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Housing

Family of 5 accused of ‘deliberately’ living in a tiny studio flat win High Court battle

Southwark council had refused to provide priority housing for the family.

A man living with his wife and three children in a tiny studio apartment has won a High Court battle against Southwark Council, after the local authority prevented the family from accessing priority housing.

Southwark Council had told Milton Laines Roman in 2018 that his application for housing in the borough would not be prioritised, claiming that his family’s move into overcrowded accommodation was a “deliberate act”.

The council suggested that, as Laines Roman had willingly moved into a property that was not big enough for his family, he had moved into statutory overcrowding by choice. 

This was a position the council maintained for years, despite its own allocation policy indicating that the nature of the property’s overcrowding should have meant the family were prioritised for council housing.

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Yesterday (May 24), the High Court overturned the council’s decision to refuse to provide priority housing, suggesting that a council housing applicant cannot cause their own statutory overcrowding if they are unable to afford other, more suitable housing in the area.

Southwark Council told The Big Issue it is “sorry [they] got this wrong” and is working with the family to help them meet their housing needs.

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Laines Roman said that he moved his family into the small flat as they were unavailable to afford anywhere else to live in the area.

He had moved to the UK from Ecuador in early 2016 to look for work, and settled on Southwark as his sister lived in the borough. His family joined him in October that year.

After the family were evicted from their shared one-bedroom flat in Brixton a month later, they spent time searching for suitable, reasonably-priced accommodation in the borough with no luck. They moved into the studio apartment soon after.

“I had to move to this flat. When we looked at other places the agencies asked us for many months’ rent in advance. I couldn’t rent a bigger place because it was too expensive,” Laines Roman said in a statement following the High Court decision.

According to estate agent Foxtons, the average rent cost for properties in Southwark is almost £700 per week. Laines Roman said the cheapest suitable property he could find in the borough cost £1,600 a month, which was hugely beyond the family’s budget.

“Southwark have constantly disbelieved me and my wife and tried to make us feel as though we were in the wrong,” he added. “We feel so relieved that the judge has understood the situation we were in and has agreed that the council has broken the law in denying us housing.

“I hope that this can bring an end to the overcrowding we have faced for over five years.”

The family only became aware of the support available through the council in 2018, after learning about local housing campaign group, Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL).

The group, which helped the family to apply for housing and appeal the council’s continued rejections, said it was “overjoyed” by the High Court ruling.

“This is yet another victory won by some of Southwark’s most vulnerable private renters against a Labour council who have been set on blaming the victims of the housing crisis,” said Elizabeth Wyatt, a representative for HASL.

“HASL, over 30 other community groups, and hundreds of Southwark residents have been campaigning for years in support of families in overcrowded housing and reminding the council that the root causes of the housing crisis are a desperate shortage of family-sized council homes, high private rents, and benefit cuts.

“We hope the council will finally listen.”

Sam Tippet, from the Public Interest Law Centre (PILC) which represented the family at the High Court, said the case was indicative of the wider housing crisis.

“The root cause of our client’s problem is the extreme shortage of suitable council housing. In Southwark there are over 16,000 people on the housing register. The chronic underfunding of adequate housing for people on low incomes is a political failing at a local and national level,” he said.

“In London in particular, this issue disproportionately affects migrant communities and people of colour.

“Only a commitment to building more council housing will prevent more families being pushed into the intolerable situation that our client has had to endure.”

Councillor Darren Merrill, cabinet member for council homes and homelessness, said: “The judge ruled that the council was wrong to assess the family as deliberately overcrowding themselves. We respect the decision of the court and we are carefully reviewing the judgement.

“We should not have described them as deliberately overcrowded, and we are sorry we got this wrong. We’re continuing to work with the family to provide them with support, to ensure their housing needs will be met.”

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