An important part of my role as Tenancy Support Officer at the NextDoor project is to manage the expectations of our clients regarding the type of accommodation we are able to find them. We do not expect our clients to live in properties which we consider to be substandard but with LHA rates now based on the 30th percentile of rents in a given are finding appropriate accommodation this is no easy task. This is particularly true in an unregulated sector, where it is all too easy for landlords to exploit the intense demand for accommodation which exists in London. Continue reading
The role of our Private Rented Sector Access Scheme is twofold, to assist our clients into secure, accommodation, and to provide them with on going support. A significant proportion of our clients are former rough sleepers, a group who tend to be in particular need of intensive support in adjusting to life in settled accommodation, and for whom a sense of security is paramount. Once a client has settled in, and seems to be coping well, we will still keep in touch with the occasional phone call or visit to check that everything is OK.
One such client is Dave, who we found a one bedroom flat for in November last year. He had been through a very unfortunate combination of circumstances, forced into rough sleeping for almost a year. So he was overjoyed when we found him a very nice one bedroom flat in South London. He was full of hope and plans for the future and set about almost immediately applying for jobs, volunteering and a couple of months ago he got a place on a 16 week course getting practical experience and an NVQ in Social Work. He was very optimistic that this and the experience, skills and contacts he was gaining through his voluntary work gave him a good chance of getting a good job, and capitalising on successful career he had enjoyed for many years, before a series of unfortunate events left him with no other option than to sleep rough and try to survive as best he could. Continue reading
As part of the government’s overhaul of the benefit system, which came into effect at the beginning of this month, the Social Fund has been scrapped. This is a worrying development for us here at the NextDoor Project. Most of the clients for whom we find accommodation have no savings of their own and landlords invariably require one month’s rent in advance, which we have usually be able to obtain on their behalf from the Social Fund in the form of a Crisis Loan payment.
Elements of the old social fund, such as budgeting loans, will continue to be administered by the DWP, but crisis loans are now part of a bundle of responsibilities which have been devolved to local authorities. Obtaining crisis loan money from the old Social Fund was never easy, with call centers staffed by humans delivering remarkably convincing impersonations of robots. These generally pusillanimous creatures were clearly instructed to find any reason, however spurious, to reject an application. One particularly egregious example being when a rough sleeper who I had found a studio flat for was refused a loan on the grounds that “He has been sleeping rough for eight months, which means that he is coping very well with his situation, and is therefore not in a crisis ”. A piece of twisted logic worthy of the original Catch 22.
Accessing a Crisis Loan under the old system may have been difficult, but at least one was dealing with one centralised system and one set of rules, however obtuse. Over time I had become something of an expert at navigating my way through all obstacles and of late successful applications were becoming the norm, not the exception. Now we are dealing with up to thirty-two London Local Authority’s, each with its own set of criteria and some seemingly without any coherent policy at all.
Even where councils, such as Kennsington and Chelsea (in consort with Westminster and Hammersmith & Fulham under the new tri-borough administrative arrangements), have got a system in place it is embryonic and there are teething problems and delays. We have been successful in accessing a payment from Westminster, which is apparently the first under the new system, but because the payment mechanism is not in place yet Z2K has had to bridge the payment, in order for our client to be placed.
I have even been told by one London borough that they will not be giving cash payments at all but food vouchers, which at the very least shows a total misunderstanding of the needs of the people for whom this money is intended. Many other boroughs are insisting on a local connection before they will consider an application.
The only good thing that can be said about the new system is that when money is given it is in the form of a grant, unlike the old social fund, which was a loan, and over time it is to be hoped that councils will evolve better systems, and a greater understanding of the needs of their clients. At the moment however, like so much of the governments wholesale changes to the benefit system, these changes are creating confusion and anxiety, with many unintended consequences and an overall impression that they have not been properly thought through.
A late flurry of activity just before Christmas meant that the 2012 ended well for the Private Rented Sector access scheme. It was particularly gratifying to move one family, a single mother who had fled domestic violence with her two very young children and had been living in one room in emergency accommodation in Harrow for the last 12 months. I had gone there back in September to assess her and it was an utterly soulless and depressing place, although I was assured by her Social worker who had referred the family to us that she had “seen a lot worse”. The family moved into a nice two bedroom flat in Stoke Newington on Christmas Eve and the last time I spoke to them they were settling in well, with a benign landlord who had gone out of his way to make them comfortable.
Unfortunately the Christmas spirit evaporated with the season and the situation for the last few weeks has been as bleak and depressing as the weather. The early part of the year is traditionally a slow time in the rental market, but as we get towards the end of February there should be a definite increase in supply, but so far this has failed to materialise. Alarmingly the feedback I have been getting is that Landlords who were previously happy to rent to Housing Benefit claimants are now extremely reluctant. This is because universal credit vastly increases the risk of tenants falling into arrears (see Romin’s last blog post for more details) and also the proposed abolition of crisis loans, which almost every Housing Benefit claimant uses to pay rent in advance, and without which no landlord will offer a tenancy. Continue reading
One of the more challenging aspects of my job so far has been persuading our clients that because of the housing benefit caps, and changes to the way the Local Housing
Allowance is calculated, they have to accept that the properties we find them will probably be in zones three or four, will almost certainly be a lot smaller than they are used to and likely to be fairly basic.
We do however give a firm commitment that all of the properties on our books will be of a decent, habitable standard, clean and in a good general state of repair.
One of the more encouraging and unexpected revelations of my work has been to find that there are landlords operating at this end of the market who do indeed pride themselves on providing comfortably furnished, well maintained accommodation, they do this because they are decent human beings I’m sure, but it must also make good commercial sense to have contented tenants who stay for long periods.
At a viewing in North London this week the studio flat I was shown was small but immaculate, with a new wooden floor, a fresh coat of paint, and a tiny but well planned kitchen area. The agent readily agreed to buy a new sofa bed with drawers in it for extra storage , (our client was clearly concerned about the restricted space), but the flat was in Cricklewood, zone 2 and perfect for her work. She will be moving in on Monday, and on the telephone today the agent promised that the property would be thoroughly cleaned before this, even though it looked sparkling to me .
At the other end of the spectrum there are sadly many landlords who seem untroubled by the systematic exploitation of desperate, vulnerable people, and who take full advantage of housing legislation which is grossly biased in the favour of the landlord, and offers little in the way of effective protection to the tenant.
In Newham, East London, a couple of weeks ago I spent a hideous afternoon being driven from property to property by just such a Landlord (in his gleaming brand new Mercedes SL coupe). One small terraced house he showed me had six people living in it, sharing one shower and two toilets. I was shown a room about six feet by four, a stained, lumpy mattress on the bed, a makeshift wooden cupboard screwed crookedly to one wall (there was no available floor space for it to stand on).
When I asked the landlord if he accepted housing benefit he said yes he did, but he added that he then expected the tenants to top this up with their own money. “By how much?” I inquired, “100 to 200 pounds a month”, he said, “How” I asked “did people on £71 a week JSA, manage this?” “I don’t ask questions” said the landlord, “Just as long as I get my money”.
More than 50 years after the scandal of the notorious Notting Hill slum landlord Peter Rachman, his spirit has, it seems, returned to haunt us.
The Barbican Centre is the largest performing Arts centre in Europe and is home to such institutions as the London Symphony Orchestra. However for the last two days its cavernous halls were ringing with the sounds of the Landlord and Letting show, where we had set up a NextDoor project stall in an attempt to entice landlords to join our scheme.
Ethan is a quiet and studious young man, from a secure, loving family who had never been involved with gangs or been in any king of trouble with the police. Unfortunately for him he had become a target of local gangs, who were intimidating, bullying and threatening him.
Ethan goes to college, where he is studying Engineering, he also has a part–time job. Both him and his mum felt that the pressure he was being subjected to was having a negative impact on his future plans, so they decided that he should move into a Hostel in June last year. After more than a year in Hostel accommodation, both Ethan and the Hostel felt that he was ready to live more independently.
His new landlady, Yvonne, lives in Streatham with her 14 year old son and works for the NHS at one of the capital’s largest Hospitals. She has been thinking about letting out a spare room in her house for some time, but was very apprehensive, never having done anything like it before. As soon as she heard about the NextDoor Project, and in particular our vetting procedures and on-going support package, she decided to join the Scheme.
Last week I took Ethan, his Key Worker, and his Mum to meet Yvonne at her house. Yvonne, Ethan and his Mum all got on very well, and we all feel Ethan has found himself a home from home, and a stable base from which to progress his life.
The first task I was given on my appointment to the newly created role of Private Rented Sector Access Scheme Co-ordinator for the NextDoor Project was to think of a job title which did not require yogi like control of the breath and an ability to enunciate one’s vowels that would have impressed Professor Higgins!
So I address you now as Tenancy Support Officer; prosaic, does what it says on the tin, but elegant in its simplicity. (I should own up here and admit it was not, alas, my formulation, but Joanna, our Chief Executive). Continue reading