriminated against prospective tenants on the basis of colour. Out of 1000 rooms advertised in a Hackney newspaper, 55% stipulated about the race of the tenant, 88%  in order to exclude any but white tenants. (Leech, 1967) Racism was a major cause of homelessness. In 1971  30% of applications for help with housing in central London were from “Commonwealth immigrants”. Of those, 75% of were being made homeless by private landlords compared to 1/3 of applicants who were not immigrants. (Greve, 1971)

Before the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977 , social workers decided who got housed on the basis of the National Assistance Act. In practice this meant that some groups of people were unlikely to be housed, for instance single mothers were not often helped. Women who had left their husbands were normally told to go back to the marital home or to get a separation order before receiving help. Those who had built up rent arrears in council accommodation were made to stay the longest in temporary accommodation, often three times as long as those evicted for rent arrears owed to private landlords. (Greve, 1971)

Social workers often remarked the people they worked with were “resentful and non-cooperative’” The following comments recorded in the notebooks social workers kept on  families in the 1960s are a revealing insight into the attitudes of  some social workers towards the families they were housing.

“The husband is not averse to other women and needs to be watched in the establishment”

“Well-spoken woman, better type then usually met with”

“Family came to this country with the intention of being looked after by the welfare state”

“Standards are in every way noticeably low, a typical Irish family”

“Re-housing offers cancelled ‘because husband did not stay in work’”

[Greve, 1971]

The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977 changed this, increasing the rights of homeless people to help and making the homeless the responsibility of housing instead of social services departments. This did not please the housing departments, who traditionally viewed those who made homeless applications as  less deserving than people on the waiting lists, a perception that lingers, to some extent, today. There was a sudden and immediate increase in the number of homeless applicants when the new law came in and housing officers found the change stressful. One officer said “constant interviewing… and the need to adapt to a stream of families who are often querulous and sometimes aggressive before long brings the interviewer to a state of mental exhaustion”. The housing offices reacted to this pressure by trying to discourage applications. One officer said their strategy was to “hit them hard when they first come and then if they are genuine, we’ll see what we can do”.  [Ivatts, 1984] The new law contributed towards more people from ethnic minority backgrounds being housed, although, as a Commission for Racial Equality investigation of Hackney’s Housing department found in 1984, they were often allocated the worst properties available.

The power to refuse applicants on the grounds of “intentional homelessness” was one of the criteria introduced by the Housing (Homeless Persons Act) 1977 to prevent people leaving their homes in order to be housed by the council. However, it was soon used by local authorities as a way to avoid their duty to house people. There were 600 intentional homeless decisions made in the first four months after the law came into force. There was a lot of disagreement and confusion about who was intentionally homeless. Surveyed in 1977 20% of local authorities said that it was unworkable, 25% of local authorities thought that people with rent arrears were always intentionally homeless, 14% thought squatters always were and one council said they always classified “battered wives” as intentionally homeless. [Ivatts, 1984]

In the 1980s, as more and more families were being housed temporarily by councils at the same time the stock of council housing began to be sold off under Thatcher’s policy of right to buy and local government had far less resources to spend. In 1982 – 83 London councils housed 17,000 people compared with an average of 30,000 a year in the 1970s. [SHAC,1985] Hackney’s borough profile published in 1982 by the research section of the Chief Executive of the Council’s office predicted that

“The future for the housing development programme in Hackney is not good; the financial situation is likely to remain very restrictive. Rents will increase and the Housing Investment Programme will barely allow the Council to maintain its current capital programme… The housing waiting list will continue to grow.”

The author put the blame squarely on central government for this, stating baldy that “municipalisation of sub-standard housing was an essential element in the Council’s strategy to combat poor conditions in the private sector and would also provide housing which is badly needed for large families. Central Government restrictions on acquisition as well as financial constraints have combined to end the Council’s programme”. However, the difference between the situation today and then is evident in that elsewhere the profile states that they were housing non-priority homeless people in hard to let flats; something that would happen in only exceptional circumstances today. [LB Hackney, 1982]

 “I think we have now gone back to how things were in the sixties where councils didn’t really want to house people, they were advising people to move to Hull because there was empty property up there and places were being demolished to build nice new shopping centres except that they weren’t even built … squatting was part of the struggle that forced councils to buy up properties, to allow them to be used by short-life coops so I think by the late seventies, early eighties, councils certainly progressive councils, inner city councils… saw their role as providing housing for people” [Myk Zeitlin, interviewed by the Hackney Housing Oral History Project]

The Localism Act (2011) crucially reduced the rights of homeless people under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977 by making it possible for councils to fulfil their obligations by making applicants an offer of accommodation in the private sector. Before this change applicants who were found to be homeless, eligible, in priority need, not intentionally homeless and with a local connection would eventually receive a council tenancy.


Commission for Racial Equality (1984) Hackney housing investigated; summary of a formal investigation report into the allocation of public housing. 

Conway J. and Kemp P. (1985) Bed and Breakfast: Slum Housing of the Eighties London:SHAC

Greve, J. (1971) Homelessness in London. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

John Ivatts (1984) Homelessness & Legislation – A study of the effects of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977.London:Roehampton Institute.

Leech, K. (1967) ‘Housing and immigration crisis in London’ in Race 8 (4) April. Institute of Race Relations.

London Borough of Hackney (1982) Hackney Borough Profile

White, J. (2001) London in the twentieth century London:Penguin



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