NextDoor: Experiences of helping people effected by the Housing Benefit caps in London

NextDoor is a dedicated project working to raise awareness of the impact of welfare reform on the private rented sector in London, and acting to mitigate the worst effects of these changes for low income households.  We currently offer a range of services, including a specialist Housing Benefit Helpline (0808 964 0961), casework and advice service, training sessions, access to information packs and materials, and a private rented sector access scheme which aims to help those moving within the private rented sector to access sustainable tenancies with reputable landlords.

Since going live on the 16th of January 2012, NextDoor has provided advice and support to over 70 households.  We are engaged with a number of particularly difficult cases, including: a family whose 10 year old son has a terminal brain tumour; a family receiving 24 hour support from social services because neither parent is currently able to care for their 10 month old son; and, a family containing a mother who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and two young children, both with developmental learning difficulties.  (It should also be noted that while all of abovementioned families have received a discretionary housing payment to take them to the end of their tenancies, they are not currently receiving any additional support from social or healthcare services and their futures remain uncertain).

While not surprising, most of our clients report that they are finding it extremely difficult or impossible to find alternative accommodation in the private rented sector.  As widely reported, private landlords are increasingly looking to the non-Housing Benefit market to fill their properties.  This is as a result of not only the changes to Local Housing Allowance but also the considerable uncertainty generated by the recent inclusion of an overall benefit cap with the Welfare Reform Act.

Through our training sessions we continue to be surprised by the number of professionals working with affected groups who are unaware of the changes and their likely impact.  Most worryingly, often these professionals come from groups such as social workers and health visitors who we would have hoped would be providing additional support to affected households, especially those already receiving a service.

In only one case has a landlord agreed to drop their rent to the cap amount.  In actuality most landlords are serving their tenants with notices and utilising accelerated possession proceedings to evict them.  Indeed, we are finding that many landlords are gaining possession orders and then waiting until their tenant’s transitional protection expires before applying for warrants to have them removed by bailiffs.  This is to maximise their rental income while minimising the length of time it takes to regain possession of the property (current enforcement periods average around 9 months).  We have sought legal advice and confirmed that once a possession order has been obtained it does not expire and a landlord can sit on their right to evict for an indefinite period of time.

Many of our clients report being harassed and intimidated by their landlord, and occasionally feeling fearful of their physical safety.  We have heard reports of illegal evictions, locks being changed and clients being frightened into abandoning properties that they were otherwise legally entitled to occupy.  This is a particular problem for new arrivals that come from countries that lack advanced legal systems, landlord & tenant law and where contractual disputes are adjudicated upon by village or town elders, rather than by the state. A large amount of our work centres around informing these people of their rights and the effect that abandoning a property will have on Housing Departments’ ability to provide housing assistance.

Many clients are concerned about entering into debt and being ‘blacklisted’.  With accelerated possession orders also including costs and accounting for rent arrears, there is an increasing likelihood that landlord will seek to enforce these debts, especially where they are large enough to package and sell these debts on.  This will increase the likelihood that low income families will become dependent on sub-prime loans to finance household items such as fridges and washing machines, something that the abolition of the Social Fund will also play a part in.

 

Romin Sutherland

NextDoor Project Manager