One step closer to decent homes

This week marks an important step on the road towards a decent standard of housing for all tenants. Karen Buck MP’s crucial Private Member’s Bill – Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) – has finally gained support from government.

At Z2K we help those of our clients who are homeless and single – those without access to statutory support – to find and secure quality, safe accommodation in the Private Rented Sector (PRS). While this is a life-changing service for those we support, our limited capacity means it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the huge numbers of people who are still struggling to live without a decent home.

Although homelessness (including those in emergency and temporary accommodation as well as rough-sleeping) remains the most acute and damaging issue in the current housing crisis, there are also widespread problems for people in social or private rented housing.

Both private and social rented homes may be substandard, with hazardous conditions

Many people who manage to find somewhere to rent are still forced to put up with shockingly awful conditions, from excessive mould and damp to a complete lack of heating or ventilation. Living in such substandard properties poses a serious risk to people’s health. It can also damage children’s educational performance and wellbeing, greatly impacting on their future life chances.

What’s more, this is not an unusual situation reserved for an unlucky few. While many landlords do ensure they are providing adequate accommodation for their tenants, a significant number do not. The English Housing Survey shows that one million homes have at least one hazard which poses a serious risk to tenants’ health. Of these, 250,000 are social housing and 750,000 are privately rented – meaning one in six of all private rentals are forcing people to live in inadequate conditions.

This new Bill is an opportunity to change that. Instead of simply expecting people to put up with these unhealthy and hazardous conditions, it would require landlords to make their properties fit for human habitation. It would also give tenants the right to challenge landlords who do not deal with hazardous disrepair, by taking them to court. In short, it offers all tenants the right to something which surely everyone deserves – basic living conditions.

Karen Buck MP, whose Private Member’s Bill has received government backing

Having campaigned for greater tenant rights for years, Z2K is particularly pleased to support Karen Buck in her bid to make this Bill into law. The Bill has already received support from the Residential Landlord’s Association and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health Officers. Now, at last, it has gained official backing from the government. This is a testament to the hard work of all the policymakers, tenants’ organisations and charities who have fought for the rights and duties it represents, and pushed this incredibly important issue onto the government’s agenda.

The Bill will have its second reading in parliament this Friday 19th January before proceeding to the committee stage, where each section and suggested amendment will be debated. Z2K will continue to monitor its progress to ensure it delivers on the legal rights Karen Buck and many others have fought for. We will also keep learning from our clients’ experiences about the ongoing issues and pitfalls of the system, and carry on challenging those in power.

This Bill may not be the only solution to the housing crisis, but it is certainly a crucial step. With a growing body of support – including now from government – helping it on its way towards becoming legislation, we hope it will continue to progress. At the same time, Z2K will continue working to help those in need access the decent home they deserve.

 

 

 

Key Dates for January 2018

Disability benefits, housing standards and homelessness (not to mention Universal Credit): 2018 is set to be a big year in the world of welfare reform. As there’s so much going on, we’ve broken it down into monthly bitesize pieces. So here are some of the key developments to look out for this January.

Karen Buck MP’s Homes for Human Habitation Bill

Do you like the sound of living in a home that is fit for human habitation, one which doesn’t damage your health and wellbeing through substandard conditions? And don’t you think all tenants – whether in social or privately-rented accommodation – should be entitled to that basic standard of living? So do we. But unfortunately, that’s not currently the reality. Many tenants suffer in terrible, dangerous conditions and have no legal right to demand improvements – as shown so tragically in the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

One MP is trying to change this. On 19th January, Karen Buck MP’s Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill will have its second reading in parliament. If it passes, the Bill would demand that all rented accommodation – both private and social – be made ‘fit for human habitation.’ It would also enable renters to take legal action against landlords who don’t maintain the property in a decent condition.

However, the Bill does not have government backing. This means that in order to pass, it needs at least 100 MPs to attend parliament and vote for it on January 19th.

So please take a minute to email your MP and ask them to support it here: http://act.generationrent.org/lobby/fitforhumanhabitation

 

Select Committee’s Recommendations for Disability Benefits

The Work and Pensions Select Committee has now completed its inquiry into the assessment processes for the major disability benefits – Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – and will be making their recommendations to government later this month. These are likely to include suggestions around the audio recording of assessments, taking evidence from claimants’ companions and assessors’ treatment of mental health issues.

We are hoping the Committee will also take into account the unjust and flawed design of the assessment process, and be bold in their statements on how the system must be improved.

Read our submission to the inquiry here.

 

Local Council Tax Support Schemes in Hackney and Lambeth

We have been campaigning against London Borough of Hackney’s plans to cut council tax support for its poorest residents by increasing their minimum payment from 15% to 20%. This would be a significant increase for those already struggling on low incomes. Along with CPAG, we met the Mayor before Christmas to set out our concerns.  We hope he has taken those on board, but will keep campaigning against any increase in charges and the use of bailiffs right up until the final decision at the Full Council meeting later this month.

Read our submission on the proposals here.

Unfortunately, Lambeth Council have confirmed they intend to raise the minimum payment demanded of their poorest residents from 15% to 20%. Their final decision will be announced after their Full Council meeting on 24th January. Again, we will work to ensure that their £400,000 hardship fund is used fully and effectively to support those in need.

Read our report on localised council tax support schemes here.

 

Evidence sessions on Tenant Fees Bill and Private Rented Sector

The Communities and Local Government Select Committee continues its inquiries into standards in the Private Rented Sector (PRS) and the draft Tenant Fees Bill. While the latter focuses on rights between landlords, tenants and letting agents, the former looks at the role of local authorities in providing and regulating accommodation in the PRS. Both inquiries will hold their first oral evidence session on 8th January, and will continue throughout the month.

Read our submission to the PRS inquiry here.

Z2K responds to draft London Housing Strategy

Z2K’s Policy Director Marc Francis sums up his response to the Mayor of London’s draft Housing Strategy

After a few weeks focussing on Z2K’s responses to the recent flurry of select committee inquiries and our campaign against Hackney Council’s plans to increase its Council Tax charges for disabled and unemployed residents, it’s been a breath of fresh air to read and respond to the draft London Housing Strategy.

With rents and house prices now pricing well paid middle-income earners out of the Capital, London’s housing crisis is now only denied by a very few.  But Z2K’s focus has always been on solutions needed by those suffering at the sharp end and so we were genuinely pleased to see how this draft strategy calls out the policy failures of recent years and provides a renewed focus on those low-income Londoners in greatest housing need.

One of the most positive steps is a return to a definition of “affordable housing” that is based on a maximum of one-third of average incomes.  For the past seven years, we have seen far too much of London’s limited Social Housing Grant being used to build “Affordable Rent” homes that are not really affordable to those on low incomes unless they get Housing Benefit.  Worse still, the shared ownership homes now being built in inner-London are being marketed at those with incomes up to £90,000 – a misuse of taxpayers money in our view.

While it does not yet go quite as far as we want, the Mayor’s new “London Affordable Rent”, which the strategy says will be set at similar levels to the social target rents used prior to 2010, will be welcomed by those languishing on Council Housing Waiting Lists across London.  We are less persuaded by the London Living Rents model, but do recognise that some kind of discounted market rent scheme is beneficial to young professionals who won’t ever be prioritised for social housing.  We would also like to see the Mayor phase out the current broken shared ownership model, and replace it with genuinely affordable home ownership options, like Community Land Trusts.

We welcome the strategy’s proposals for tackling homelessness, especially those designed to get rough sleepers off the street.  However, we think the Mayor should be thinking about what he can do in the Capital to strengthen the Government’s recently-announced £20 million “Help to Rent” initiative won so brilliantly by Crisis.  He must also challenge those boroughs unlawfully placing homeless families in Bed and Breakfast rooms for longer than six weeks.  Similarly, he could be bolder in improving the rights of private tenants.

One area we would like the strategy to go much further is in helping overcrowded families.  It is now seven years since the former Mayor published his action plan to tackle overcrowding in social housing.  Its central target was that there should be “No more than 5,500 severely overcrowded households in social housing in London by 31 December 2016.” There was never an official estimate of the numbers of children who were due to benefit from this policy, but a target of 5,500 households almost certainly represented fewer than 10 per cent of the 391,000 overcrowded children in London at that point in time.

We hope Sadiq Khan will agree to include an ambitious new target to reduce the total number of families living in overcrowded conditions by 2024, and also take up the other ideas in Z2K’s response.

Z2K helps client win complaint against Hackney Council

A recent case demonstrates some of the hardships which homeless people can experience when in emergency accommodation.  Through an unfortunate set of circumstances they can find themselves accruing charges which they previously were unaware they had to pay.  The below case outlines how a client was suddenly expected to pay Council Tax, following a Valuation Office re-rating from Business Rates to Council Tax.  It also highlights the unreasonableness of some boroughs who don’t take clients’ financial circumstances properly into account when they are in arrears.

Mr “L”, his wife and their two children were made homeless in September 2014.  He made a homeless application and Westminster City Council placed the family in emergency accommodation in Hackney.  Their accommodation was in a hotel, but was self-contained with a bedroom, living room and separate bathroom and kitchen.  Westminster provided a charge sheet stating how much Housing Benefit the family would get, the amount of rent they would be charged and the amount of service charge they would have to pay.  Council Tax wasn’t mentioned as the property was rated for Business Rates.

In July 2015, the Valuation Office re-rated the flat in which Mr L’s family was staying in from Business Rates to Council Tax.  This was backdated until 2010.  The Valuation Office sent this report on to Hackney Council.  However, Mr L himself was not notified about the changes until March 2016 when he received a notice stating, “New introduction of client responsibility for council tax.”  Three weeks later, he received a Council Tax bill of £1791.15 for the years 2014/15 and 2015/16.

In July 2016, Mr L received an invoice for £162 a month for these “arrears” – an arrangement he had not agreed.  A month later, after receiving a first reminder letter, he contacted Hackney and was told that he had no option but to pay the £162 a month.  Payment arrangements could only be made if there was a liability order incurring additional costs added to the arrears.  Mr L said that the he could only afford to pay £5 a week towards the 2014/15 and 2015/16 arrears as he also had to pay full council tax for the current year (2016/17).  Hackney council did not ask him for a means statement or offer any flexibility.  Unable to afford this, he paid £20 a couple of weeks later.  Hackney issued a default notice the following day.  No Final Reminder was sent, but a court summons was issued at the start of 2017.

Z2K was concerned at Hackney’s attitude, and so I submitted a complaint on the grounds that it should have made more efforts to establish who was in the property in July 2015, which would have reduced Mr L’s arrears.  I also argued that liability orders should not have been sought for these arrears before any payment arrangements were made as claimants incur additional costs, and that the Summons had not been issued properly as no final reminder had been sent.  More broadly, as well as questioning its refusal to allowing flexibility in the payments, I submitted that Hackney needs to introduce statement of means form, so it can accurately assess people’s finances and set up affordable payment arrangements.

In response, Hackney accepted it had not issued the court summons properly and knocked £50 off Mr L’s arrears.  This did not go far enough, and so I referred the complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman.  The LGO’s decision has just been published.  It concludes, “I can see no reason why Hackney Council could not enter into a repayment arrangement when Mr L first contacted it.  In fact, I consider it should have made such an offer when sending backdated bills in March 2016.”  The LGO also agreed that Hackney should have made more effort to establish who was in the property in July 2015 and ordered it to write off Mr L’s debt between then and April 2016.  In addition, Hackney was instructed to reduce his arrears further by £250.  Disappointingly, although it criticised Hackney’s refusal to enter a payment arrangement, the Ombudsman didn’t rule it should change its policy.

This judgement goes some way for Mr L and others facing Council Tax arrears.  However, I would argue that it should have gone further.  Local authorities really ought to properly establish what people’s means are when asking for arrears to be paid.  How else are they going to know if a resident can actually afford to pay the amounts requested?  By establishing a claimant’s circumstances, a local authority can save money by reducing the number of people who default.  In addition, use of statement of means and flexible payment arrangements could ease the stress on low-income residents and avoid administration, court and bailiffs fees, thus enabling residents to get out of the cycle of debt from having to borrow money elsewhere to pay their Council Tax arrears.  Even though the LGO hasn’t ruled using statement of means form is necessary, I hope Hackney will in future follow the good practice elsewhere by those authorities who do listen to those in arrears and agree to affordable payment arrangements.

Fighting the benefit cap: a case study

Westminster city hallJane is a single mother who lives with her 21 year old autistic son, Harry.  Although Jane is Harry’s registered carer and he is in receipt of a range of disability benefits, because the housing benefit claim is in her name, Jane is nonetheless affected by the £500 per week benefit cap.

This has seen Jane’s housing benefit reduced by over £100 per week, which has jeopardised both of their accommodation.  We assisted Jane to apply for a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP), which was successful, but Westminster have made this conditional on her contributing £20 per week from Harry’s disability benefits.  We are currently helping Jane to challenge this by way of internal review, but are also looking into more permanent solutions. Continue reading