I recently challenged a Local Authority’s refusal to accept a client’s homeless application. The client has a young child and had been staying between two family member’s houses, moving from one to another when she had outstayed her welcome. Both households were severely overcrowded, so neither was suitable for her. She was under constant threat of street homelessness. The client had been in this situation for almost two years and had been refused assistance repeatedly by the Local Authority, despite the fact that they had a clear duty to house her. They soon changed their position when Judicial Review was threatened and placed the client and her child in temporary accommodation whilst they investigated her case.
After a period in temporary accommodation the Local Authority agreed that they had a duty to house her. However, the good news ended there. Had the decision been made prior to March 2013, the Local Authority would have had to have offered the client a secure tenancy (a council house). However, they exercised a new option open to them under the Localism Act 2011 and instead informed her that they would be ending their duty to her by arranging a 12 month private sector assured short-hold tenancy for her.
Proponents of this legislation argue that it is fair – there are lots of people waiting for council houses and homeless people should not ‘jump the queue’; they can go on the waiting list whilst they are in the private sector like everyone else. They also argue that discharge into the private sector is a good alternative to leaving people for long periods in expensive temporary accommodation.
These arguments do not stand up. Firstly, someone who has entered the private sector via the usual route at least has had the opportunity to choose where to live. A homeless person placed in private sector accommodation will have had the decision made for them by the Local Authority, with a right of appeal on only very limited grounds of suitability. They could be placed out of their borough, away from friends, family and support networks. Prior to the Localism Act, people could be placed out of borough in temporary accommodation but never as a long term measure. Secondly, by definition people who fulfill the narrow requirements meaning that a Local Authority owes a duty to house them and have become homeless often need security for more than the 12 months guaranteed by this legislation.
The argument that it is better to have a private sector tenancy than be in expensive temporary accommodation is misinformed. Most expensive temporary accommodation, especially since the introduction of the benefit cap,is private sector accommodation: the council will lease it from a private landlord and sub-let it. At least with this arrangement there is a near guarantee of a secure tenancy at the end of it. The current situation under the Localism Act means that the private sector accommodation is the end of the line, until they are evicted and made homeless again.
Of course, the private sector landlord may not evict the tenant after 12 months, but problems with the tenant’s Housing Benefit or the opportunity to raise the rent means that this is often likely to happen. The tenant will then be homeless again with no money for a deposit and will have to re-approach the Local Authority.
I hope that I do not see my client again in 12 month’s time but the Localism Act 2011 means that many people like her will be without long term housing security and will inevitably need legal assistance again and again.