The tenants’ trap
10 Jan 2014
Following the actions of Fergus and Judith Wilson hundreds of private renters have been served legal eviction notices– simply for receiving some housing benefit. According to the most recent National Landlords Association survey just one in five landlords let to people on benefits.
Those in desperate need may turn to their council for homelessness assistance. All local authorities in England have a legal duty to assist people who are homeless, or threatened with homelessness. As the loss of a private sector tenancy is now the leading cause of homelessness a growing number of people are finding themselves in precisely this situation.
The Homelessness Code of Guidance calls on local authorities to accept a Section 21 notice (which is what landlords use to end a tenancy) as evidence of homelessness and a just reason to help a family. However, legally councils can wait until the date of eviction – when the bailiff has been and actually chucked you out – before they’ll recognise your case and offer any help. Eviction also requires the landlord to have issued a possession order, a process that can take months.
This is a particular problem for renters who are being forced to leave their home because they can no longer afford the rent. As wages continue to stagnate, and the housing safety net is dismantled, many renters are now unable to meet their soaring housing costs. As we have seen, it can be incredibly difficult to set up a new tenancy under these circumstances and those in desperate need will be forced to declare themselves as homeless.
Councils are increasingly advising these renters to stay in their property until eviction: a terrifying prospect for anyone left feeling threatened, unwanted, and without any surety of when they’ll next have a place to call home. In the process, they may also rack up huge rent arrears. This could then allow the council to declare them ‘intentionally homeless’ and refuse support. Even if they are accepted as unintentionally homeless, eviction is still incredibly destructive for the tenant as they are left with a huge black mark against their name.
When seeking a new private rented property, credit checks will reveal their history, almost guaranteeing that the landlord will reject them. Equally, a number of social housing providers now refuse to offer a home to anyone with a history of arrears.
The result is that a cycle of repeat homelessness can set in, or that families can be left languishing in ‘temporary accommodation purgatory’ despite doing everything properly. They could also be driven into the hands of the worst rogue landlords, who are willing to exploit those with nowhere else to turn.
What can we do?
- Many councils are driven to this course of action because they simply do not have the resources or the affordable homes to provide the help that is desperately needed. The Government should provide realistic budgets for councils to help those facing homelessness, and lift the borrowing cap on councils to enable them to borrow sensibly to build more genuinely affordable homes.
- The Government could also tighten the existing legislation so that councils have a legal duty to assist and rehouse these renters when their eviction notice runs out, rather than waiting for a court order and the bailiffs.
- Housing benefit for private tenants needs to be paid at a level that allows them to access affordable homes in the private rented sector. LHA rates should keep pace with market rents.