What are the problems?
Research that we conducted in 2016 and 2017 confirmed that it is very difficult for people on low incomes to afford the high rents required for private tenancies in this borough. For example a client with an annual income of £35,000 was unable to afford a one bedroom flat in his local area.
One problem is that tenants who qualify for Housing Benefit still have to pay a substantial amount to cover the full rent. Robert* is an elderly client with long-term health conditions who depends on welfare benefits including Housing Benefit. He lived in the same private tenancy for nine years; but when the landlord served him with a notice to leave the property because he wished to sell it our client could not find another private tenancy to move to because his Housing Benefit left him too much to pay.
In an emergency, tenants in receipt of Housing Benefit can apply to the council to top up this benefit with a Discretionary Housing Payment; but it can take the council up to three months to consider these applications. Bertha* is a single parent with a 10-year-old son who fell a month behind with her rent when she lost her job and was threatened with legal action to pay the arrears and possible eviction. She managed to get a part-time job that just covered her basic living expenses and applied to the council for a Discretionary Housing Payment to supplement her Housing Benefit and help her pay the arrears; but she was told that she would not get a decision for at least 8 weeks and was concerned that by then she would have been evicted.
Residents who cannot afford suitable private tenancies can apply to the council for social housing, but access to the small amount of social housing available in the borough is severely restricted. Margaret* is a single parent with an 8-year-old daughter who lives in private accommodation shared with other tenants. She has two rooms, sharing the bedroom with her daughter, and must share the bathroom and kitchen with other tenants. In January 2017 she had to stop working because of a relapse of aggressive ovarian cancer with a poor prognosis. Supplying medical evidence she applied twice to go on the register for social housing and was twice refused. It was not until May 2018 when, with our persistent support and further medical evidence, she was put on the waiting list for a two bedroom flat in social housing and invited to complete a homelessness form.
The impact of the Homelessness Reduction Act
In all the ways that we have described people on low incomes in the borough face a real risk of becoming and remaining homeless.; but from April 2018 the Homelessness Reduction Act placed new requirements on local authorities to take stronger positive action to prevent and relieve homelessness. The council now has a statutory responsibility to take action to help anyone served with a Section 21 notice to leave a rented property avoid becoming homeless and to relieve anyone already homeless from remaining homeless.
In response to these requirements the council developed a new Housing and Homelessness Strategy for the borough, including ambitious plans to shift substantial funding from temporary accommodation (currently totaling £4 million a year) to financial support for private landlords who are willing to accept and retain tenants who might otherwise be at risk of homelessness and to providing more Discretionary Housing Payments to help tenants on low incomes pay higher rents. The council launched a consultation on this strategy in February 2018.
What we are doing to help
Based on the experience of our clients we provided a detailed response to the strategy and offered to work closely with council staff to help implement it. However in practice the council has not attempted to involve other organisations in its response to applications from individuals except to provide for organisations working with clients to refer them directly to the council for help before sending out a detailed application for each client to complete. So we are now collecting evidence from the experience of our clients to find out whether in practice the council’s measures are reducing and relieving homelessness in the borough.