Housing the Homeless
The statutory underpinning of homelessness is contained under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996. The definition of homelessness comes in two main groups: statutory, non statutory and single homelessness. Agencies in the voluntary sector tend to support those who are non-statutory or single homeless.
Both freeholders and managers of blocks of flats can be left unaware that the BLT landlord may have chosen to hand over their flat(s) to the local authority. Private landlords are often offered incentives under s25 of the Local Government Act 1988 such as the following:
- The authority paying the costs of leases;
- Making small one-off grants (“finders’ fees”) to landlords to encourage them to let dwellings to households owed a homelessness duty;
- Paying rent deposits or indemnities to make sure accommodation is secured for such households;
- Making one-off grant payments which would prevent an eviction.
- Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) to give financial help to meet a shortage in a person’s eligible rent and the housing authority consider that the claimant is in need of further financial help. Such payments are governed by the Discretionary Housing Payment (Grant) Order 2001
Whilst there is no limit set on the amount of financial help that can be provided, authorities are obliged to act reasonably and in accordance with their fiduciary duty to local tax and rent payers.
By signing an extended lease with the council (often 3 or 5 year) these private landlords will often be exempt from landlord licensing because they hand over management to the LA and are not named as landlords in later tenancy agreements. This position of landlord is assumed by the LA’s managing department or agent with the LA being responsible for finding, vetting and placing tenants and dealing with any later issues.
PRIORITY HOUSING NEEDS
Under s189 of the Housing Act 1996, a homeless person will have a priority need for re-housing if s/he is vulnerable as a result of:
- Old age;
- Mental illness or learning disability (mental handicap) or physical disability;
- Having been looked after, accommodated or fostered and is aged 21 or more;
- Having been a member of Her Majesty’s regular naval, military or air forces;
- Having been in custody or detention;
- Ceasing to occupy accommodation because of violence from another person or threats of violence from another person which are likely to be carried out;
- Any other special reason.
Local authorities are required to take into account all the circumstances relating to a homeless person with the courts saying their housing offers are the experts in making such assessments. This is not a medical test and a doctor’s view isn’t conclusive. Judges will however be wary of overturning vulnerability decisions, as they are effectively subjective judgments.
PRIVATE SECTOR LEASING
Housing the homeless on our block appears to be done via Private Sector Leasing. This is a council-led scheme for families and people who find themselves homeless who are assisted in finding immediate, temporary accommodation whilst their claim for permanent housing is being processed.
Local councils work in partnership with housing associations (who are usually Registered Social Landlords with their own management companies) who advertise for properties.
Where a housing authority has a duty under s.193(2) to secure accommodation for an applicant (‘the main homelessness duty’), the Secretary of State recommends that the authority considers, (where availability of suitable housing allows), securing settled (and not temporary) accommodation in the immediate or short-term. For example, a qualifying offer of an assured shorthold tenancy from a private landlord would ‘bring their own main homelessness duty to an end’ if accepted by the applicant.
An offer of an assured shorthold tenancy is a qualifying offer if:
- It is made, with the approval of the authority, in pursuance of arrangements made by the authority with the landlord to bringing the authority’s duty under s.193 to an end;
- It is for a fixed term within the meaning of Part 1 of the Housing Act 1988 (i.e.not a periodic tenancy);
- It is accompanied by a written statement that states the term of the tenancy being offered and explains in ordinary language that there is no obligation on the applicant to accept the offer, but if the offer is accepted the housing authority will no longer be subject to the s.193 duty.
Note: The s.193 duty will not end with acceptance of an offer of a qualifying tenancy unless the applicant signs a statement acknowledging that he or she has understood the written statement accompanying the offer.
LEASEHOLD LIFE’S EXPERIENCE
During my research I discovered first hand that councils place enormous reliance on agents checking out various requirements before they place tenants in the PRS but they don’t check with the freeholder that permission to sublet has actually been granted. When it comes to dealing with problematic landlords and tenants assistance is more likely if a landlord wants to let to people on the council waiting lists. But, if a landlord goes through a high street letting agent, it is harder to get help unless block management are familiar with the relevant legislation (such as the Housing Health and Safety Ratings System) which places councils under a statutory duty to respond.
Like many leases, subletting on our block requires the permission of the freeholder. There was no freeholder on our block for many years so landlords pretty much did what they liked. I already knew local authorities were involved because of the rapid turnover of tenants and the continual dumping of household furnishings. When I asked my local council which flats were involved (whilst we went through the Right to Manage process) all they did was ask me why should any landlord have to tell anyone else who he/she was sub-letting to, private or otherwise. They also quoted Data Protection!
Although I later learned that parties within the council who could be using the block were the Housing Department Social Services Mental Health Team and the Learning Disabilities Team, these were just two of the departments that could have been used. I was also unable to get a break down on this because of ‘client led’ databases and yes, you’ve guessed it, Data Protection!
To make matters even more complicated, due to reciprocal arrangements between councils, if one of them is short of accommodation, they will ask other councils for help. So far, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets and Westminster have all used our East London block but its only due to being asked for help from the tenants who have problems in one area or another that I have established this much.
Keeping us out of this particular loop created some horrific landlord and tenant situations for myself and my partner (manager and freehold Director respectively), the first of which can be read here. Whilst homelessness is caused by a myriad of reasons, we were getting tenants placed on our block not only with drink, drugs and anti-social behaviour issues but they were housed with landlords who went way beyond the popular term of ‘rogue’. If we had been kept in the loop we could have contacted the relevant councils and advised them not to place such tenants here (at least not with the landlords they placed them with). But we were not so we had no choice but to deal with each situation as it arose.
On a Positive Note
Despite the severe impact on both our physical and mental welfare over several years, it is important to say that we also have (and have had) some lovely tenants, some of whom have had their own children born here. We have also finally reaped the rewards of our actions. Some of the ‘rogue’ landlords have sold up, and those remaining seem to have got our message which is ‘if you rent out a flat on this block you do it properly!’ All this has led to much more of a sense of community.
I totally agree with the observations made by Kate Faulkner, one of the UK’s leading property experts in her well-balanced opinion piece in issue 49 of the Landlord & Tenant Buy-to Let magazine. She says, and I quote “it isn’t right that politicians expect people in a vulnerable state to be housed by the average landlord with one property. This is why rogues can step in with high fees and not abide by the rules.”
As Kate concludes, “The PRS can work and some landlords/agents do well with all types of tenants but it can’t replace the need for social homes”. If our experiences are anything to go by then it most certainly can’t!