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How the Legal System is Failing Courteney – Safer Renting Blog

Safer Renting works with vulnerable tenants and victims of criminal landlords to help protect their rights and get justice. The Safer Renting blog from our Project Lead Roz Spencer tells the stories of the people we work with. You can learn about the project here.

I know today is Friday 13th, but the events of the day surpass anything you could call “simply bad luck”.

For hardened members of the legal profession, this story may come as no surprise. Courtenay – not her real name – is a refugee from Rwanda who has been in this country now for some 20 years. She is a Care worker on a zero hours contract, has just completed her Masters degree in Pharmacology (so things she hopes may be looking up on the employment front) and is a single mother of 3. Her middle child suffers severely with sickle cell anaemia, made worse by the poor condition of her private rented flat. The London Borough of Hounslow are prosecuting the landlord for failure to maintain the property in a safe condition. As a result of this intervention, the landlord is now seeking to evict Courtenay and her 3 children: a form of revenge for something Courtenay had no say in.

The possession proceedings the landlord is using are of questionable legality because he has not protected Courtenay’s rent deposit and failed to maintain the safety of gas appliances. Courtenay should be entitled to legal aid to defend the possession claim: the catch is that the court has not served a key document on Courtenay’s case – the landlord’s Particulars of Claim. Without this, she can’t apply for legal aid and no solicitor can prepare a proper defence.

Courtenay tried to speak to the Court office to find a way around this, but was unable to find anybody willing to discuss her situation. With the hearing scheduled for just 3 working days time, I drove Courtenay to Staines County Court hoping to get a copy of the Particulars of Claim. However the court office was shut. We then made a further 3 phone calls to HM Courts and Tribunals Service to try and find a solution. Eventually Courtenay was told she would have to write to the court, with no guarantee she would get a response in time. The alternative, to apply for an adjournment to the hearing, involved a £225 fee and no guarantee of a decision in time.

Recognising there was no hope of resolving this in time for the hearing, we tried to find out if a Duty Solicitor service was available to represent Courtenay to stand in place of full representation by a solicitor. This was also a dead-end.

Having exhausted our options for securing full legal representation, Safer Renting will attend court with Courtenay as a McKenzie friend (someone who helps a person represent themselves in court who is not a legal representative) or represent her if the judge on the day permits it.

I was struck by Courtenay’s grit and grace in the face of this hopeless farce. She talked to me during our car journey of the transformation that Rwanda has been through and just how determined the country’s leadership has been to reform the country. Our legal system must look to her as it does to me, like a badly moth-eaten jumper. As someone who has fought through genocide, studied to improve her skills, takes care of our elderly, all while bringing up a family single-handedly, she deserves so much better than this.

How Good are Licensing Schemes at Stopping Rogue Landlords? – Safer Renting Blog

Safer Renting works to tackle criminal landlords and support their victims across London. The Project Director Roz Spencer, as seen on Channel 5’s Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords, has over 30 years’ experience working with private sector and social housing in London. This blog details her experiences tackling criminal landlords and working with some of the most vulnerable tenants in London.

nightmare tenants slum landlords, channel 5, roz spencer, safer renting, safer renting blog, contact, licensing, public sector, housing enforcement, It is still early days for Safer Renting, but it is hard not to notice some patterns emerging in the casework we’re taking on. Both of the boroughs where we have started working have embraced discretionary licensing for landlords as a way of driving up standards in the private rented sector. One of the two has whole borough licensing – so any and all rented property must be licensed, regardless of size or degrees of self-containment.

One of the trends we’ve noticed is so apparent it hardly needs stating at all: levels of eviction and attempted eviction by private landlords– usually through no fault of the tenant – are very high. The driver for many evictions is this: rents are rising faster than wages in these London boroughs, so it pays the landlord to trade a tenant who can only barely afford the rent for a new tenant who can afford a higher rent.

I used to be one of many sceptics about the value of licensing schemes – and I still believe that we need more powers and more resources to tackle the worst of the private rented sector abuses.  On the other hand, by working hand-in-hand with the licensing teams, we are led to the poorest quality properties; ones that should be licensed, but aren’t.

There are other benefits to the licensing scheme aside from identifying the worst perpetrators. .One of the keys to our success has been that landlords who fail to licence a property that should be licensable are not legally able to use ‘no fault’ (Section 21) evictions. These are currently the most prevalent forms of private sector eviction and have emerged as the leading cause of homelessness in the UK. Indeed, reviewing our casework statistics, I saw that we have been able to help the tenant to sustain the tenancy in 92% of cases where the landlord had tried to evict the tenant.

Despite these welcome successes, it’s only growing more obvious that there are so many things that could and should be done to protect tenants in the private rented sector; for example, many tenants don’t even enjoy this protection from eviction because the landlord has used loopholes to avoid granting any tenancy at all in return for cash-in-hand rent; but until there is a radical change in powers and resources, don’t underestimate how much licensing can do to protect people’s homes.

‘I, Daniel Blake’ – Not So Far From The Reality – Safer Renting Blog

Safer Renting works to tackle criminal landlords and support their victims across London. The Project Director Roz Spencer, as seen on Channel 5’s Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords, has over 30 years experience working with private sector and social housing in London. This blog follows her experiences working with some of the most vulnerable tenants in London.

Ken Loach, I Daniel Blake, housing, eviction, illegal landlord, private sector housing, illegal eviction, shelter, rogue landlord, roz spencer, Cambridge House, safer Renting,

Ken Loach, director of ‘I, Daniel Blake’, has been highly critical of recent welfare reforms and efforts to tackle the housing crisis. Photo via Wikipedia.

Ken Loach’s new Palme D’Or winning film, I, Daniel Blake hit our cinemas on Friday. The film follows a 59-year old carpenter navigating a hostile welfare system to claim sickness benefit and a single mother who, in order to escape a homeless persons’ hostel, with her family is forced to relocate to a residence 300 miles away. I have high hopes for it to make the case to government about the dire state we’re in, both in housing and on welfare – governments are unfortunately slow to see the imperative for change until popular culture sets out the case.

My experiences this last week suggests things in the London private rented sector are bleaker than even I supposed. Two of our clients in Waltham Forest could have provided material for Loach’s film. Both rely on housing benefit for their housing costs; both occupy single rooms in poor quality houses in multiple occupation; and both are being obliged to move because – quite rightly – the landlords are being forced to undertake major works to bring the properties up to standard. Both of these clients have strong and understandable reasons to remain in Waltham Forest. Mr M is 57 years old and unable to work because of a spinal condition – he has lived in the area for decades and, without any direct family for support, relies on his network of friends and acquaintances in the area to get by. Mr H works long and irregular hours in low paid employment in neighbouring Stratford. Neither can find a room in a house that they can afford, or indeed where the landlord will consider them – many landlords will disregard tenants on housing benefit immediately.

The phrase “Stuck between a rock and a hard place” doesn’t quite capture the desperation of both of these men’s situation. Both will have to make compromises on where they might move to – we’ll be working with them  to advise on where best to search and what scams to avoid; meanwhile, we’ll defend their legal right to stay in their homes until their landlords either end the tenancies properly – a right the landlords were trying to deny them – or offer them an acceptable out of court compensation settlement.

I take some cheer in the news that government are proposing a new national minimum space standard for a (bed)room as 6.5 m2 – you can fit a single bed in a room that size. I am concerned, though, that this is to become the default standard to accommodate a grown person and everything they own; this smacks of a new generation of dispossessed – and these are the folk who have got a home.

However, it has to be said that we can enforce minimum standards like these  to our hearts’ content, but low paid people can’t even afford a room of their own with shared facilities in the current market. The skyrocketing of rents and drop in the value of housing benefit in real terms means if you are poor and you need to rent a room, any room, regardless of decency – pack your bags, get on your bike, in Waltham Forest (and pretty much everywhere else) there’s no room at the Inn…

On that note, I do hope our Housing Minister and the Minister of State for Welfare Reform at the Department for Work and Pensions can take time out from their busy schedule to go to the cinema this week. Maybe they’ll realise just how serious this situation is.

Buying a House Takes More Than Hard Work and Willpower – Contrary to Government Belief

Alice Belotti speaking at Cambridge House's Housing Conference, May 2016

Alice Belotti speaking at Cambridge House’s ‘Can We Afford To Lose Council Housing?’ conference in May 2016

Home repossession, evictions, and homelessness are on the rise. At the same time, the lack of decent, affordable, and stable accommodation causes huge strains in people’s lives. But what will the government’s ‘landmark’ Housing and Planning Act 2016 do to tackle these problems?

The housing crisis we are experiencing is made up of three interlinked components: a lack of supply where there is more demand; soaring rents and housing prices; and unaffordable home prices for lower-income households, leading to a rapid expansion in private renting. These components play out differently in various local markets, with huge regional variations. But the depth of the current crisis is experienced by people living in London and the South East.

Private renting and affordability

Through the Act, the government is committed to exposing rogue landlords; but this is not enough, as they are a small part of the problem. What really plagues the housing sector are high rents and a lack of security. Private renting has grown rapidly over the last 15 years. More and more people – especially families with children – are living in private rented accommodation.

Yet private rents have been rising, especially in London and the South East, where rents amount for no less than 50 per cent of median gross monthly salary. Young couples are finding it a struggle to have kids while renting; many young people also have no option but to share a house with others (up by 70 per cent since 2011) or live with their parents. Their savings towards a step up on the property ladder are eaten by the extortionate rents set by a self-regulating market.

https://pixabay.com/en/london-building-panorama-947381/

Image Credit: Pixabay

Homeownership and affordability

And although the government may hope to help first-time buyers through Starter Homes, the scheme misses those on average income and below. The government’s new flagship policy will offer a 20 per cent discount to first-time buyers who are between the age of 23-40; but a 20 per cent discount will still be out of reach for those in need of an affordable home, given that Starter Homes could cost up to £450,000 in London, and £250,000 in the rest of the country. To discourage buy-to-lets and property speculation, Starter Home buyers will also be forced to repay a percentage of the discount if their home is sold or let within 20 years of the purchase. (However, if property prices continue to grow at today’s pace, it will not take much to pay back the discount early.)

Social housing provision

There was a time, only fifty years ago, when housing was seen as a basic right, and social housing was growing fast. Under both Labour and Conservative governments, the race was to build council homes. Five decades later, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 may be signaling the end of social housing as we know it, according to Lord Kerslake, former Head of the Civil Service. Social rented housing will be lost as a result of policies such as the new Right to Buy and the forced sale of councils’ ‘higher’ value voids. Estate demolition and rebuilding is also displacing large communities and gradually eroding the social housing stock.

In theory, housing associations and local authorities should build one-to-one (or two-to-one) replacement homes for any home lost through the above policies. But the new homes will not have to be like-for-like, and it is not clear where the money for local authorities will come from. The result will be a net loss of social housing. The 1 per cent rent reduction also means that the much-needed new social rented housing will not materialise.

And in light of new unexpected budget pressures, the majority of social landlords are drastically scaling back on development programmes, while others are deciding to build less social housing, and instead build more private homes for sale. Local authorities will have the duty to provide at least 20 per cent Starter Homes in any new development, which will count as affordable housing for planning purposes. A recent survey by Inside Housing of 97 English councils reveals that a third of them will see their affordable housing requirements completely taken by Starter Homes, not social renting.

The Chartered Institute of Housing also estimate that around 350,000 social rented homes be lost by 2020 through affordable rents and Right to Buy sales, high value sales, and demolitions of former council estates, whilst only 3,500 new homes will be built. Meanwhile, the housing benefit bill has risen from £11bn in 2000-01 to £25bn in 2015-16 to subsidise private landlords, rather than to support social landlords.

What’s the solution?

The government’s new housing agenda is all about home-ownership and incredibly penalising towards social housing and its tenants. The government’s policy, however, is based on the wrong assumption that home-ownership is possible for everyone through hard work and willpower. What it can be said it ignores is the fact that social housing provides a decent and affordable option for people who need it. So, if anything, we need to build more social housing, devise better and easier ways for people to access affordable housing, and revitalise low-demand areas to bring empty homes back into use.

https://pixabay.com/en/london-flats-urban-architecture-448552/

Image credit: Pixabay

In the absence of government funding, more responsibility rests on local authorities and housing associations to sustain social housing. Local authorities have the ability to borrow towards their assets and build more homes. There are interesting models of cross-subsidy of social rented housing which are being tested out by housing associations that want to remain a viable business while enhancing their social commitment. At the same time, devolution in the North could re-balance regional differences and uncover creative, innovative ways to improve the economic and housing fortunes of older industrial cities and regions.


Alice Belotti, research assistant at LSE’s Suntory and Toyota International Centres for Economics and Related Disciplines (STICERD) and an expert on estate regeneration, recently took part in our Housing Crisis Conference. The Conference brought together council tenants, politicians and housing and legal experts to discuss the impact of the housing crisis and possible solutions. Find below Alice’s informative article on the Housing and Planning Act.

Article originally posted on the LSE BLOG – http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/homeownership-in-housing-and-planning-act/

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