by Rob Simkins
The Welsh housing crisis. It’s a term often bandied around by a range of groups and individuals. Type it into a search engine and you won’t be short of opinions to sift through. The noise in this area has been taken up a notch more recently, especially with our latest campaign which has seen members of the Welsh public send around 1,000 emails to MSs demanding that 20,000 more social homes are built during the next Senedd term, 2021-26. It has been brilliant to see the impact of our campaign, with each of the three, main parties who could form a government (or the bulk of a government) putting social housing front and centre of their efforts to win over the Welsh electorate in May.
Demand currently far outstrips supply when it comes to social housing in Wales. Across Wales, there are around 67,000 households on waiting lists for social housing, who are often then forced into the private rented sector which can be unaffordable and more insecure – or even worse, they are forced into homelessness.
It is also important to differentiate social housing from affordable housing. While there remains demand for affordable housing in Wales, this definition means anything below market rent (including just below) and Help To Buy homes which can cost up to £300,000 – well above the average house price for most parts of Wales.
So how then, do each of the three biggest parties in our Senedd propose to address this clear and present need?
Well, let’s start with the current party in government, Welsh Labour. Speaking at Community Housing Cymru’s (CHC) annual conference on the 26th of November, the Minister for Housing and Local Government, Julie James MS, revealed that Welsh Labour will commit to building 20,000 social homes for rent in the next Senedd term if they win the election. The Minister promised that this would be within the Welsh Labour manifesto for the 2021 elections, building on the previous target of 20,000 affordable (not social) homes by 2021 which the Welsh Government state that they are on track to meet.
Looking across to the Welsh Conservatives, leader of the Senedd Group, Paul Davies MS reiterated the party’s goal of delivering 100,000 homes over the next ten years – of which 40,000 would be social homes. This is reflected alongside wider policy points in the Welsh Conservatives’ 10-point action plan to tackle Wales’ homelessness crisis. The action plan also promises to legislate to make housing a basic human right in Wales, citing Shelter Cymru’s report; The right to adequate housing in Wales.
Plaid Cymru have also been quick to back the building of social homes too, proposing 30,000 social homes should they form the next government as part of a wider package of 50,000 affordable purchase and rental homes.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats have also played a significant role in government with Welsh Labour over the current Senedd term and depending on election results could also be in a position to build 30,000 new social homes over the course of the next term. This would feature as part of a programme including the introduction of a Right to Adequate Housing into Welsh law.
Shelter Cymru, along with a number of other organisations has long called for an increase in social housing in Wales. This is to ensure that waiting lists are kept as short as possible or ideally eliminated altogether, to ensure that as many people as possible are in good quality and safe homes , and to work towards ending homelessness in Wales. As such, we warmly welcome the commitments to helping to end the housing crisis by building more social homes, laid out by all parties in should they form the next Welsh Government.
The fact that housing has to this point been a pivotal part of each party’s policy process perhaps demonstrates that now is the time for a wider debate to be had on housing. The coronavirus crisis has shown that for many people in Wales, their housing situation is simply not good enough. This in turn has a knock-on effect on people’s lives, manifesting itself in everything that they do. From making people less productive in the workplace, to making them more susceptible to poor physical and/or mental health, to compromising their children’s education. Shelter Cymru’s Life in Lockdown report painted this picture, finding that 10% of households with children had no access to outdoor space during the first lockdown and that fewer than half of those who reported disrepair had their issues resolved between March and July 2020.
These are significant commitments and none of us should underestimate the challenge that the next Welsh Government will face, whichever party is in government. To achieve any of the parties’ objectives will require investment above current levels.
A Welsh public who demand more social housing, and who stand ready to hold the next government to account for their welcome promises will keep social housing, at the forefront of the debate. You can write to your MS, sign our petition or get involved in other ways by donating your money, time or energy and experience to Shelter Cymru.
Together, we can make sure that no matter where in Wales you call home, you have the right to an affordable, good and secure home.
by Paul Bevan
Nobody understands the realities of homelessness better than people who have gone through it themselves.
So, for our new report Shelter Cymru asked people who have experienced homelessness about how we can say hwyl fawr (goodbye) to homelessness for good. We heard from 253 people through surveys and focus groups and their views fed into the Welsh Government’s Homelessness Action Group which was set up to find solutions to ending homelessness in Wales (read their report to Welsh Ministers here). Homelessness has such a significant impact; it was alarming that most people who had experienced homelessness in the last five years told us that they still worried about their housing situation.
People gave a range of practical suggestions for ending homelessness. These included more affordable and permanent homes being provided quickly when people become homeless, alongside support for as long as people need it. People said while there isn’t enough affordable housing, priority should be given to people in the greatest need.
People told us that there should be better co-ordination of help – this includes prisons, health, housing, homelessness and support services working more closely together. People said that a lot more work is needed to ensure no one leaves hospital or prison without a home. We were also told that consistent, straightforward, and co-ordinated homelessness and housing services are needed across Wales.
The quality of temporary accommodation for homeless people needs to be improved. Using B&Bs as temporary accommodation should be avoided, people sleeping rough should have easier access to emergency accommodation and people should be helped irrespective of whether they have a connection with the area.
Often people facing homelessness are in severe financial hardship – people told us that the welfare system needs to change so that people can afford their housing and living costs, and that tenants who struggle to pay their rent should be offered support very quickly as a way of preventing homelessness.
Two fundamental factors emerged from talking with people from which so much could stem. Firstly people felt that everyone should have a legal right to a home. Enshrined in law this should lead to a new perspective on the essential nature of a home – and much faster scaling up of the building of good quality affordable new homes or ensuring empty homes are used again. And secondly people called for kind and compassionate services and for homeless people to be treated with dignity and respect – bedrocks from which the right actions should spring.
This report involved listening to the views of people with experience of homelessness; they have told us and have told the Welsh Government what they feel is required. We must be much more willing to learn from people with experience of homelessness to ensure that their voices are heard much more clearly, as together we strengthen our resolve to say a resounding ‘hwyl fawr to homelessness’.
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.
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: –
- 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?
- 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
We know a lot of tenants are worried about how they will be able to pay their rent during the coronavirus pandemic. Having to self-isolate means that some people, especially self-employed people or those on casual or zero hours contracts, are going to face financial hardship.
At this difficult time we are asking landlords to be sensitive to any tenants who have to self-isolate. Private landlords should take reassurance from the fact that numerous mortgage lenders have promised to be patient with any arrears resulting from the epidemic.
For social landlords in Wales, now is the time to eliminate evictions into homelessness. The last thing we want right now is more people becoming homeless. Managing exposure to Covid-19 is considerably more difficult for people who are homeless. We will be closely monitoring our casework to see which landlords, if any, are still carrying out evictions without assisting tenants into suitable alternative homes.
Anyone who is worried about their housing situation should contact Shelter Cymru for free, expert advice on 08000 495 495.