The families 'stuck' in England's overcrowded social homes

Families are trapped in overcrowded social housing because they cannot afford to privately rent a bigger one, ITV News Correspondent Daniel Hewitt reports.

Produced by: Sophie Alexander

Gemma and Sana are just two of the 1.5 million people living in overcrowded social homes in England.

We're telling their stories as a new study, shared exclusively with ITV News, revealed the number of people living in such conditions has risen 44% in just five years.

The data from the housing charity Shelter suggests one in six residents now live in overcrowded homes across the country.

A home is overcrowded if two people (aged 10 and above) of a different sex have to sleep in the same room - any room deemed one that can be slept in, not just bedrooms.

Sana Ahmed (not her real name) knows all too well the struggle to live in such conditions and says she feels ignored by Barnet Homes who provides the two bed flat her family of six have lived in for 15 years.

"I don't know why they are doing this to my children [...] It's hard, very hard."

Her and husband Ali (not his real name) take it in turns to sleep on the sofa downstairs, their two-year-old daughter bunks in with them.

Their three older children, two boys and a girl aged 15, 14, and 10, sleep on the floor of a single bedroom.

Not only is there not enough space, the space they do have is in poor condition - with damp and mould on the walls as well as broken glass in the windows.

The couple's three children sleep on the floor while their two-year-old shares their bed or the sofa. Credit: ITV News

In the 15 years they've been living at the property, Sana and her family have been offered one larger property by Barnet Homes, which is owned by Barnet Council.

But Sana says they had to turn it down because it was too far away from her older children's school - with their children just about to start GCSEs, Sana and her husband felt they could not pull their children out of school at such a crucial time. 

Father Ali says he feels powerless, that the housing provider makes him feel like "no-one".

'They are powerful and I am no-one'

Facing a similar struggle is Gemma. For 15 years she's lived in a two bedroom flat that's now home to her and her three children.

For now her seven-year-old son sleeps in the same bed as her, but she's living in fear of the time he grows too old to do so.

Already Gemma has spent a year sleeping on an armchair in the living room to try and provide her children with their own space, but it was no sustainable.

'I basically slept here for a year and then it got too much'

Gemma says she feels neglected and ignored: "I complain but nobody listens. I feel trapped and like giving up."

The mother-of-three says the children are left with no room to play, no room to study, and no privacy.

She says she's been bidding for other, more suitable properties since 2008 but has not been successful.

'We do love each other, but sometimes with the space - it's hard'

Whether it's studying, playing, sleeping, or just bringing friends over, the children are desperate for more space.

"When I'm doing my work, it's kind of hard to get peace and quiet," says 15-year-old Scarlett.

"Because the library's sort of been closed because of the pandemic, it's a bit hard to study sometimes."

The current levels of overcrowding in social homes across the country are the worst on record, Shelter says, with the charity blaming "years of failure to build social homes".

Given the soaring numbers of families living in such conditions, Shelter has stressed its concern about the children involved.

With 730,000 young people living in overcrowded social homes, up 36% in the past five years, there are concerns for children’s health, educational attainment, and life chances.

Shelter says previous research, and its experience working with families in social housing, shows the damage overcrowding can have on all of these areas of children's lives.

Why are one in six social home residents living in overcrowded conditions?

The gross undersupply of new properties is to blame for the scandal, Shelter says.

Last year fewer than 7,000 new social homes were built - a figure at odds with the more than one million households on the waiting list.  

Shelter is calling on the government to invest in building 90,000 new social homes a year to combat overcrowding and end the housing emergency.  

"The devastating level of overcrowding in social housing is scandalous," says Polly Neate, chief executive at Shelter.

"Years of failure to build social homes mean there are too many people chasing too few homes.

"Families are literally living on top of each other – something you would expect to see in the Victorian era, not the 21st century.

"These overcrowded families are stranded with nowhere else to go. Home ownership is out of reach and private renting is too expensive for most.

"The answer is clear -  the government cannot build back better without building good-quality social homes."

In one room, Gemma has bunk beds and another mattress just so her children have somewhere to sleep. Credit: ITV News

In response to our report, Barnet Homes - the providers of Sana's two bed flat - said: "Barnet Homes appreciates that the family are overcrowded in their current accommodation. However, a nearby home suitable for the family’s bedroom need was offered in September 2020, which the family refused.

"Given the family's situation, Barnet Homes will exercise discretion and work with its private sector rental team to help find alternative accommodation.

"We have arranged an urgent inspection of the property and will work with the private sector landlord to carry out any works immediately necessary."

It continued: "There are currently no four-bedroom local authority properties available in Barnet, and the current average waiting time is around three years.

"Barnet does not operate a bidding system but allocates homes according to its Housing Allocations Policy.

"Barnet has an ambitious home-building programme, with almost 1,000 new affordable homes either completed on started on site in the last year. Barnet Council aims to meet the London Plan target of 35,460 new homes up to 2036."

Sanctuary Housing, the providers of Gemma's two bed flat said: "We sympathise with Ms Howard’s situation and have provided advice on different options for her to explore.

"We will continue to support Ms Howard considering all suitable housing options to meet her needs."

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