When Nerys’ abusive ex-partner was imprisoned, she and her son moved into a housing association tenancy with the hope of starting a new life. She had been nearly killed in a brutal attack that had left her with mental and physical health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, which meant that, for the first time in her adult life, she was unable to work.
From the outset her housing benefit claim was bungled. She had six claim forms sent out to her in the first couple of weeks. ‘It was very confusing,’ said Nerys. ‘And then they sent me a letter telling me I’d been overpaid by £800. So I started off my new tenancy in arrears, through no fault of my own.’
It’s a common enough theme in Shelter Cymru casework – delays and mistakes with benefits applications are often a cause of arrears early in a new tenancy. It’s a situation that social landlords should be used to handling with skill and sensitivity.
Nerys, however, found a less than sympathetic response: ‘Even though I explained my financial situation a number of times, there was never any sense that they wanted to find ways to help me keep my tenancy. There was never any solution or way forward offered to me, at least none that I could possibly afford.
‘I couldn’t manage the repayments they were insisting on. I told them that I would be able to pay as soon as my benefits situation was sorted out but they didn’t seem to accept that.
‘By now I was very low, I felt trapped and helpless. I probably didn’t help myself much around this time, but I felt that no-one was listening to me. I was so depressed and worried about my son and I ending up on the street that I shut down, withdrew, stopped engaging with them. Eventually my arrears built up to nearly £2,000.’
At no point, said Nerys, did her landlord offer her any support to manage her situation.
‘They took me to court over the arrears and arranged for me to pay back £20 a week. I pointed out that there was no way I could afford that until my benefits situation had been sorted out, but it didn’t make any difference to them.’
Nerys’ story is unfortunately not an exception. A new study published today warns of worrying inconsistencies between Welsh social landlords’ approaches to eviction prevention. While there are many examples of landlords working proactively to identify eviction triggers and put early support in place, the study also found multiple examples of poor practice.
A reliance on Notices Seeking Possession as a ‘stick’ to encourage engagement could often have the opposite effect, the stress sending tenants further into withdrawal. Referrals to homelessness services were erratic: of the tenants involved in the study, more than half (55%) didn’t access Housing Solutions services either before or after their eviction.
Last year around 914 households were evicted from Welsh social housing, including around 512 children. The study estimates that dealing with the consequences of evictions costs around £24.3 million a year to the Welsh economy. But what’s more worrying still is the human cost: more than three in four of the people interviewed (77%) were still homeless six months after their eviction.
The rent arrears pre-action protocol is meant to ensure that landlords don’t take tenants to court until basic prevention steps have already been taken. Some landlords have gone even further, putting their own policies in place that go above and beyond the protocol. However, the study suggested that some landlords may not even be following the basic minimum in a consistent way, and even then, the courts don’t always take account of it.
One proposed solution is to scrap the current protocol and replace it with a set of pre-action requirements, similar to those in place in Scotland. Landlords would have to show the court evidence that they’d taken reasonable steps to follow the requirements – which might include interventions such as money advice, help with benefits applications, a support needs assessment, referral to Housing Solutions and independent housing advice.
Many landlords will already be taking these steps as standard practice – but when it comes to something as vital as losing a home, a patchy approach just isn’t good enough.
For Nerys, the stress of the court action made her health problems worse and affected her son’s wellbeing too.
‘I’d like to say that I would have tried not to withdraw, as I did when things were at their worst, but the truth is I was already depressed and exhausted by the time I got the NoSP, and when they just keep saying the same thing over and over, offering no solutions – when you’re depressed anyway, just piling the pressure on makes it worse. You sort of shut down.
‘I was already suffering mental ill health due to my previous experiences and the threat of my son and I ending up on the street just made my condition worse. If I hadn’t had that extra pressure, I might not have become quite so ill, and it wouldn’t have taken me so long to get back on my feet.
‘The stress was dreadful, just dreadful, and I know my son suffered from it too. You try to keep these things from the children as best you can, but they can sense when something is really wrong, they see you with a permanent worried look on your face and it affects them.’
Thankfully, in the end she managed to avoid eviction thanks to a Shelter Cymru support service that she had been referred to, not by her landlord but by the council. Her support worker helped her to apply for Personal Independence Payments and successfully negotiated with the landlord to reduce her unaffordable repayment plan.
‘My support worker was brilliant,’ said Nerys. ‘He worked with me every step of the way and eventually I was awarded PIP, backdated 18 months.’
With her financial situation now sorted Nerys and her son are looking to a secure future.
‘Obviously, this has put me in a much better situation going forward. I now have no arrears, I’m paid up a month in advance and I pay my rent by direct debit.
‘What I would have liked is if there was someone who could have sat down with me, like my support worker did, and work out what was going wrong with my finances and how to sort them out. They didn’t seem to believe that I was trying my best to negotiate this really complicated benefits situation.
‘Talking to friends and family, these benefit problems are really common, it happens to nearly everyone at some stage, and they can lead to a lot of trouble.’