A woman who has lived in the UK for almost 20 years and whose three children are all British citizens was asked by a London council whether she would consider returning to Peru because of a social housing shortage.
According to an audio recording from the 22nd of November obtained by VICE World News, a housing officer from the Labour-run Southwark council asks the woman, “Have you thought about going back to Peru?” during a consultation for priority social housing. The woman and her husband moved to the UK in 2004. Their three children – aged 17, 15 and 9 – were all born in the UK.
A housing charity said the question amounted to bullying “treatment of migrant families and families of colour.” Southwark Council said its “staff are meticulous in their questions to ensure fairness of outcome in the result,” and denied suggesting the family return to South America.
The family-of-five, who asked to remain anonymous for fear it could affect their ability to find accommodation, are facing eviction from the privately-rented room in south-east London where they have lived for the last 10 years. They share a bathroom and kitchen with other tenants.
They had been speaking to Southwark council with the hope of being relocated into emergency social housing – known as Band 1 – after receiving an eviction notice and due to the prohibitively expensive cost of living in the capital.
According to the recording, the housing officer asks if the woman understood the family would face severe overcrowding when they rented a double room 10 years ago. The woman explains that the house was appropriate when she had two young children, but over time it had become unlivable. The officer asks why the family have not looked for housing outside of Southwark, to which she replies via a translator, “My kids are studying here and my husband works around here and I study around here. It is cheaper, my kids are used to living here [and] they have their friends.”
When asked if she would consider returning to Peru, the mother says: “No. My children are used to [living] here, they are studying for qualifications for the future. And also, I would not be used to [Peru], I've been living here.”
Despite living in the property for 10 years and only seeking emergency social housing following an eviction notice, the council has deemed the family’s overcrowding a “deliberate act,” and rejected them for the priority social housing – leaving them on a waiting list. The family is now facing homelessness if they leave within the two month notice period.
The overcrowding situation has impacted the family immensely, the mother told VICE World News. “It has affected us tremendously, [including] my children who were born and raised without knowing a normal home, especially my 17-year-old son,” she said. “He studies in the late hours of the night while we are all asleep to ensure a quiet environment to concentrate, barely sleeping for four or five hours.”
According to the woman, it was “economically impossible” to find a three-bed flat to rent in the area, and that “nothing is further from the truth” regarding deliberate overcrowding.
A housing charity said this isn’t a one off.
“For years we've seen – and challenged – this bullying treatment of migrant families and families of colour in severely overcrowded housing where they are blamed for their housing conditions, told to live in other parts of the country…or encouraged to 'return',” Elizabeth Wyatt from housing charity Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) said. “In a number of cases, the council have even threatened to prosecute vulnerable tenants for causing overcrowding – instead of taking on the exploitative private landlords.”
The number of council houses in England has fallen dramatically since the 1980s, forcing many vulnerable families into expensive and limited private accommodation. Over the last 40 years, social housing in England has declined by 25 percent, down from 5.5 million in 1979 to 4.2 million in 2020. Increased demand and extortionate renting costs – particularly in the capital – has resulted in extensive waiting lists for social housing. In London, there are 227 applicants for every social housing property.
Councillor Stephanie Cryan, cabinet member for council homes and homelessness in Southwark, said: “We do sympathise with the family and we will continue to help them with their options, whatever those may be, and keep them updated throughout the process. This is a complex case but as with all our housing assessments, our staff are meticulous in their questions to ensure fairness of outcome in the result.”
“With 16,000 people on our current waiting list, there is never a guarantee that someone will be given top priority for housing as there are so many people in critical housing need.”
When asked if the council regretted asking the family if they had considered returning to Peru, a spokesperson said: “Any questions relating to Peru were in the context of ascertaining their housing need and situation, and were part of a long series of questions relating to their housing situation, both past and present.”
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the family live in a one-bedroom apartment. They actually live in one room in a house of multiple occupancy. We regret the error.