In Britain poor people in social housing live under constant threat of eviction. Lose one week’s work and you risk losing your home. Someone makes a mistake on your housing benefit and you are one step away from sleeping rough.
In 2014 more than 100,000 social landlords issued possession claims against tenants. Most of those people face eviction because they can’t find the money to pay their rent.
Bonnie, a mother threatened with eviction in Coventry, is 42. She’s on a zero-hours contract, so she doesn’t know how much money she will earn each month. Sometimes it is much less than her rent. Even if Bonnie is saved from eviction today, in her current job she will always be close to missing a rent payment, always one step away from losing her home.
It’s difficult to apply for housing benefit while balancing insecure work. It’s complicated, takes time. Meanwhile the debt piles up.
Where can you turn for help? The safety net of Citizen’s Advice Bureaux, women’s refuges and law centres has been damaged by cuts.
Cuts to legal aid mean people in need have limited or no access to debt, employment, housing and welfare benefits advice. People like Carla.
Sue James, a social justice campaigner and housing solicitor with more than 20 years’ experience, is worried about Carla.
The council, someone, should have stepped in sooner. Sue says: “She doesn’t seem like a person who can manage. I’m uncomfortable, she needs more handholding.” But there isn’t time.
Sue is duty solicitor at the County Court in Brentford, a small town on the outskirts of West London. She’s there to assist tenants facing eviction from council homes.
While waiting for the judge to call them in, Carla, a thin black woman with scuffed shoes and unkempt hair, speaks to Sue. She is crying.
Carla earns between £900 and £1,000 a month after tax and receives £20.70 a week in child benefit. Her rent is £521 a month. She lives in a council flat and owes her landlord £3,000 in rent arrears.
The council wants to evict her because she hasn’t made regular payments towards her debt. At a previous eviction hearing five months ago, Carla agreed a deal with the council. She would pay £50 a month towards her debt and seek debt counselling. Carla has fallen behind in payments by £61, that’s why she is in court today.
In the judge’s chambers, Carla has stopped crying. She is seated at a long table next to Sue, and opposite two rent officers, the judge at the head. As they talk and discuss the details of her case, Carla is immobile. Her winter coat has fallen half way down her body. She doesn’t pull it up or take it fully off. She looks over the heads of the rent officers, into the distance out of the window, her expression vacant. It’s an eerie contrast to her earlier distress.
Sue says that rather than evicting her, the council must offer Carla help to sort out her eligibility for welfare benefits. The Department for Work and Pensions stopped her child tax credits and disability benefit for her son a few months earlier. When Carla rang up the department, they said she is not eligible for housing benefit.
The judge, a white middle-aged man with glasses, says: “I’m a little concerned that everyone is gathered today but we don’t know what’s happened. On these figures you would expect to see some kind of benefit.” Both rent officers shift in their seats, Carla stares ahead, unflinching.
The judge orders Carla to pay £50 a month plus £521 in rent. The judges adjourns the hearing for 90 days in order that Carla be referred to money advice, a debt scheme run by the council. Outside, Carla’s expression is blank as Sue tells her to sort out her benefits before the next hearing. Carla, dazed, coat askew, slowly walks from the court.
Benefit problems are a recurring theme. Sue would like to refer clients like Carla to a law centre that specialises in benefits. But legal aid for welfare benefits was taken out of scope in the last round of public spending cuts. “We’ve got no-one to refer them to,” she says.
“Zero-hours contracts are a big issue here too. We are seeing a lot of people at crisis point, it’s difficult to get them before this crisis stage.” Sue works for Hammersmith & Fulham law centre, a registered charity that covers housing, immigration and public law.
Hammersmith & Fulham was one of the first high street law clinics to open in Britain in the 1970s when radical lawyers sought to provide free legal advice in working class areas. Underpinning their efforts was a commitment to social justice. Three decades later, people need this support more than ever.
A report published last summer says welfare reform could lead to people becoming more vulnerable, not less. Housing Benefit Size Criteria: Impact for Social Tenants and Options for Reform published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation investigates the first year of the bedroom tax. The bedroom tax costs working-age welfare claimants between 14 and 25 per cent of their housing benefit if they happen to live in social rented housing deemed too large for their needs.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that cutbacks in support made people on low incomes in and out of work more vulnerable to debt, at risk of eviction and short of core necessities like energy and food.
The report notes that some housing associations have upped their support for vulnerable tenants by providing debt advice, and separating this support from regular rent collection.
Even so, housing associations “increasingly exclude the poorest applicants from new lettings and so exacerbate the risk of rising homelessness,” the report says.
This is partly because of pressure on housing associations to build more. And that’s sure to increase if the Conservative Party’s right to buy plans are implemented. It means housing associations, which are non-profit organisations, cannot afford the extra costs of debt-burdened tenants.
Dwindling social housing stocks is another factor in rising evictions. In England last year 44,000 social homes were lost through right to buy or conversions to more expensive rents. This is up from just over 19,000 the year before that. These stats take into account the number of new homes built: just 28,000 in 2014.
London councils have responded by moving people to different boroughs, and out of the city. Vicky Fewkes, a housing solicitor from Ealing law centre in West London, says people are often moved into temporary accommodation with little security against eviction. “If a council tenant placed in temporary accommodation gets into rent arrears, the landlord can often evict very easily. Rent in temporary accommodation is extremely high so change in circumstances, finding a job, having a baby, can mean a quick suspension of Housing Benefit, which could run up thousands in arrears in the space of a couple of months. People are left battling with the same Council’s Housing Benefit department to sort out the problem and avoid eviction,” she says.
In one case an elderly man living in temporary accommodation with his wife and four children owed more than £8,000 in rent arrears. A year ago he suffered a cardiac arrest and has been out of work since. His wife is his full-time carer. His children are aged between 11 and 21. Rent is £500 a week. The family’s benefits are capped, so they are short by £279 every week. The benefit cap is a coalition government policy introduced in 2013 which caps the total welfare benefits a household can receive.
The family was eventually evicted with £250 court costs added to their debt.
Vicky says: “An alternative is getting people into private rented accommodation. However this is now almost impossible. A few years ago people would happily go for private tenancies, but now they are advised by the Council to look at private rented accommodation and can’t find landlords to take people with Housing Benefits. People are trying their best but after weeks of attempting to find affordable private rented accommodation they have no option but to make a homelessness application.”
The lack of political interest in improving social housing provision has hit the poor at a time when other safety nets are being withdrawn. People are caught in a collision of unemployment, precarious jobs and reduced public services.
Many have responded by helping each other find places to live, by fighting evictions and protesting poor council decision making. The Focus E15 campaign, the New Era protests and the Lambeth housing activists are just some of the housing community groups created by residents. In Kilburn, north west London, former HR manager Gabi contacted a local unemployed workers collective when she faced eviction. After spreading the word on social media, three people turned up to blockade the house on her first eviction date.
“The council tried to kick me out last week. I feel like just going into their office and breaking everything. I am so frustrated,” says Gabi, the lilt in her London accent (her parents are from Liberia and Ghana) becoming more pronounced. “I like my life to be private, I don’t want to be in council housing. I thought the council was supposed to help you move on.”
Gabi, petite, 35, dressed in faded skinny jeans, trainers and a bright turquoise fleece two sizes too big for her, is tired. She is killing time, pacing the streets with her small son in a flimsy push chair. It hurts to walk; she recently had a fibroid operation.
Gabi has spent two years fighting for maintenance from her son’s dad. Mum and baby, now a cute three year old with brown curly hair, lived in hostels to save money, before moving to private rented accommodation last year. After they were unlawfully evicted from that property in December, the council housed them in a bed and breakfast hotel in west London where they stayed ever since.
Then the council offered Gabi permanent accommodation in Basildon, Essex, more than 30 miles from London. She refused, reluctant to leave London and friends nearby who can look after her son for free while she’s in and out of hospital. “I’m a single mother, I can’t do it alone.” But the council has discharged its duty, which means she and her son will be homeless.
The friendly hotel manager where Gabi is staying says the council told him she has to be out by 11am on Monday, in three days time. It’s the second eviction date she’s been given, though the council never write to Gabi herself.
The Kilburn Unemployed Workers group, an eclectic mix of Londoners of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, is open to anyone in need of welfare benefits or housing advice. They meet every week to support each other. One of the members went with Gabi to her Citizens Advice bureau and, when they couldn’t help, to Glenda Jackson, the local MP.
They want to protest Gabi’s eviction on Monday, but Gabi is unsure. While pleased with the solidarity, she isn’t interested in finding another council house in London. For peace of mind, she wants out of council housing and thinks she can survive in private rented accommodation on child maintenance payments, child benefit and housing benefit. She has booked an appointment with the jobcentre tomorrow and hopes to find work soon.
Meanwhile, there’s a flat to view in an hour, which will cost £415 a week. Gabi has enough saved for a deposit. After that her income is uncertain. She bites her lip and looks down at her son — he’s trying to jump out of the moving push chair. “Should I do it? Is it worth the risk?”
Tenants’ names have been changed. This is the final article in a three part series on housing in Coalition Britain first published by Shine A Light at openDemocracy. Original illustrations by Patrick Koduah.