Pete Elliott is one of Brixton Advice Centre’s (BAC) housing law specialists. He focuses on disrepair issues and evictions and has worked at the Centre for just over six years – previously working for a human rights law firm in the City.
I spoke to him about what his job involves, how cuts are affecting council tenants in Lambeth – and what the future holds for social housing in this country…
“Even though housing law has changed, ” he says, “the biggest changes [in my time at BAC] have been to the benefits system. And I tend to find that at the hub of almost all the housing issues I deal with are benefit issues.”
As Nathan Scott, BAC’s welfare benefits specialist, explained to me last month (read the interview here), since the 2013 changes to the benefits system there is now a domino effect, where welfare benefits are stopped and before an appeal can be launched, several months can pass with no money coming in – and at the same time housing benefit is also stopped. This leads to debt, rent arrears and eventually eviction notices.
On demand for social housing
Pete has seen Lambeth’s stock of social housing decline as the Council, hit by 56% cuts to its core funding from central Government, has been trying to meet the shortfall in a variety of ways, including selling off land to developers. Looking at the current Housing Bill and the impact this will likely have on local council finances, he believes this situation will only get worse.
“Taking a long view, I think that within the next 10-15 years what’s known as council or social housing will have been devastated,” he says. “Everything will be in the private sector in some form or another. The only people who may be cared for are likely to be those in sheltered accommodation or who have severe disabilities. Even then, the ongoing private sector creep into public services is likely to mean they’ll look like very different services to what we see now.”
In the meantime, demand for council properties in Lambeth is higher than ever. “It’s one of the most overcrowded boroughs in the country in terms of people wanting to live here,” he says.
He explains that there are four bands of potential social housing tenants – A, B, C and D. A is for emergencies, such as domestic violence cases, urgent medical situations or where children are about to be made homeless. B is for slightly less urgent cases – although the Council doesn’t specify what less urgent means – and for families who are overcrowded by at least two rooms (based on the assumption that two children will share a room). C and D are for those overcrowded by one room – or anyone else applying for housing who isn’t currently homeless.
“Realistically,” he says, “if you’re in band C or D your chances of getting housed are bleak at best.” There are currently 21,000 people on Lambeth’s waiting list.
“What I find shocking is that so often, when people come in facing eviction, you then find out that they’ve been living with very serious disrepair for a long time,” he says, “and we’re talking about the kind that seriously affects health and quality of life.”
“It gives the impression that because councils and housing associations are so squeezed for cash they will leave disrepair matters until they have absolutely no option but to repair. Unfortunately, in many of the cases we see, this means the only avenue the client has is to issue legal action to get anything done about it.”
Pete is working with one client at the moment fighting eviction after losing her job and getting into rent arrears. She’s now working again and paying off the debt – but only when she went to court did it become clear that she had major disrepair issues in the property that she’d been unable to get resolved. She has now issued a counter claim with Pete that could see her entire debt wiped out.
“One of the big problems with Lambeth – and all local authorities for that matter – is that they contract out. Many years ago I think they all thought they were going to save money by outsourcing repairs: no more pensions, sick pay and so on for staff they would otherwise have to employ themselves. But the lack of accountability in contracted out services, along with a desire for profit by contractors, just encourages services to be cherry-picked.” Less profitable services are simply sub-contracted out by the original contractors, who are effectively playing the system.
For example, he says that contractors are supposed to give people 24 hours’ written notice before coming to a property, but will often turn up unannounced if they happen to be in the area. “So often I hear from clients that these people just pitch up, take a look at the issue for a couple of minutes, say they don’t have the parts they need and that they’ll come back another day. And of course they invoice the Council for each visit even though they’ve done nothing, were in the area anyway, and haven’t even turned up when they were supposed to.”
On the end of lifetime tenancies
Social housing will change dramatically over the next few years, he says, as the Government is ending lifetime tenancies – the basis on which council housing has previously always been rented. “’I think a lot of people don’t realise quite how significant this is,” he says.
“Lifetime tenancies give people and families protection. They can put down roots in the community, put kids in a local school and so on.”
That will come to a sharp end later this year, he explains. In future, local authorities will be able to act like private landlords, offering 2-5 year tenancies where, at the end of it, they can simply refuse to offer you a new tenancy without having to give a reason. What’s more, every one of those tenancies will start off with an introductory tenancy that lasts for a year.
“Round here, most of the people who are going to be in local authority housing are either going to be very low earning or on benefits. So all it’s going to take is for them to be in rent arrears once and they’ll have breached their introductory agreement. The Council could act reasonably and accept that this is going to happen – but they don’t have to. There will be very little security for tenants.”
On housing benefit payments
Another upcoming change that he thinks will have a big impact on housing is the fact that housing benefit will be paid directly to tenants, rather than to landlords in future, once Universal Credit has been rolled out nationally.
“This is going to make it even harder for people who are on benefits to get private rented accommodation because whereas before the landlord would have known the money was coming in each month, guaranteed, it’s now going to be much higher risk. It’s also likely to cause massive rent arrears problems. They’re trialling it at the moment, but early reports have suggested that in those trial areas around 90% of tenants were behind with their rent because of the way the scheme is set up.”
So just as councils are pushing more and more people into the private rental sector, they’re making it harder for them to find accommodation and, if they do, increasing the risk of them being evicted for rent arrears.
On benefit fraud
Pete is frustrated with the picture painted by the media of council tenants as fraudsters and scroungers. “I would say that perhaps 95% of the people I deal with, perhaps more than that, are decent, honest people who are not trying to turn the system over, but are just doing what they can to survive. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I can click onto [people trying to turn the system over] very quickly.
“You always get these odd stories in the Daily Mail about someone who has five kids and is getting incredible amounts of money,” he adds. “Well, there’s a benefits cap. There are strict limits. So these are freak stories – but they’re made to look as if they’re everyday occurrences.”
“The vast majority of people I’ve encountered here are decent people who are trying their best, but who may be on JSA or ESA, or who are working ridiculous hours in low paid jobs, and who have £4,000 in rent arrears and have utility bills they can’t afford to pay. I think for some of these people, increasingly, they feel that there just isn’t much hope. And I think that’s dangerous.”