Former tenant arrears and the Welsh social housing lock-out

It’s one year since we launched our report Accessing and sustaining social tenancies which asked whether some people in Wales were being deemed ‘too poor’ for social housing.

The report focussed on the use of financial assessments in the pre-tenancy stages and found evidence that some landlords were using these to deny people tenancies on affordability grounds, even when the rent would be fully covered by housing benefit.

This was particularly evident for households who had previously accrued rent arrears in a social housing tenancy. Landlords explained that in these cases they would expect the household to set up a repayment plan and if that was followed they would then be able to re-register for social housing. In many of these cases, landlords were able to evidence that repayment plans were in line with what people could afford.

Since the report was published we’ve continued to monitor the situation, and in recent months we’ve noticed a trend towards harsher polices on former tenant arrears.

In some cases these new policies are so strict that they are in effect barring large numbers of vulnerable households from the major social housing provider in their local area.

Here are some examples of what we mean:

  • Many landlords are requiring people to pay off old arrears from years ago, even longer than a decade. These arrears will be statute-barred, meaning they can no longer be pursued through the courts. They will have been written off social landlords’ business plans as bad debt long ago. Despite this, some of our clients have been told that they can’t have a new tenancy unless the old statute-barred arrears are added on to their rent account, leaving them heavily in debt from the outset.
  • One landlord has recently introduced a calculation which it uses to determine how much arrears people need to pay off before they can bid for homes. This calculation, which isn’t available for public scrutiny, has determined that people with higher levels of arrears must pay off £500 per month – even if they are receiving means-tested benefits.
  • One local authority landlord won’t allocate to households who have former tenancy arrears from the private rented sector – absurdly excluding people from affordable housing if they have previously struggled to afford market rents.

We know that most evictions from social housing are due to rent arrears and we understand that landlords have to ensure tenancies are affordable in order to let in an ethical manner. However, the impact of being excluded from accessing the social housing register leaves households with limited options other than to find accommodation in the private rented sector or become homeless.

We’ve asked the Welsh Government to look again at the statutory guidance on allocations. Currently, allocations policies get a lot of discretion on former tenant arrears – but in light of welfare reform-related concerns in the sector, it’s clearly time to mark some lines in the sand to ensure that social housing continues to be available for those who most need it.

We’ve asked Welsh Government to require that allocations policies:

  • Don’t exclude people for arrears from private rented accommodation which by its nature is less affordable then social housing
  • Don’t exclude people for arrears that are statute-barred (that is, older than six years)
  • Are transparent and not based on calculations that are hard for the public to understand
  • Are more considerate in respect of households coming via homelessness or who are vulnerable. Requiring people to keep to a repayment regime lasting several months may not be possible if people are facing or experiencing homelessness.

Although Universal Credit is still only partly rolled out in Wales, social landlords have done exceptionally well at protecting their financial health in recent years. It’s vital that this doesn’t come at the expense of social purpose. The alternative is higher rates of homelessness and greater misery for households who are currently locked out of Welsh social housing.