Blocked from bidding: FOIs reveal Boroughs blocking homeless families on Universal Credit from successfully bidding for permanent accommodation

Daniel writes a piece based on one of his complaints and Freedom of Information requests revealing which Boroughs are effectively blocking homeless families on Universal Credit from successfully bidding for social housing because they are automatically in arrears.

Temporary Accommodation (TA) can feel like a wilderness for many of our homeless clients.  Even for the lucky few who don’t have to endure yearly moves, they are often a long way from their home area.  Usually, homeless households spend years in unaffordable, overcrowded and even dilapidated TA wondering if or when they will get that offer.  For some though there is finally light at the end of the tunnel with an offer of social housing possible in the coming months.

One of the cases I covered in an earlier blog followed a client who was paid Universal Credit (UC) whilst in TA.  Since April 2018, those on UC are now switched back onto the legacy benefit when entering TA and so these households are now relatively few in number.  This client was in an unaffordable TA, but what compounded the problem was that UC is paid five weeks in arrears.  As a result, he was constantly in arrears.  Many local authorities block bids for social housing from applicants in arears.  Z2K eventually managed to persuade his council to provide a backdated discretionary housing payment to facilitate a move.  What about others on UC in temporary accommodation though?  Are they able to bid?

I sent a Freedom of Information request to all 33 London Boroughs to establish whether those on UC would be able to bid for permanent accommodation. The response was interesting.

As usual when policy is decentralized it becomes a postcode lottery as to whether a local authority will be understanding about those in TA whose housing costs are covered by UC.  Firstly, the good news, is that 14 London boroughs say there is flexibility for those on UC who are in arrears to bid for social housing.  We were also pleased to hear that Tower Hamlets and some other Boroughs are actively moving homeless households back onto legacy benefits, enabling them to avoid maladministration problems with UC, as well as to bid for social housing.

In several other boroughs though things look bleaker. Hounslow and Waltham Forest fix the amount of arrears a homeless household can accrue before they are stopped from bidding at £1,000 – a rate which is less than the monthly local housing allowance rate for a two-bedroom flat.  And Redbridge sets its limit at just £250 – a rate less even than the monthly Shared Accommodation Rate.  These thresholds mean that when someone is paid one month of UC in arrears, they will effectively be prevented from bidding for permanent accommodation.

Greenwich and Tower Hamlets don’t set a numerical arrears limit, but they say they will only allow four and five weeks of arrears respectively before dis-allowing tenants to bid for social housing.  That’s especially worrying for those moved onto UC prior to November 2017, who were automatically six weeks in arrears.  Several other Boroughs gave me ambiguous responses suggesting there might be some flexibility to allow successful bids, but offering no clear criteria by which it would be judged and certainly no guarantees this would be actually the case.

For those who are placed in TA after April 2018 the future is more positive, as they are now transferred onto legacy benefit and their housing benefit is paid in advance.  However, it is important to remember those in TA on UC whose housing costs are paid in arrears and the difficulties that they are potentially facing to secure permanent accommodation.  Once managed migration begins in earnest some of those in TA on legacy benefits may be transferred onto UC.  If this is the case, then the clock is reversed and once again claimants will be in arrears, potentially preventing them bidding.

Lessons need to be learnt now; local authorities need to modify their allocation policies, taking into account that UC is paid in arrears and allowing flexibility to ensure that homeless people aren’t left trapped in TA longer than they would have been if they were still getting Housing Benefit.

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