Trace has been battling the bureaucracy of both Lambeth Council and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for many years now. We met to talk about her struggle with the benefits system, but in the process I heard about what she’s experienced at the hands of Lambeth Council’s housing department over the last 20 years – and of the ongoing threat of eviction she faces…
Trace is disabled, with limited mobility. She’s been claiming Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for the last five years but in January 2014 she reapplied slightly late, two days after the deadline, due to an operation she’d undergone.
She received no response – but stopped receiving payments later that month. When she wrote to the DWP they eventually replied to tell her that they had no record of her original claim, despite the fact that she’d kept her recorded delivery slip as proof.
It was mid-May by this point and her local MP, Kate Hoey had become involved. With her help, after several more months, she managed to discover that her claim had mistakenly been sent to Cardiff to be archived, rather than being processed. She was told that she needed to make a claim for a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) instead (much like Toni, who I spoke to last month – read the interview here).
That should have happened back in January. If you reapply for DLA but miss the deadline, you should then be contacted and told to make a new application for PIP (PIP is replacing DLA) – but because her paperwork was lost, this never happened.
Her disability was not in dispute… and yet it still took 18 months before the DWP conceded that payments should be backdated
The problem for Trace at that point, in September 2014, was that if she’d applied for PIP then, any payments would only have begun from the point of application, rather than being backdated to when her benefits had stopped in January. She wasn’t prepared to accept this, and there began a battle that still hasn’t been fully resolved today.
It’s worth noting that her disability was not in dispute during this process – and yet it still took 18 months before the DWP conceded that payments should be backdated to January 2014. While some back payments have now been made, she says she’s still owed money.
“If Kate Hoey hadn’t got involved, it never would have been sorted out at all,” she says. “I never would have known that they’d sent the initial application to the wrong place and I would have had to make a totally new claim.”
She believes that Government cuts have left the DWP so short staffed that there are very few people left to help – and that mistakes like the one she experienced are inevitable.
“If you have a problem with PIP, go straight to the complaints department,” she advises. “They’re the only people I’ve talked to who were helpful, and who treated me like a human being.”
Stressful and lengthy though this process was, at the same time she was involved in an even more pressing battle with Lambeth Council – one that had been going on since the 1990s and that she believes has contributed to her current poor health.
Trace has lived in one of Lambeth’s “shortlife” properties, in Clapham, for over 35 years. Shortlife properties were empty, dilapidated homes that councils handed over to housing co-operatives in the 1970s to restore and maintain as a temporary solution to the housing problems of the time.
When she moved in, Trace’s house was very run down, but over three decades she has transformed it
Trace’s house was originally marked for demolition by the council back then as it was in such a poor state. The tenants at the time were evicted, but a local amenity association got the buildings listed and so they survived. At that point the council invited homeless young people to move in – and Trace was among those who took up the offer.
The occupants were told they could stay if they formed a housing co-operative, which they did. They were told they could start renovating the houses and, in 1980, Trace tells me that they were given an initial licence to live there for five years. When she moved in, Trace’s house was very run down, but over three decades she has transformed it.
A couple of years later the council asked the co-op if they wanted to become permanent residents – although the council disputes this. The council never followed up on the offer, however, Trace tells me.
“Then everything was fine until 1992,” she says. “Suddenly there was a change. I don’t know if there was a personnel change in the housing department, but suddenly we were being ignored. I don’t know why – we’d always had a good relationship before that.”
A year or so later, they received what Trace describes as a “heavy” letter, which said that they had to agree to new licences, and that if they didn’t agree they would be evicted. “But the licences didn’t exist yet, so we couldn’t see them, we couldn’t see what we’d be agreeing to,” says Trace. “They were threatening to move us to the Stockwell Green Estate if we didn’t agree, which at the time was the worst place to be re-housed.”
Trace and the other residents refused and it turned out to be an empty threat. Everything went quiet for a couple of years, until the option for all the shortlife housing to be sold to a housing association was raised. This deal ultimately fell apart, however.
Then, in 1998, the council contacted the co-op to let them know that a decision had finally been made – the housing would be sold and they were to be evicted. “This felt different, it felt serious,” says Trace. But, strangely, another ten years went by before the council acted.
Those ten years of uncertainty were stressful. “People were afraid,” she says. “Some people stopped repairing the houses – they didn’t see the point if they were going to be thrown out.”
Since 2008 Trace and other members of the co-op have been subjected to repeated threats of eviction and several court cases. There are a number of co-ops in the area, and most of the residents have either moved voluntarily or been forcibly evicted. Trace is the last remaining member of her co-op.
“Last April the County Court bailiffs came to evict me,” she says. “There was a protest outside and they eventually backed off. It was on ITN news. But then the manager of the Lambeth team overseeing the eviction applied to the High Court and got an order.”
Now the bailiffs can come at any point, 24 hours a day, without having to give notice – and there’s no expiry date on the order. And yet a year later and she’s still there, the last woman standing – but with no idea how much longer for.