‘Reward for failure’: Critics slam council revamp of private homeless hostels

The Eric Hotel, Green Lanes. Photograph: Google.

The Town Hall is defending itself over extensive renovations to five buildings for single homeless people, which the London Tenants Federation has said is a “reward for failure” for the private company that owns them.

The rolling programme of refurbishment for hostels across Finsbury Park, Seven Sisters Road, Green Lanes, Queens Drive and Woodberry was announced as a “creative and innovative step” by the council earlier in the month.

It is leasing five properties from Smart Housing Group, with the hostels to be refurbished to provide accommodation to homeless people as part of the government’s Everyone In initiative.

The works will include specially designed rooms for high needs residents, wifi, CCTV, 24-hour security and on-site managers – a contrast to “shameful” conditions previously reported in Smart’s hostels in 2018, such as excrement smeared on walls.

While the council has stressed that the refurbishment project is backed by a multi-million pound investment by Smart, and represents an “excellent financial deal for Hackney, saving money in the longer term”, the London Tenants Federation (LTF) says the work is also backed by government funding.

The LTF’s Pat Turnbull said: “Accommodation was described in 2018 as ‘rundown rooms, water leaking through ceilings, dingy peeling paintwork’ and where the boiler had been out of order for days, leaving people without central heating in a recent cold snap.

“The council appears to have bid for government funding to refurbish these privately owned hotels, so that the owners will have the long term advantage.

“This seems to be a reward for failure. The owners of these hostels have made money out of them at the expense of the public purse.”

She added: “What are needed are permanent council social rented homes.  Schemes like this do not even paper over the cracks.”

The Town Hall has said that the leases will help meet record demand for temporary housing for homeless people.

The number of approaches to the council from homeless people seeking help rose 39 per cent in 2018/19 when compared to the previous year, and Town Hall expenditure on temporary accommodation jumped from £7.38m in 2017 to £10.13m two years later.

Three hostels will be included as part of the deal with Smart – the Brownswood, 2a Woodberry Grove, and the Eric Hotel, along with two hotels, the Finsbury and the Lanark.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of either Smart Housing Group or the council.

A spokesperson for Smart Housing Group said: “Smart Housing Group has worked with Hackney Council for over 20 years providing temporary accommodation for a range of homeless needs in hostels in the borough.

“We have shown that we have a passion to house homeless and vulnerable people despite the obstacles that the job entails.

“We have provided management to Hackney Council in consultation with their officers over the years providing a responsive and a dedicated service, contrary to recent press in 2018.”

They added: “Smart Housing Group are making a substantial investment to develop the hostels to a very high standard with a relatively modest contribution from central government, to help deliver the project successfully.”

Approached for comment on the LTF’s criticism, a council spokesperson said: “Hackney is in the midst of a housing crisis, with more than 3,000 households in temporary accommodation. The council is working hard to tackle this: building hundreds of new homes at dozens of sites, with more than half for social rent, shared ownership or living rent. 

“Hackney also has the largest temporary accommodation hostel stock in London – but it is inadequate to meet the level of demand. 

“We currently do not have any specific temporary accommodation for homeless single people, including rough sleepers, and rely on placements in private hostels.”

Both Town Hall and Smart  pointed to a successful decades-long working relationship, with the group’s buildings historically used to provide critical accommodation for a range of households.

Announcing the scheme, Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville said: “The housing crisis has led to a significant increase in people presenting to the council as homeless. In the past, the council has concentrated on providing family hostel accommodation but these new plans, as part of our wider Covid response for former rough sleepers, will now see us help find solutions for single people, some with complex needs, who are without a home.”