Gemma is mother to four children. She lives in a four-bedroomed house in Coventry, a post-industrial Midlands city where one in four children lives in poverty and foodbanks feed tens of thousands of families. Recently diagnosed with depression, Gemma is receiving cognitive behavioural therapy, a form of counselling. Last year three of her children were taken away.
When their empty bedrooms were declared spare rooms, she was charged an under-occupancy fee, taken directly from her housing benefit. Since the bedroom tax, as it’s widely known, was introduced in 2013, working age claimants who live in social rented housing deemed too large for their needs have lost between 14 and 25 per cent of their housing benefit.
Gemma didn’t have the extra to cover the shortfall in her rent. She fell behind, eventually accruing a debt of nearly £1,748. The housing association landlord has threatened eviction.
So Gemma, her dark hair pulled back from her drawn face, waits at Coventry county court, an imposing concrete and glass building that sits on a hill above the city centre. Here Gemma will find out if she is to lose her home.
While politicians and the media have focused on rocketing house prices or the cost of housing benefit, something horrible has been happening to many thousands of social housing tenants.
The Conservative party’s plan to give housing association tenants the right to buy at a discounted rate will likely make the situation worse. Housing associations are building more to meet demand, but building homes is expensive and could mean rent rises for poor tenants already struggling to pay their bills.
‘Secure tenancies’ – the type of tenancy typically offered by councils – are supposed to be just that. Tenants are supposed to have protection from unfair evictions. Before pursuing legal action, landlords are obliged to contact the tenant, discuss the rent arrears, assist in any housing benefit issues, make referrals to debt agencies if necessary, and negotiate a repayment plan. All this before issuing court proceedings. Local authorities also have statutory responsibilities around homelessness. So why are so many people getting evicted?
It’s the morning of her hearing and Gemma is in luck. There is a duty solicitor available who can represent her for free.
Over the years, Lydia Nash, a young housing solicitor, has worked with hundreds of tenants on the cusp of homelessness. Before court Lydia stops by at Coventry Law Centre, a cramped office next door to Job Centre Plus.
It’s just before nine. Two people sit in the large waiting room, its walls lined with leaflets explaining the benefit cap, changes to disability living allowance and other social welfare policy.
A few of Lydia’s colleagues are already at their desks in an open-plan office above the waiting room.
Clients nearly always need more than just representation in court, Lydia says. “There’s a lot of social work that needs to be done, so I refer them to other experts at the law centre.”
It might be welfare benefits advice or debt and employment support from specialist advisors. Such work might help untangle problems like benefits maladministration, which can tip people into debt and mounting rent arrears. Lydia’s “social work” can stop things getting worse.
But the coalition government’s cuts have taken much of this work out of the scope of legal aid funding at the very moment its policies are making clients’ problems worse.
Lydia says: “Sanctions and the bedroom tax are major reasons our clients get into arrears.”
She pulls on her coat, gathers up her folders and files, and walks over to the county court.
The duty solicitor’s office at Coventry County Court is a windowless box room. Lydia sits opposite Gemma. On the table between them there’s a notepad, files, case notes. Haltingly Gemma talks about her debt and depression. Lydia nods and writes.
Gemma doesn’t want to move to a smaller home — she wants to get her children back.
“When do you think you will get your children back?” Lydia says, looking down at her notebook. Her tone is brisk. She must elicit as many extenuating facts in the shortest possible time. Outside, twelve more people wait to see her, all expecting to lose their homes today.
Once Gemma’s story is told, Lydia sends her back to the waiting room. The next client comes in.
In an office on the other side of the packed waiting room, the housing association’s team prepares their cases.
A young man in a dark suit hovers by the door — the Housing Association’s lawyer — in case expert advice is needed. Two stern white women in their late 40s, early 50s maybe, sit at a long table, shuffling papers, exchanging notes. They’re the landlords’ rent officers. Along with the judge, they hold tenants’ fates in their hands.
Now and then Lydia walks across the waiting room, clutching her paperwork and sits down at the long table, across from the rent officers. They discuss each person waiting to be evicted. Lydia asks that Gemma’s hearing be adjourned to a later date so her housing benefit problems can be sorted out. She might be eligible for a discretionary housing payment: emergency council funding for people on housing benefit who need extra help.
The rent officers are cordial enough. They listen politely and refuse to allow Gemma more time.
Back in Lydia’s box room, Andrea, a heavily pregnant mother-of-three, sits down at the small desk. She couldn’t find the extra £14 a week to pay her bedroom tax. Now she owes nearly £1000.
The housing association is seeking an outright possession order. If the judge rules against her today, she is likely to be homeless when her baby is born.
Next, Shade, a young graduate. After finishing university she worked for three years at Premier Inn. She was sacked after falling asleep on a night shift. Since then she has struggled to earn more than £500-a-month from agency work on zero-hour contracts.
Two months ago Shade applied for housing benefit. In the meantime she hasn’t been able to pay her rent in full. Her debt is a little over £1,300.
She couldn’t find the extra £14 a week to pay her bedroom tax. Now she owes nearly £1000.
Jocelyn, timid and petite, shrinks into the chair opposite Lydia. A smiling young woman pulls up a seat next to her. She’s a support worker provided by the troubled families programme, a central government project designed to help families deemed difficult.
Jocelyn says little, seems confused. Information emerges slowly and piecemeal. The government docks a slice of housing benefit because her adult son is of working age and lives at home.
Jocelyn had an agreement with the landlord to pay £20 a fortnight toward rent arrears of £1,100. She paid the money from her Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), which was £72.40 a week. Then, one month ago she was sanctioned and her JSA money stopped. It is not clear why. Benefit ‘sanctions’, the withholding of subsistence-level benefits from people who may have little or no other income, have caused rising concern. In March 2015 MPs asked the Department of Work and Pensions to investigate how many of 49 recent suicides of benefits claimants were related to sanctions.
Lydia works quickly to complete the picture, firing questions to Jocelyn. She schedules another interview, at the law centre, where Jocelyn will get help filling in the forms to apply for a discretionary housing payments and appeal against her sanction.
Lydia goes off to negotiate with the rent officers. It’s news to them that Jocelyn was part of the troubled families programme. This tips the balance in Jocelyn’s favour. The officers agree to a one month adjournment. Meanwhile, Jocelyn must resume paying £20 a fortnight towards the arrears plus rent and court costs of £250 which, in almost every case, are added to the tenant’s debt.
Ryan is the youngest person in the waiting room. He is 23. He wears a light grey tracksuit and carries a drawstring bag.
Ryan’s debt will rise to more than £1,500 once court costs are added. He lost his job last summer and has been in and out of temporary work ever since. He gets Jobseeker’s Allowance of £57 a week and housing benefit for his rent.
Ryan has a plan. He pulls up a chair in front of Lydia, leans back, adjusts his baseball cap and says, “I just want to get rid of the debt.”
He wants to pay £100 a week to clear his arrears. Lydia advises realism. If the court orders him to pay £100 each week and he can’t pay, he’ll probably get evicted. To promise £100 is risky even if he finds a job tomorrow. Later, Ryan repeats his plan in court to the judge, ignoring Lydia’s advice. The judge takes a pragmatic view and orders Ryan to pay a more manageable £10 every two weeks instead.
Jerome, a polite black man with plaited hair, pulls up a chair.
Lydia looks up, ready to ask questions, but Jerome has started already: “If I lose my flat, I lose my kids. I don’t want to lose my flat or my kids.” He mostly lives alone and is separated from his children’s mother, but sees them regularly. A tenant since 2013, his arrears have fluctuated as he moved in and out of work. He lost his latest job at Christmas when the courier company City Link collapsed
He owes nearly £1,500.
So here he is, aged 36, with no income, but a new job working in a warehouse which he says will start next week.
Lydia picks up her notes on Jerome and heads to the rent officers’ room. One of the women says she knows this case. Jerome was offered money advice and ignored it, she says. She wants an outright possession order. The rent officers won’t back down, the judge will decide this one.
If I lose my flat, I lose my kids.
Back to the box room for more interviews. It takes almost three hours to work through the cases. There’s Sean, struggling to make his £1100 monthly wage cover child maintenance, rent and food. A month ago he paid £450 towards his arrears and with £431 left to pay he cannot understand why he is in court today. Lydia wants him in court, so that the judge can see him, but Sean has only got the morning off work, it’s nearly noon, he’s got to go.
Then there’s Bonnie, who owes a little over £1,000. Bonnie, 42, clothes crumpled and thick hair escaping a small ponytail, sits at the desk and waits for Lydia to speak. She’s lived in her flat for four years and always struggled with rent because her income varies month to month.
“I work for an agency,” she says, “and sometimes I don’t have shifts, then I don’t have money for my rent.” Last week she only worked two shifts. Bonnie thinks she isn’t eligible for housing benefit because sometimes she works 40 hours a week.
Her landlord wants an outright possession order. Bonnie tells Lydia she can pay £120 tomorrow and she thinks there might be a shift later that evening. Lydia nods and sends Bonnie back to the waiting room.
Once Lydia has interviewed everyone, she clears her small desk and walks over to the usher’s desk, in the waiting room.
Sometimes I don’t have shifts, then I don’t have money for my rent.
The rent officers join her; they have split the client list in two, each will present the landlord’s case for eviction in front of the judge. An usher disappears to check the judge is ready. The tenants sit on low chairs, a few centimetres away, silent, watching.
It’s noon. Bonnie gets up from her seat, glances at the clock, clasps and unclasps her hands, and nervously shifts her weight from foot to foot. She needs to collect her son from nursery at noon or she’ll have to pay late fees.
She walks over to Lydia to ask how much longer till the hearing. Please stay if you can, says Lydia, it will look good that you turned up.
The usher is back, the judge isn’t ready. Lydia asks, Can you move Bonnie up the list? The usher says yes, looks at her watch and disappears again. When she comes back and says the judge is ready, it is too late: Bonnie’s gone.
The judge’s chambers, along a short corridor from the waiting room, are bright and spacious, with large windows. Leather-bound books and box files line the walls.
It’s Jerome’s turn, the courteous warehouseman with the braided hair. He and Lydia sit on one side of long table. One of the rent officers sits opposite. The judge’s desk is adjacent; they crane their necks to face him.
Judge Ridgeway, a slim middle-aged man in a long black robe, is encouraging, his tone gentle. He tells clients, “I’m glad you came, that’s the important thing”. He urges them to get help immediately when benefit or employment problems arise.
After listening to the rent officer’s submissions and then Lydia’s arguments, he pauses briefly before delivering a verdict. He is impressed with Jerome’s payment history prior to the arrears and wants to give him a second chance. Jerome has one week to produce proof of his new job; if he fails the landlord can request an urgent hearing to evict him. Jerome smiles, stands up to leave, thanks the judge and tells him to have a nice day.
The hearings continue, in most cases a debt repayment plan is agreed and the possession order temporarily suspended on condition that the tenant adheres to the plan.
There are times when little can be done to help and people are evicted on leaving court. “They are then faced with homelessness and many people have nowhere to turn,” says Lydia. “There are limited options. They can go to their local authority for homelessness assistance, but many are found to be intentionally homeless because of their rent arrears or whatever reason resulted in them losing their home. They get no assistance at all. At best people end up in local hostels, though many people do face street homelessness.
“They can’t find the money for a deposit for a private property and even if they are able to many landlords are reluctant to take on housing benefit tenants. They lose their belongings and the lives that they have built up over many years often due to circumstances beyond their control.”
In nearly every case court costs of £250 are added to the tenant’s debt.
In the judge’s chamber Gemma sits next to Lydia, quiet, speaking only when asked a question. The judge accepts Gemma’s request for an adjournment. He orders that Gemma pay the minimum allowed, £3.65 a week, towards her arrears. That’s on top of her existing rent of £116 a week. Court costs of £250 are added, bringing Gemma’s arrears to a little over £2,000. On her current income that will take her more than 10 years to clear.
The terms of these agreements are temporary. In most cases tenants are scheduled to return to court within six weeks. A single missed payment may trigger eviction. Even if Lydia is at court to represent tenants in these follow up hearings, it is difficult to convince a judge to rule in a tenant’s favour a second time.
Gemma’s next eviction hearing will be in one month.
Meanwhile, Gemma must successfully challenge her bedroom tax deduction. If she fails, then in one month’s time she will almost certainly lose her home.
Gemma gets up to leave. The judge, Lydia and the rent officer wait for the next client.