This week a slightly techy-sounding announcement from the Welsh Government included a small mention of something pretty huge. It’s something that has the potential to transform Wales’ social housing system into one of the most progressive in the world.
It’s a goal that we at Shelter Cymru have been working towards, quietly, behind the scenes, for the last five years: an ambition that homelessness should never be the result of an eviction from social housing.
The Welsh Government has enthusiastically supported this aim, and this week made it an expectation linked to the five-year rent settlement that social landlords will work to eliminate evictions that lead to homelessness.
To make this happen, Welsh housing associations and local authority landlords will be adopting the absolute best of best practice in tenancy sustainment: building supportive relationships with all tenants from the outset; being a trustworthy ally, not a frightening authority figure; and never threatening eviction as a way of ‘incentivising engagement’.
When a tenant must be moved for everyone’s safety this shouldn’t be done chaotically with council homelessness services having to deal with the fallout, but in a controlled way with agencies working together to support the individual into a new home that’s right for them.
This sounds like a dream but some Welsh landlords are already achieving incredibly low eviction numbers. While others have a bit further to go, we are picking up on widespread enthusiasm about taking on this new challenge.
The movement to end evictions into homelessness began back in 2015 when we published a major report describing the horrible human cost of such evictions. We spoke to people who had remained ‘hidden homeless’ for many months afterwards, moving from sofa to sofa. One man told us how he moved into the garden shed of his former home, until he was found by the landlord and made to leave.
‘On the day of the eviction, I received a phone call saying I had 20 minutes to gather my belongings and leave. I had nowhere to go,’ said one woman. ‘I had to leave everything in the flat. I was not given any advice on where to go. I went to my local church, the vicar there referred me to a local night shelter and I spent the first night there.’
Our report also found that evictions from social housing carry a £24.3 million annual cost to the Welsh economy.
Since 2015 we have determinedly kept on highlighting this issue, speaking about it and writing about it and generating debate. We persuaded the Welsh Government to do further research which corroborated our findings. We’ve talked about it at length with the Minister Julie James AM, and as early as February this year she was stating in the Senedd her support for our call.
This week’s announcement shows that the Minister means business. Wales is one step closer to a zero-evictions system. However, we mustn’t lose sight of the role of affordability in all this. While the rent settlement doesn’t allow rises as extreme as we’ve seen in recent years, it could still mean above-inflation increases that many would struggle to afford.
At Shelter Cymru we haven’t forgotten the stressful spring of 2018 when our helpline was inundated with calls from worried tenants who’d just learned their rents were rocketing by more than 4%. It’s going to be more difficult to sustain tenancies if landlords automatically raise rents by the maximum every year. Avoiding evictions has got to include a commitment by landlords to keep rents affordable.