Allocation of Social Housing in Swansea

by Paul Bevan

Deciding who is allocated a home goes right to the heart of debates about the purpose of social housing. It begs the question ‘who is social housing for’? In a time of an undersupply of affordable social housing is it for everyone, is it for people in the most desperate need of housing or is it for a mix of people somewhere in between? We all need somewhere to live, but how do we define need and how do we decide that one person’s need is a higher priority than someone else’s?

Shelter Cymru’s new report Allocation of Social Housing in Swansea adds to this debate. Based on research before the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were introduced in March 2020, it remains relevant in Swansea and may apply to other areas of Wales.

During the research we interviewed staff in the four main social landlords covering Swansea – the council, Coastal, Family and Pobl housing associations – and shadowed staff in their daily work. We observed as people applied for housing and we interviewed applicants to learn about their experience.

Swansea is one of the only local authorities in Wales without a common housing register. Each landlord has a different system for applying for and deciding who gets a home. Depending on where people want to live, they need to apply to one, two, three or all four landlords, completing up to four applications and making follow-up enquiries with each one. Some people applying for a home told us that the system is difficult to understand and complicated. This made us question whether some people lose out because of this.

All of the landlords require people to be in housing need, but have different ways of prioritising applicants. Two give priority to people in the greatest need through giving them points or putting them in a category of need; one prioritises people who have waited the longest, and one matches people based on the value they bring to the community and the value that the property and community bring to them. Three landlords operate a waiting list, and the fourth has a choice based approach where people can apply for individual homes that they view on line.

All take a person’s former tenant history into account when deciding whether to offer a home – such as any former rent arrears, damage to a property or ‘anti social’ behaviour. The landlords consider each person on a case by case basis and are flexible on implementing their policy. But some applicants told us that former rent arrears are still an obstacle to getting a home. Getting the balance right is not easy, but we all need a home irrespective of what has happened in the past.

The landlords want people to be ready and able to manage in their new homes and to settle well into their communities. If people need help, all of the landlords have contacts with support providers; some offer support themselves. Some people, particularly in supported housing, told us that having to demonstrate they are ‘tenancy-ready’ caused delays. Being able to manage is important, but if people can get the support they need in their new homes, this could reduce their wait and help them to manage well.

Deciding the right approach to allocations is difficult. Swansea needs much more housing that is affordable, of the right type in the right areas. To help people more now, the landlords need to remove any unnecessary obstacles to ensuring that homeless people and others in the most need of a home are housed quickly and with the right support.

Legal: Much-needed clarity in the law on landlord licensing

By Katie White and Alison Jones

Unlicensed landlords in Wales cannot serve a section 8 eviction notice, following our successful intervention in a Court of Appeal case. This case law brings much-needed protection for tenants and clarity on a contentious issue.

Since 2016 it has been illegal in Wales to act as a landlord or agent unless you  are licensed. A licence shows that you are a fit and proper person and that you have undergone essential training to understand the responsibilities of managing people’s homes.

Far from being just an administrative burden, it provides important basic protections for tenants and helps to make the private rented sector more professional.

Compliance with the scheme is considered so important that the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 removed the ability for unlicensed landlords to use eviction powers. However the Act’s wording was unclear, and this has caused difficulties for tenants ever since. Courts have interpreted the Act in different ways, meaning there has been a lack of consistency across Wales.

The problem lies with the wording of section 44 of the Act, which refers specifically to section 21 ‘no fault’ eviction notices but is silent on section 8 eviction notices. As a result, some landlords and some judges have taken the view that unlicensed landlords can still legally evict as long as they rely on section 8 notice rather than a section 21 notice.

Shelter Cymru and the tenants we represent, have long challenged this view. We have argued that section 8 notices are included , in that they are covered in section 7 of the Act which provides that  landlord cannot serve a notice to terminate a tenancy whilst unlicensed. and should  have the benefit of the protection afforded by the legislation.

Rachel Anthony from Civitas Chambers represented Shelter Cymru who acted as Court of Appeal intervener in the case of Jarvis v Evans. The much-anticipated Judgment has been handed down this week.

The appeal, brought by the Landlord against the decision of Her Honour Judge Garland-Thomas, was dismissed . Her Honour Judge Garland-Thomas had decided that the landlord was not able to rely on a section 8 notice as he was not licensed with Rent Smart Wales at the time of the service of the notice.  Giving his judgment Lord Justice Newey stated, ‘I agree with Judge Garland-Thomas that the fact that Mr Jarvis was not licensed when he served the section 8 notice on Mr and Mrs Evans rendered it invalid.’

The appeal focussed on two issues: –

  1. Does section 7(2)(f) of the 2014 Act (‘serving notice to terminate a tenancy’) extend to the service of a notice under section 8 of the 1988 Act?
  2. If the answer is yes, is a notice served in breach of section 7 of the 2014 Act invalid?

The Court of Appeal answered affirmatively to both.

It was clear from the submissions made by the Respondent’s Counsel and by Rachel Anthony’s written submissions that the purpose of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 and the subsequent licensing regime is to protect tenants, and that if a section 8 notice is excluded from the protection it makes a mockery of the intent of the Welsh Government.

Whilst the landlord in this case was claiming substantial rent arrears, the issues regarding a landlord’s ability to collect rent when unlicensed were not dealt with in the appeal. However, some interesting comments were made at paragraph 42 (v) of the Judgment: this issue in particular is likely to be the subject of further litigation.

Given the importance of the case, Solicitors at Hugh James, and their appointed Barristers at Field Court Chambers, decided to act for the tenants on a pro-bono basis.

Legal: The importance of homelessness reviews: new report out today

 

By Katie White and Alison Jones

Our new study on homelessness reviews and appeals is timely given that the Part 2 of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 which implemented the new legislative framework has been in force for five years.

The Housing (Wales) Act 2014, with its focus on prevention, has been widely welcomed in Wales but despite attracting wider review rights, have we seen an overwhelming increase in reviews, appeals and associated Judicial Review challenges?

Not according to the findings in our report. In fact there has been no perceptible change in figures in comparison with the Housing Act 1996.

In some authorities there is a high percentage of decisions being overturned at review (50% in Cardiff and 75% in Neath Port Talbot). Whilst this shows that the decision making process is not always as robust as it should be at the initial presentation stage, the success at review stage is promising, indicating that the review is a rigorous re-examination of the case and that the Reviewing Officer is objective. Clearly, in these areas the review procedure is working well and justly with the applicant having a real chance of an unlawful decision being overturned.

It is slightly concerning that some authorities report very low figures for the number of review requested: this is of particular concern in large local authority areas where you would expect a higher number of reviews.

We would welcome further investigation into why this is the case. Is it because individuals are not seeking advice as to whether the decision is capable of review; is there a lack of being able to source timely legal advice; or are the reviews taking place, but the request and the decision on review not being recorded accurately?

It would be beneficial for there to be a consistent way of recording reviews across all local authorities in Wales. The recommendation that Reviewing Officers be shared across authorities is interesting as it could bring a consistency of approach, achieving more specialism in this area and also aiding in analysing and recording the information about reviews centrally.

Perhaps less surprising is the fact that despite the new legislation, the main subject of reviews remains the suitability of accommodation. Due to the scarcity of social housing and the lack of affordability in the private rented sector, often an authority will find it difficult to source accommodation – particularly for larger families or families who have a particular need to be in a particular area.

Reviews on suitability are notoriously difficult and whilst the Reviewing Officer will consider a number of factors relating to the applicant’s circumstances, including location, size and affordability they also have regard to the general housing circumstances in their area and their resources. There is frequently a disparity between an applicant’s idea of suitable accommodation and that of the authority, but not a decision that can be challenged in the courts.

The report highlights the extremely low number of appeals and Judicial Reviews issued in Wales. In practice much work is done at the pre-action protocol stage and many authorities do back down meaning that possible challenges are settled pre-litigation. Whilst this is beneficial for the applicant it is often frustrating for practitioners as it means that these cases are not subject to judicial scrutiny and no precedents are created.

In Wales, we would benefit from case law to assist applicants, their legal representatives and the authorities in interpreting the legislation.  Precedents  would help to avoid the same issues continually arising in case work.

The report suggests  that one of the reason why authorities feel unable to defend appeals and Judicial Review is due to lack of financial resources – we would welcome further dialogue with the Welsh Government around providing support (both financial and advisory) to the authorities so they can defend those cases where they believe their decision to be correct. With the exception of legal practitioners, there seems to be an aversion to litigation generally and there needs to be a wider understanding of the importance of litigation and the benefits it brings particularly in clarifying the law.

Students’ housing worries during Covid-19

By Amanda Harris

These are deeply unsettling times for many, none more so than the thousands of students who attend universities and higher education establishments across Wales.

Not only have students been faced with huge disruption to their courses and exams, with universities closing and learning going online, but many are experiencing serious anxieties  and concerns over their housing situation, especially since the Welsh Government Stay at Home guidance has been in place.

At Shelter Cymru we’ve seen a huge increase in demand on our advice services from students. In fact the number of students accessing our telephone advice service has increased nearly fourfold compared with this time last year.

Queries range from legal liability to pay rent when absent from their student accommodation (many students having returned home over the Easter holidays and not returned due to the lockdown), to whether they should be allowing their private landlords in to their property to carry out urgent repairs whilst they are having to self-isolate.

Many students who were relying on zero-hour contracts to help fund their studies and pay their rent are now finding themselves in financial hardship, and unable to fall back on support from families who themselves are struggling to make ends meet. Rent arrears, spiralling debt and the threat of eviction are suddenly very real concerns.

So what is being done to help protect students and alleviate some of these worries?

Temporary emergency measures have been introduced to protect the security of many private tenants throughout the UK during the pandemic – tenants are currently entitled to three months’ notice before eviction (rather than two) and court proceedings for eviction have been postponed until the end of June.

The Welsh Government has issued comprehensive support for tenants setting out the various financial and housing support available for tenants in the private sector in Wales, together with guidance for landlord and agents on how to best manage their tenancies during the pandemic.

Universities are being encouraged by Welsh Government ministers to support their students by helping them access university hardship funds and allowing them to release themselves from tenancies of university owned accommodation which they are not currently occupying.

Financial help through benefits such as universal credit and discretionary housing payments are  not always available to students but those  in financial difficulty are advised to check Entitledto to see what they can claim and, in Wales, to consider applying to the Discretionary Assistance Fund for an emergency payment to cover essential costs. Help from foodbanks and with paying council tax is also available.

The fact remains however that many students in Wales are at the mercy of their private landlords and, although they are advised to request rent reductions if they are struggling to pay, or to try and negotiate a surrender of their tenancies, unless there is a break clause in their tenancy agreement a private landlord may well be within their rights to refuse.

The inevitable outcome is increasing debt and arrears and, once the restrictions on eviction are lifted, the very real possibility of court proceedings and potentially homelessness.

We have worked hard to adapt our services so as to ensure that expert housing advice remains available to all who need it – whether that be online, by webchat or by phone. We have produced dedicated Covid19 related advice for young people and are constantly monitoring new developments to help frame our campaigning and policy work.

The realisation is however that we are currently at the tip of the iceberg of problems and, as the lockdown eases and the emergency measures and financial support that has been available gradually slip away, the problems and uncertainties students currently face will stay around for a very long time to come.

Amanda Harris is Advice Online Manager at Shelter Cymru

Blog: Homelessness after lockdown: priority need for all?

Across Wales there are more than 500 homeless people in emergency accommodation due to the pandemic. Local agencies have worked incredibly hard to get people into safe places, whether that’s hotels, B&Bs, caravan parks, previously unlet social housing, even into permanent homes.

Finding accommodation for so many people so quickly is a massive credit to homelessness services and their partners. All the stops were pulled out to ensure that as many homeless people as possible could stay safe.

However a huge question – to which there was no guidance until yesterday – is where people are meant to go when lockdown is over.

Nobody, least of all councils, wants to see hundreds of people evicted to the streets. But finding accommodation and support for that many is a challenge so huge, it even dwarfs what’s been achieved so far.

One important part of the question is what people’s legal status should be. Are they owed a homelessness duty under the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, or are they just being unofficially accommodated as a mark of goodwill? Do people have any rights in this situation?

That question was at least partly answered by the Welsh Government yesterday. New statutory guidance stated that in the government’s view, it is ‘almost inevitable’ that a person who is homeless during Covid should meet the test for priority need, and therefore have the right to a permanent home once the outbreak is over.

Almost inevitable – but not completely inevitable. The guidance could have been more clear-cut in several ways. However the point being made here is not just technical, but ethical.

Last year more than 1,600 homeless people across Wales were told they must remain homeless, because the council wasn’t able to help them find a home and their circumstances meant they didn’t have a priority need.

In these bizarre and dangerous times, the Welsh Government has set an expectation that ordinary limits to homelessness assistance don’t apply. Covid has brought so much pain to so many, but it has also brought the chance to do things differently.

We have a unique opportunity before us. We can erase homelessness now and significantly reduce it in future. We can work towards a future where priority need is no longer a barrier to help, certainly for people sleeping rough and ideally for all.

One thing is clear though: council homelessness services can’t do it alone.

Despite the guidance there are plenty of legal ‘get out clauses’ available to councils: intentional homelessness, failure to cooperate, no change of circumstances, could all be used as reasons not to owe someone a duty.

However we know councils don’t want to go down that route. Everyone agrees that the right thing to do is to find people homes, but to make that happen is going to take resources and unprecedented levels of support from local partners.

Social landlords will need to dig deep into their social purpose and be less risk averse than many are used to. Support will need to be provided in new ways, as many people’s support needs have changed during lockdown.

There’s a big task ahead and we all have to pull together.

Blog: Preventing evictions in Wales during lockdown

At Shelter Cymru we share the disappointment of our sister organisation about the UK Government’s over-hyped measures to prevent evictions during the coronavirus outbreak. Rather than banning all evictions as promised, the emergency legislation will simply extend the current notice period for a section 21 eviction from two months to three.

Over the last week Shelter Cymru has advised many private renters seeking help after being handed a section 21 notice to quit.

There is a wave of evictions taking place directly due to the outbreak. However the UK Government’s legislation isn’t backdated, so none of these people will be helped.

It doesn’t help people whose accommodation is linked to their employment – vital for the many workers currently being laid off due to holiday parks shutting.

One glimmer of hope is that the legislation allows Wales to put in place a longer notice period of up to six months. We’re hopeful that the Welsh Government will take this step and give tenants some much-needed breathing space. The Scottish Government is currently taking steps to introduce a similar notice period.

We also hope that all housing possession court duty listings will be suspended, ending the current postcode lottery due to some courts being open, some closed, and some hearing oral evidence by telephone only.

The last thing we want to see is people at their wits’ end because they need to go house-hunting or to raise money and they can’t because of the lockdown. Sadly this is the reality for many people currently contacting our advisors.

In the meantime there are other steps that can be taken to help people.

Local authorities should follow the example of Torfaen and Monmouthshire: the two councils announced an automatic extension until October for everyone currently receiving Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs).

DHPs are a vital source of help to keep people in their home, and we’ll be asking the UK Government to make them more flexible so that anyone can apply, not just people receiving housing benefits.

We also need to ensure tenants are made aware that if they are handed a notice to quit, they don’t have to move out by the expiry date.

Not enough tenants understand their rights. Even though there’s a risk of court costs, during lockdown it is vital that people stay safe even if that means remaining in the home past the expiry date on the notice.

We all have a shared responsibility to ensure people seek advice on their rights. If you are in a position to help, please share our advice page. The wider we can spread this message, the better chance we have of preventing a wave of homelessness in three months’ time.

Ein Datganiad ar Coronafeirws

16/03/2019

Rydym yn ymwybodol bod nifer o denantiaid yn poeni ynghylch talu eu rhent yn ystod y pandemig coronafeirws. Mae gorfod hunan-ynysu yn golygu y bydd rhai pobl, yn enwedig pobl hunan gyflogedig neu sydd ar gytundeb ysbeidiol neu gytundeb zero oriau yn mynd i wynebu cynni ariannol.

Yn ystod y cyfnod anodd hwn rydym yn gofyn i landlordiaid i fod yn sensitif tuag at unrhyw denant sy’n gorfod hunan-ynysu. Dylai landlordiaid preifat gymryd cysur o’r ffaith bod nifer o fenthycwyr morgais wedi addo bod yn amyneddgar gydag unrhyw ôl-ddyledion sy’n deillio o’r epidemig.

Ar gyfer landlordiaid cymdeithasol yng Nghymru, nawr yw’r amser i ddileu dadgartrefu i ddigartrefedd. Y peth olaf rydym ei angen nawr yw mwy o bobl yn dod yn ddigartref. Mae rheoli amlygiad i Covid-19 yn llawer anoddach i bobl sy’n ddigartref. Byddwn yn cadw llygad manwl ar ein gwaith achos i weld pa landlordiaid sy’n dal i ddadgartrefu heb gynorthwyo tenantiaid i ganfod cartrefi amgen.

Dylai unrhyw un sy’n poeni am eu sefyllfa dai gysylltu â Shelter Cymru am gyngor arbenigol am ddim ar 08000 495 495.

BLOG: Letting fees in Wales: did the Welsh Government go far enough?

 

This week the Senedd passed regulations that mean private renters will be well protected from some types of letting fee – and potentially wide open to being hit by other fees.

In fact the regulations leave tenants in Wales more exposed to these fees than tenants in England.

The issue is ‘default fees’, which tenants are charged by agents and landlords for perceived breaches of tenancy. Default fees have been a huge focus for us throughout our campaigning to get letting fees banned.

The worst type of default fee, that brings us the most casework, is late payment fees. These can easily spiral into the hundreds of pounds and it’s often people on low incomes or who are vulnerable who get hit the hardest.

Thankfully, late payment fees have been capped by the regulations and in future will be charged at a strictly limited rate. The regulations also cap the amount that can be charged for replacing a set of keys, a lock or a security device.

All good so far. However – and this is where the problem lies – the regulations are silent on every other type of default fee. This means that agents and landlords are able to charge an unprescribed sum for any other perceived breach of tenancy.

It leaves agents and landlords free to start adding unrestricted and arbitrary fees into tenancy contracts for any potential breach, as long as it’s not for late payment of rent, lost keys or damaged locks.

This is not lawful in England.

‘Landlords and agents cannot write terms into your tenancy agreement that require a payment as a penalty should you fail to perform an obligation,’ says the UK Government’s guidance to tenants in England. ‘For example, any clause that says “if you fail to do x then you must pay y”, even if the amount is not specified, is likely to be prohibited.’

In England, agents or landlords who want to claim damages for tenancy breaches can do so via the court, so that the claim can be based on evidence. This is currently the case in Wales, but when the regulations come into effect on 28 April 2020 agents can bypass the court as long as they have included such charges in the contract.

It’s worth remembering that from next year in Wales, tenancy contracts will look very different. The Renting Homes (Wales) Act will mean that contracts become a comprehensive, detailed description of rights and responsibilities. It means we could end up with tenants being charged for:

  • Falling into arrears with council tax
  • Falling into arrears with energy bills, or voluntarily self-disconnecting
  • Failing to allow entry to a landlord or agent.

A tenant may be unable to cut the lawn due to a serious health issue; they may be justified in refusing entry to an agent or landlord who is harassing them; they may be understandably trying to manage energy costs by voluntarily self-disconnecting from time to time.

The decision by Welsh Government not to prescribe limits for any other default fee potentially opens up a new area of bad practice for some unscrupulous agents to rip off tenants. Because of limited public funding for this type of work, it’s going to be hard for tenants to dispute arbitrary and potentially unfair default charges.

The Welsh Government has committed to monitor the situation and revisit the regulations if it turns out bad practice is occurring. We will be keeping a close eye on how this is affecting people.

If you come across examples of tenants being charged rip-off fees, please get in touch with the Campaigns Team and let us know.

 

Campaign successess

Blog: Ending social evictions that lead to homelessness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.