Homelessness Reduction: time to get your Act together

Homelessness Reduction: time to get your Act together

Last week, new Homelessness Minister, Heather Wheeler, announced the publication of a new Homelessness Code of Guidance for local housing authorities following new regulations confirming that the Homelessness Reduction Act will come into force on 3 April 2018.

This means that local authorities, and those who advise homeless people, now have just over a month to familiarise themselves with the guidance and prepare for implementation.

The new legislation heralds a fundamental change to the rights of homeless people – and creates a number of new duties for local authorities to help reduce homelessness.

The new law’s potential

We supported the Homelessness Reduction Bill on the basis that it extends the rights of homeless people by placing new duties on local housing authorities to ‘take reasonable steps’ to help everyone who is eligible (according to immigration status).

It’s also hoped that the legislation will create a culture shift away from asking people to prove that they qualify for rehousing, to one where public bodies work together to ensure everyone in need of help is fully assessed and given appropriate assistance and support.

And it has the potential to give people more autonomy over finding a home, rather than being given temporary accommodation (TA) not of their choosing and often of a woefully poor standard, as illustrated by the shocking case reported last week by the Local Government Ombudsman.

No single solution

We’ve warned from the outset that the law alone can’t reduce homelessness, which occurs because of a lack of suitable homes in the areas where they are most needed.  So when homelessness increases, it’s an indicator that housing policy is failing.

By far the biggest trigger of homelessness is the ending of a private tenancy, and our research and experience shows that this is because the freeze to local housing allowance (LHA) rates means that landlords are even more averse to letting to people who rely on LHA or Universal Credit (UC) to o pay the rent.

New Code of Guidance

As with all new legislation, the devil is in the detail, and this is contained in the new statutory guidance.  We use the guidance every day to advise people who come to us facing homelessness.

We advised Government officials on the new guidance and submitted a detailed response to the formal consultation on the draft guidance.  We also gave evidence to the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Select Committee, which then wrote to the Minister, encouraging him to take account of our evidence and concerns.

In terms of our priorities, we’re pleased that the Government has heeded our headline recommendation – on assessment of whether housing costs are affordable (17.45). The guidance now advises that they should not be regarded as affordable if the applicant would be left with a residual income that is insufficient to meet essential needs, and housing authorities ‘may be guided by’ Universal Credit standard allowances when deciding if income is sufficient.

We’d argued for similar wording to the current guidance (17.40) to make it clear that accommodation should not be regarded as affordable if, in order to pay housing costs, people have to draw on money provided for their basic subsistence, such as income support or jobseeker’s allowance. This was important to avoid families having to live in abject poverty, below recognised subsistence levels, in the long-term. So we welcome the additional clarity, although the benefit freeze until 2020 means UC allowances will incrementally have less value because they won’t be uprated each year.

Not far enough

The new legislation aims to stop the practice of housing authorities only intervening at crisis point by informing private renters who have been served with a notice to return when they have a bailiff date. Waiting for eviction is very stressful for families and can result in the loss of the deposit because the landlord incurs court costs.

The new guidance retains the wording of the draft Code that it’s ‘unlikely to be reasonable’ (6.35) for people to continue to occupy their homes beyond the expiry of a valid (section 21) notice, and that it’s ‘highly unlikely to be reasonable’ (6.36) for them to remain beyond the date on which a court has ordered them to leave. This means that the housing authority should provide alternative accommodation at the very latest when a possession order takes effect, and preferably before the landlord starts court proceedings.

But in our view it doesn’t go far enough. It’s only marginally stronger than the current guidance, which is routinely ignored by many local authorities. We recommended the guidance should be much stronger.

So if authorities continue to flout it, we’ll be calling on the Government to commit to regulations.

And overall we’re disappointed that most of our recommended amendments have not been taken up, particularly the retention of paragraphs 20-22 of the existing supplementary guidance on what is ‘reasonable to accept’, which is important for people who can’t accept accommodation because of fears of racial harassment or violence in the neighborhood.

It’s important that the legislation is implemented in the spirit in which it was intended – to improve the treatment and outcomes of homeless households, including thousands of families with children and people with multiple and complex needs. We urge both national and local government to keep that in mind.

Read our briefing on the Homelessness Reduction Bill at report stage in full.