9 December 2021

How councils are using ‘gruel ban’ housing rules to wage war on the poor

By Anya Martin

In 2014, a 90-year-old man was arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His crime? Serving homeless people food.

Arnold Abbott, who sadly passed away in 2019, was an activist who ran a kitchen serving hot meals to homeless people. Fort Lauderdale has a large homeless population and there were public ‘concerns’ about them congregating near the kitchen. So the city decided to crack down on it. 

But banning homeless people from public spaces has a slightly class-warfare vibe that is difficult to justify in polite society. So the city got creative. They passed an ordinance including an enormous list of regulatory criteria for outdoor food stations: including not being within 500 feet of a residential property, providing restrooms, handwashing and wastewater disposal facilities, having at least one staff member with ‘Food Service Manager Certification’ present, and serving food at precisely specified temperatures. 

Mr Abbott and his colleagues, running a small charitable operation, were not in a position to afford these requirements. So the ordinance, though presented by former mayor Jack Seiler as a move to ensure food for the homeless was offered under ‘safe, sanitary, and healthy conditions’, had the effect of banning it. 

As one observer pointed out, this could be characterised as a ‘gruel ban’. It is the logic of a Dickensian patrician seeing people who are so poor they can only afford gruel, thinking to himself ‘no one should have to eat gruel’, and then banning gruel. 

Yet, fairly obviously, if someone can only afford to eat gruel, they can’t afford something better. Banning gruel takes away the one thing they can afford. Far from providing a better option, it leaves them with nothing. Gruel bans, in the absence of support to access better options, only serve to worsen outcomes for the poorest. It is no surprise that where gruel bans are implemented, there is normally some ulterior motive at play: in the case of Fort Lauderdale, appeasing local residents ‘concerned’ about homeless people in public places.

This particularly egregious case may seem distant and peculiarly American, but sadly this mentality is rife in UK local government too. A case in point is a growing council interventionism against ‘houses in multiple occupation’ (HMOs), or in normal-people-speak, house shares.

Far from being the preserve of students, house shares now increasingly serve as long-term lodgings for anyone without the means to rent an entire property. Decades of failure to build enough homes has meant that this group has been expanding, and in some high-demand areas it now includes a fairly large segment of the population. Even young professionals are often stuck living in house shares well into their 30s.

As a general rule, people do not want to live in house shares. People normally prefer a place of their own, free from the twin tyrannies of noisy housemates and overbearing landlords. Many landlords have also made a killing subdividing family homes and converting lounges into bedrooms. Some of these homes are also let in shoddy and even dangerous conditions, often to some of the most vulnerable members of society. 

And it’s on this basis that councils often argue they want to ban them, often through the use of ‘Article 4’ planning conditions to prevent homes being converted into HMOs. Advocates of HMO restrictions often highlight the poor state of maintenance of some properties, the fact that landlords are profiting from the poor, or other arguments that sound like the ban is in the interest of the renter.

But, as should be abundantly clear, this is really just another gruel ban. People usually rent HMOs because they cannot afford to do otherwise. By banning new conversions, councils will achieve only two things: pushing some renters to compete for an increasingly small pool of existing house shares (and thereby pushing up rents), and forcing others into the illegal ‘shadow’ rented sector, with landlords who are not too fussed about the law. Banning people from sharing homes does not magically make them able to afford a better place. 

So why do councils do it? Sharers themselves aren’t calling for bans on HMOs. Many, including myself, have had the disappointing experience of being turned down from a property because the landlord doesn’t have a license. Some are even evicted

There is, of course, an ulterior motive: neighbours don’t like house shares. Sometimes occupied by the poorest members of society, sometimes occupied by students, sometimes simply occupied by young workers living there temporarily while they save up for their own place; the relatively low prices of HMOs often bring in the poor, the noisy, and the rootless.

You can’t necessarily blame neighbours for not liking it, but you can blame local politicians for giving in to them. Because when you call it what it is – local residents pressuring councils to ban poor people from nice areas – it doesn’t sound very tasteful at all. In fact it sounds positively unpleasant.

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Anya Martin is a researcher and director of PricedOut, England's campaign for housing affordability.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.