By Cathy Silman
Cathy is a volunteer for Citizens Advice, Secretary of Dorset Humanists, and a humanist schools speaker. In this article she writes about the circumstances of two of her clients. Any opinions expressed are Cathy's, not those of Citizens Advice, which is politically neutral.
Some of my reasons for volunteering with Citizens Advice come from a desire to, in some way, make the world a fairer place. One of the worst injustices, as I see it, is the way we as a society have turned houses into investments rather than just homes. I see this on a day-to-day basis. The headline points of the Research and Campaigns Bulletin (March 2023) compiled by my local area's Citizens Advice were, in the last year:
100% Increase in issues around threatened homelessness
82% Increase in issues for private rented sector property tenants
63% Increase in issues for housing association property tenants
Nationally, private sector renters are paying 43% more rent than those in social housing, with a higher risk of deficit budgets.
As an indication of the circumstances of those who seek advice and support from Citizens Advice in relation to housing, here are two case studies:
“It can’t be right. How can it possibly be legal?” The client in front of me went on to say that she had been contacted by her landlord, who was giving her two months to leave the property where she had lived as a responsible tenant for the last five years. The eviction date was just five days after Christmas. I asked to see the letter – it turned out to be a Section 21 Notice that had followed the letter of the law exactly. It was legal. But I question whether it is morally right. (A Section 21 Notice is a legal notice in the UK meaning that landlords of tenants on 'assured shorthold tenancies' (normally six months) can, when the assured period has expired, give two months' notice to their tenants to vacate the property. No reasons need to be given, hence it is also known as a 'no-fault eviction'.) Hopefully this will be changing soon – see Note 1.
My client, a single mum of an eight-year-old, with a university degree and earning around £35,000 a year, had been paying £850 monthly rent for a two-bed flat, for five years. Although no actual reason for the eviction was given, she had seen similar flats in her block being advertised for over £1,150 – a rise of £300 a month which she could not have managed, even if she had been asked. When she started looking for a new two-bed flat, she could only find one or two at under £1,000 in the same area. All of these subtly said 'professional childless only'. Even if she moved away from the area, which would mean a longer and more costly bus journey to work and for her child to get to school, the situation was similar. An online search turned up just a handful of 2-bed flats under £1,000 in the whole of the Poole area. The same applies to the rest of the BCP area (BCP stands for the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole local authority on the South Coast of England).
What about social housing? The BCP local allocation policy sets out the four criteria applicants must satisfy even to register. One of these is 'Be unable to financially meet their own housing needs'. I believe that the council would not agree that she meets this criteria. Though she could always try!
How then could I help her? There was very little I could do. I directed her to our website (citizensadvice.org.uk) which gives information on the legal obligations of the council to help all those at risk of homelessness. In her case, this would probably be to provide a list of local letting agents and the offer of a rent deposit (which she already has). The advice would be to stay put if she hasn't found anything until the landlord gets a bailiff's order, and when they actually turn up at the door, then present at the council offices as homeless. Then, and only then, as she has a child, would she be given temporary Bed & Breakfast-type accommodation. And this does not mean that social housing would follow. On reviewing her finances she realised that, in all probability, she would have almost no surplus income for the foreseeable future. Rough calculations indicated that on her salary of £35,000, after paying the new rent of £1,150 and essential bills (utilities, internet, food, and after-school club so she can work full time) she would have around £50 left per month for 'luxuries' such as haircuts and clothes for herself and her child. I suggested she use a benefit calculator such as turn2us.org.uk, as she might just be eligible for some help with her housing costs through Universal Credit (a combined benefit payment introduced by the UK government in 2013), and to read through our information on housing at citizensadvice.org.uk. This client will, I feel, survive – albeit not happily. But I'm not so sure about my next client.
My next client was also a single mum, with two girls. One of them, a teenager with mild autism, was about to sit her GCSEs (exams taken around the age of sixteen in the UK). Their Iranian father had disappeared years ago and gave no financial support. A Section 21 Notice had been served on their tenancy and they had stayed put until the bailiffs arrived to evict them. They then presented to the Council as homeless, and had been provided with bed and breakfast accommodation. After six weeks, the Council is legally obliged to offer at least temporary accommodation of their own, but when I saw my client seven weeks had already elapsed. She had always paid her rent and been a good tenant. Unfortunately for her, she is on Universal Credit to top up her part-time wage. (She cannot work full time because of complications arising from her daughter's autism.) She was unable to find anywhere affordable to live in the BCP area, and no landlord who would take a Universal Credit tenant without a guarantor and at least six months rent upfront. The local housing allowance welfare benefit for a 2-bed flat is currently £757 per month: when I looked online, there was just one 2-bed flat in the BCP area under £900. Local housing allowance should be enough to cover the lowest 30 per cent of rents in the area. Currently, that would mean it should be around the £975 mark here. To make matters worse, this is the third eviction notice she has received in the last four years. Last time, she was lucky and found something she could manage, but not now. She is in one room with her daughters – including a very small en suite –with just a microwave and a kettle. The room is located between two others which accommodate different members of a single family, who argue long and loudly into the night. What can I do to help her?
I help her complain to the Council about the fact that they have kept her in B&B for longer than six weeks. I plead that her mental health issues (medical evidence of depression, stress and anxiety) are being exacerbated by her housing. I emphasise the strain on the children, particularly the child with autism. I contact her housing officer (who should have been allocated when she initially approached the council, to help prevent this situation arising) and try to get her moved up the housing register from silver to gold banding – the highest level, so more likely to receive accommodation, though at the moment it is often only those on the emergency list who get housed. I also ask them to help her into private accommodation by providing a guarantor and agreeing to discretionary top-up housing benefit, which is available in cases of real hardship: there is no guarantee she will be helped in this way.
At the end of the day, I come home and think how lucky I am to have been born when housing was relatively cheap. In the past, councils could buy land at its current usage value, rather than using a formula based on the value of hypothetical high-density luxury flats. I am also thinking about the unearned wealth that I have accumulated in my house and not paid tax on, that can be passed straight to my children (tax-free if less than £500,000) enabling them to further fuel the housing market, either by becoming private landlords themselves or by buying bigger and more expensive houses. I realise that I too am part of the problem.
'The ownership of land is the great fundamental fact which ultimately determines the social, the political, and consequently the intellectual and moral condition of a people.' ― Henry George, Progress and Poverty (1879)
If you would like to know more about the legalities of housing please visit citizensadvice.org.uk and browse the housing section, or look at Shelter’s website (details below).
The Renters (Reform) Bill was introduced to the UK Parliament on 17 May 2023. This, among other changes, will end no-fault Section 21 evictions (although landlords will still be able to evict you if they wish to sell). It also promises to make it harder for landlords to raise rents – although the proposals I have seen don’t really do this. They would need to end fixed-term contracts and put restrictions on using second homes as holiday lets. Let's hope that the influence of landlords and investors in land does not delay or water down this Bill, which is sorely needed.
If you would like to know more about how people are allocated social housing, please visit https://bcphomechoice.org/ When this article was drafted there were just seven homes to bid for and in the Bournemouth area alone there are over 4,000 people on the register.
Information sources and further reading
Generation Rent by Chloe Timperley