Tag Archives: housing benefit

Hats Off To Housing Benefit, But Brace Yourself For The Cameron Effect!

After years of stalking the local Housing Benefits Manager at landlord meetings, he graciously succumbed and it was a privilege to be invited to talk to his agents at their team meeting.  I realised that taking 20 agents off the trading floor for an hour on a weekday is not done without good cause so I had to make sure I produced something worth listening to.

The talk centred around communication between housing benefit, tenants and landlords.  Most landlords who accept the LHA claimants were cut out of the claiming process loop back in April 2008 when Central Government decided to bring in set LHA rates (good) and pay them direct to tenants (bad).

As I posted here about past dealings with Housing Benefit, the old process worked for everyone.  Since April 2008 it’s been my mission to help the local HB department understand and feel my distress at being cast out of the communication loop, leaving me wandering lost and lonely in the sea of benefit claimants and their lies about not being paid “by Housin’” for weeks on end.  I vowed that, if the council didn’t want to help me, then I didn’t want to house LHA claimants – so there.

Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t work for long as I really like LHA tenants; they’re stayers, make the HMO a home by washing the tea towels regularly, report any suspicious goings on and are happy to wait in for the plumber.  Indeed, to quote Ben Reeve-Lewis: 95.6% of landlords indicated that they would likely rent their properties to tenants on HB if rents were paid directly to landlords (source: Landlord Accreditation Scheme Survey).

The meeting aimed to examine the communication methods between the 3 parties (landlords, tenants, HB) and to share experiences from our respective frontlines.  I’d noticed improvements to the speed of claim processing and service levels which has been helped by the setting of LHA rates.  E.g. In the past one tenant would be awarded £70.53pw, another £73.04 and another £62.50 but with apparently similar circumstances!  The LHA rate for a room in a shared house is set at £67pw and I can then help the tenant to budget for the top up of around £13-£18pw.

One of the other points that I wasn’t sure if the council were aware is that of illiteracy.  I’ve only recently discovered one of my tenants is completely illiterate (hence never receiving a text from him) and another 3 semi-literate; which basically means, they open the letter, scan for numbers to indicate dates and money then chuck the rest in their bedside table top drawer in case the words are important.  Indeed, according to the Daily Mail 1 in 5 adults struggle to read (March 2012).

We examined the letter layouts, methods of contact, etc. and the agents have found that phoning the tenants to request more information or clarity is far quicker than writing to them – a service I think even the tenants are pleasantly surprised at!

The team told me about the local Credit Union service which visits the front office once a week.  One of the tenants paid £50 for a £100, 2 week payday loan and I was livid – if he’d come to me I would’ve only charged him £25 interest, but think that would make me a loan shark.  I’ve sent them all a letter, included the CU leaflet and it appears a lot of them hadn’t taken any notice of it either but at least it’s an alternative to Payday Loans.

I came out realising Housing Benefit are just people trying to do a job.  Considering the depth of knowledge, experience and ability to deal with the general public which is required of them, I don’t think it’s a particularly well paid job.  On top of this they’re facing cuts to their department if Mr Cameron & Co insist on introducing  Universal Credit which will have the added factors of

a) making people feel isolated and confused if they aren’t  able to have a face to face conversation with an agent personally dealing with their case

b) disincline landlords to take LHA at all as they’ll be no safety net if the rent’s not paid

c) embarrassing LHA claimants if they can’t read or don’t have access to a computer

d) the Under 25s will be busy looking for parents to live with, because  we know how easy THEY are to lose, and if they can’t find any, will spend their days desperately trying to avoid street sleeping.

Brilliant, Mr C, you and your government alone will soon be able to bring to life George Orwell’s musings and create a world based on Animal Farm and 1984.  You could even adopt his motto: All Animals Are Equal But Some Are More Equal Than Others.  If Universal Credit is designed to tackle Benefit Scroungers, how are you getting on with limiting the public money spent on your in-house Expenses Benefit Scroungers?

Conclusion:

If you’re going to manage an HMO, make your life easier by getting to know the local Council’s Housing Benefit and Environmental Health Teams; we share the same “customers” and common goals – creating long term tenancies in decent, safe houses.

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Why I Can’t Afford LHA Claimants Any More

Five years ago, the prime room rental market was students and people in receipt of Housing Benefit.  Put an ad in the paper and 9 out of 10 respondents were those on housing benefit – probably a key reason that so many fellow landlords stuck their nose up at me saying I was “mad” and “do you want to make life more difficult for yourself?”.

Housing Benefit vs LHA

I liked Housing Benefit claimants: they tend to stay longer, were satisfied with their environment and, as they were home much of the day, kept an eye on the comings and goings of the house.  Once you understood how the system worked, the claim process was relatively straightforward: upon production of landlord evidence of a room offer the tenant would approach our local Housing and Legal Aid Centre and a cheque for four weeks advance rent was made payable to the landlord.  The tenant would then fill in their part of the claim form and the landlord would fill in the other parts including their bank details for the benefit to be paid into.  We’d sit back, wait and within 4-6 weeks the rent was paid direct into the landlord’s account regularly.  If there were any queries, I’d call the Housing Benefit team (I knew each agent by their first name), find out at what stage the claim was at or if they were waiting for any more information so I could chase the tenant.

Under the LHA system, the process is no longer so transparent.  The tenant can make the claim, the landlord fills in what’s included in the rent and, even though the tenant signs permission for the landlord to discuss the claim, that is the last I’ll see or hear until the tenant hands over the money.  I’ve tried to chase a claim only to discover that the call centre had moved to Slough (nowhere near us) and, despite being allowed to discuss it, the staff couldn’t give me any information “under Data Protection” and “You’ll have to ask the tenant yourself”.  I want to scream down the phone “I bl***y well would if I thought I’d be getting a straight answer and was prepared to camp outside their room all night until they got home!”.

Why LHA Doesn’t Help Tenants

My tenants don’t mean to not hand over the LHA payment, but when their bank account is in the red, they have no mobile credit, possibly haven’t eaten for a while, eeking out their tobacco pouch so their roll up resembles more Rizla and saffron strands than a good smoke, I empathise with their temptation to hand over £150 rather than the £200 paid by the Council.  In their heads (especially if they’ve recently been working), 50 quid is easy to reimburse within the next couple of weeks.  Then the reality sets in that there’s no financial room to manoeuvre: skimming £20/£30/£40 off the LHA payment to cover the shortfall of Job Seekers Allowance means they end up £300-£400 in arrears before you know it and start to get stressed.   At that point, they do what most of us do when we get stressed – drink more, smoke more, blow whatever cash is available because, let’s face it, it can’t get much worse.  Their girlfriend/boyfriend, friends and parents are probably financially exhausted, they’re drowning in debt, despondent from hitting a job wall – so what if they fall out with their landlady on top?  Life is so chaotic we’ll string her along with a few well honed excuses that used to work on our mothers and teachers.

Greg is £500 in arrears and I don’t want to see him homeless but this is what’s happened to him.  When the process starts I meet with the tenant and explain that this is what will happen and, in order to avoid it, we have to work together.  I’ll happily reduce the rent to reflect the LHA payment provided that the LHA is handed over as regular as clockwork.  “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I promise.  It won’t happen to me and I’ll be working again soon.”  I’ve experienced this time and time again.  The most common excuse is “Housing have messed up my claim AGAIN” – and I can’t check out its validity.

Back to Basics – The Real Reason for Housing Benefit

The market’s changed.  For every ad I place the majority of calls will be from working professionals who have chosen an all-inclusive rate so they have enough salary left over to have a life.  I no longer need to fill the rooms with the slightly odd, vaguely desperate or those that fall out of society’s moral code of conduct.

Back in the late 1940s the Social Security System was so named because:

SOCIAL                 def pertaining to human society

SECURITY             def freedom from danger, risk, etc; safety

There are still at least 1 out of 10 callers wanting a room who won’t pass the referencing process, can’t get the deposit together or will struggle to conform to a landlord’s ideal tenant.

My business head tells me to go with this new professional market demand and fill the houses with law abiding, rent paying via standing order tenants who read and abide by the AST and wash their sheets weekly.  My life will be calmer yet poorer through the lack of tenants educating me on the true meaning of survival and refusal to conform to society’s expectations.

Please, bring back direct payments to landlords so our business heads no longer discriminate against the unemployed.

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CCTV Installed, But There’s Trouble

The week started well with the French accountant duly moved in.  It was a bit complicated trying to explain the digital switchover to him and the availability of a link up to the satellite dish but he listened politely until he said “Is not a problem, I ‘ave ze laptop”.    The next issue came when we were going through the AST and I apologised for not being able to insert the accents on his surname of Désiré (Deziray) so it had come out Desire which, after last week’s post, I felt this was becoming a recurring theme!  “Zat is not my name, it is my middle name” he said “My last name is Durand”.  It pays not to rush through a Tenant Information Form.

CCTV has been installed in the other house and there’s been a few feathers ruffled.  The main issue seems to be that the boys thought I’d have the system linked to my home computer and would spend a girls’ night in watching them walking up and down the hallways in their pants.  They’ve been assured that there are easier and more pleasurable ways to search the internet for men in pants and the footage is only stored on the recorder locked in the cellar.  However, capturing one of them trying to get in the house after a night out then falling asleep on the stairs may just be worth a post on YouTube……

Huddled in the cellar,  the engineer was showing me how to operate the monitor and recorder.  Tom had obviously forgotten the role of the cameras and heard us talking  – the cameras duly picked him up sitting down with his ear to the stair tread trying to listen to our conversation.  A very, very funny moment.

Call came in today from one of the rooms saying that the recorder has been beeping all night so I waited till darkness fell and went to investigate.  Turns out that, when it’s pitch black, the camera’s infra-red lights kick in and make a continuous and annoyingly loud beep.   We’ve rigged up a light to stay on all night and I’ll get in touch with the engineer, even though he said he’d “Never, ever heard of such a thing”.  Well, in that case, he can sit in the dark cellar after hours with strange men theorising the problem and experience the issue for himself.

George, my bedsit tenant is £400 in arrears after Housing Benefit allegedly “messed up the claim” or you can translate it as “I lost my job, didn’t have any money for six weeks and, when it came in, I took the decision that paying you is last on my To Do list”.  I’ve given him a credit limit and told him that as soon as the arrears go over it, I’ll regretfully issue a Section 21 notice.  This gives him time to sort out any issues with Housing Benefit or elect to throw some cash my way to keep him under the threshold.  After all, I’ve got a misbehaving CCTV system to pay for.

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A Moral Dilemma – Is My Tenant Still Alive?

Apologies for not posting last week – this being due to half term and not being able to get near the computer as the children felt that Moshi Monsters and Friv games were adding to their educational abilities.  We also took some time out to go to the Peak District and admire the rock formations – THAT’S educational!

Where’s Steve?

Six weeks have now passed since I’ve had any contact with Steve.  You may remember that he’s the tenant in one of my largest rooms priced at £100pw including all bills but, as he’d done well not smoking weed in the house and I thought we’d come to a mutual understanding on how to behave,  I gave him a preferential rate of £90pw.  Why?  Because I still hadn’t learnt from the old addage “Give ’em and inch and they’ll take a mile”.

After the marijuana incident (i.e. the whole street was mellowing under its influence the smell was so strong) and he’d asked to move into the bigger room, we got on well.  Housing Benefit paid his LHA allowance direct to me because Steve had been/still is a gambling addict and he then paid £112 as a top up.  He’s now 2 month’s down on his top up and nobody has heard sight nor sound of him.  His post is still there, his pants are still in the drawer, some toiletries are still on the dresser and his bed looks like, well, any man’s bed who isn’t hoping to impress a girl.  I’ve written to his guarantor and tried to contact his mother with no success.

From a legal point of view, because he’d moved room but within the same property, I’d created a new tenancy which meant I had to serve section 21 notice for the end of his fixed term of 14th December.  I was a bit annoyed as I’d received two legal viewpoints at the time from a landlord association: one told me to just get him to sign a letter acknowledging the move to a new room but it would continue as a periodic tenancy and another member of the team told me to create to new fixed term agreement and re-register the deposit.  Confusing, but all paperwork has been sorted, served and is now strewn across his bed  presumably in case he runs out of toilet roll.

Moral Dilemma

So, I’m in a dilemma.  House is quiet and stable without him, I’m getting two thirds of his rent paid direct to me by the council and I don’t have the expense of refurbishing his room which is likely to cost £200 (new carpet and full paint).  Do I consider the room to be abandoned (but I think there’s slightly too many belongings, albeit they’ve been undisturbed for six weeks); or proceed to get a court order if he hasn’t moved the stuff out by 14th December?  Morally, I probably should be trying harder to find him as we’re a small town and people don’t just disappear but his phone’s ringing so he’s clearly still charging it.  I do worry, with his history, that he could have come to a sticky end but hope a relative would’ve wanted to lay claim to his paltry belongings.  However, I haven’t applied for a court order before so I’d like to be able to say I know how to do it.  What would you do?

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How Far Do You Let a Tenant Run Up Rent Arrears?

In the normal world of landlording and legally speaking it’s recommended to allow two months worth of arrears to build up before issuing any notices.  However, this isn’t normal landlording otherwise everyone would be doing it!

Every Saturday, my tenants hear my bailiff style knock on the door between 9.30am and 11am. I’m not so archaic that I don’t offer for them to pay by standing order but only one tenant does this – I’m presuming the rest choose collection so the boys can show off their pants to me every week. If I’ve trained them well, they’ll be clutching the cash as they open their door or, if they don’t want to be disturbed, leave it in an envelope poking under the door.

So, what happens when they aren’t proffering the week’s rent?  Again, if they remember their training they’ll have called me a day or so beforehand with a suitable excuse to which I’ll sound suitably empathetic whilst I wait for them to tell me how they’ll sort the situation out and by what date.  If they’re too scared to talk to me or have conveniently forgotten they rent a room at the address, they’ll go AWOL but that’s a different subject which demands an alternative procedure which I made up but is fairly effective.  Another time….!  The great thing about HMOs is that if one room doesn’t pay up the other rooms should be still covering the mortgage and bills so you can attend to the non payer without worrying about repossession or delving into your own bank account.

Liam – An Erratic Payer

Liam rents my bedsit in a licensable HMO.   It’s an attic room with it’s own cooking facilities and he shares the bathroom with everyone else.  He arrived on the doorstep two years ago – muscular, vertically challenged, bursting with testosterone, cheeky smile and looks rather attractive in his underpants (which I found out three weeks into the tenancy, it wasn’t part of the referencing process!).  Liam was a window fitter until the recession when events seemed to conspire against him.  He’s picked up a variety of jobs on building sites, shop work and anyone who’ll have him but it’s been fraught with contracts suddenly coming to an end, broken promises and his inability to manage money.  He received a tax rebate earlier this year when he was £350 in arrears;  I called him to discover he was on the bus to meet some friends “but don’t worry it’ll be there on Monday”.  Was it heck.  He said his mates got him so drunk that he’d blown the lot at the casino – “I felt such a twat” he said.  Yep, he said it not me.

How far do you let someone go and how far do you believe the stories, show compassion, remember what it was like when you were young and rubbish with money?  I’m now short on goodwill after he phoned me on Sunday about the “stupid ****ing council won’t give me housing benefit!  What do they expect me to do?  I’d wring their ****ing necks if I could get past the bullet proof glass!”  It was my day off enjoying a bit of retail therapy and I so wasn’t interested in another set of excuses …. and told him.  “In that case” he said “I’ve got no other option but to do what my mates are doing and sell drugs but don’t worry, I won’t do it while I’m at your house”  Gee, thanks. However, I’m not worried for the existing street dealers just yet as he has as much ability to blend  into dark alleyways to do a deal with a junkie as a market trader advertising the catch of day.

I’ve given him a flexible payment schedule, bunged him a fiver when he had nothing to eat and no parents to call on (I’m such a sucker for orphans), a shoulder to cry on and offered cheaper rooms.  I’ve made him sound like an arrogant idiot but he’s lovely and I’m just annoyed that he hasn’t sorted himself out and is trying to rile me with the drug threat.

It IS possible to make money AND be compassionate when dealing with HMO tenants – the two are not mutually exclusive.  I make my entry level costs to a room affordable i.e. £150 deposit plus one week’s rent in advance, unlike other landlords who demand one month’s rent and one month’s deposit in advance – now that’s alot of money.

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I Have A Dream………..To Turn Unwanted Tenants Into Wanted Tenants

This post is about a far from practical dream I’ve held since becoming an HMO landlady.  This dream has been unearthed from the depths of my brain after picking up a leaflet asking for volunteers to man a temporary winter night shelter for the homeless, a debate with one of the kindest, most Christian ladies I know as to it’s viability and the following article which landed in my email box http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/ihstory.aspx?storycode=6517904  With much trepidation that readers may laugh out loud and recommend me for a public stoning here goes:

Over the last 5 years I’ve given ASTs to around 10 homeless people recommended through the Salvation Army.  Not the normal route of advertising you’ll agree, but I naively believed that rescuing a poor soul from the cold, mean streets, providing warmth/hot water and hoping that the influence of positive, working tenants may just pay off.  Only one of those homeless people is with me today, the others cocked up the tenancy quicker than I could hand over the keys through bad behaviour, drug, alcohol or girlfriend abuse and the usual non payment of rent.  Each was given a chance, several warnings and finally, for the sake of the other excellent tenants in the house, eviction.  I’m no expert on homelessness and this is just my limited experience.

The Dream…

So, not to be beaten, I’ve come up with another idea:  Should funds come my way, I’m going to buy a big house for between 6 and 10 residents who are either homeless, ex-offenders or anyone else who can’t get a tenancy due to a bad reference.  They’ll practice being a good tenant by learning to share communal areas respectfully, mastering cooking skills and how to wash up, tending a garden to provide for the kitchen, learn how to use a washing machine between the hours of 8am and 10pm, how to hand over their LHA (local housing allowance) bang on time and how to budget the rest of their money.  On top of this they will be expected to undertake a set amount of hours voluntary work so they have something to get out of bed, washed and dressed for.  If they can prove themselves capable of becoming a decent tenant, they can then apply for a room in one of my shared houses and, when they’re ready to move on, will have a glowing tenant reference, a work ethic and essential life skills.

In my dream, it’ll all be happy and cosy and we’ll laugh round the piano singing old songs – but I know that if I make this a reality it’ll be a 40% success rate because, from my experience, having responsibility for one’s own life can sometimes be just too much.

This post is not to elicit abuse or promote a debate, however if you have a spare half a million quid or words of support for the idea – I’m all ears!

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Tenant Referencing – HMO Style

Every time I hear the words “reference checking” it implies mounds of boring paperwork which will never give you a true picture of your prospective tenant, only an overview if things aren’t quite right on paper.  I’ve been prompted to write about this subject after a friend of mine asked me to let out her 3 bedroom property for her (for a fee!).  The responsibility is huge and it forced me to look at my current tenant check process bearing in mind her tenants are hopefully going to be far more upmarket than mine.

My Tenant Check Process

I tend to reference check on the following basis:

1. Can the tenant complete the Tenant Information Particulars form legibly?  i.e. can write own name that I can read

2. Does the tenant have someone to call “Next of Kin”?  Surprisingly sad when there is absolutely nobody the tenant can name who would want to accept a body or bad news

3. Call employer to check the tenant turned up for work this week and hasn’t so far displayed signs of drug abuse or a violent disposition

4. Does the tenant have a bank account?  A fairly good sign if so.

5. Previous landlord – to be honest, tenant could give the mobile number of his mate and I wouldn’t be any the wiser but more believable if I don’t understand what the landlord is saying

6. Gut reaction – this is a well honed technique from my Bed and Breakfast days.  It hasn’t let me down and I’ve taken on people my gut told me I shouldn’t but they’ve provided me with the best stories!

7. Can they stand up to my version of the Spanish Inquisition?  If they can hold eye contact, answer questions without hopping from one foot to another and don’t snigger when I tell them the rules of the house I know that we can communicate at the very least.

A Tale of Two Tenant Checks

Here is a tale of what happens when the above process was applied a few months ago:

Two people, oddly enough both named Steve called me, desperate for accommodation.  Steve number 1 jumped through all my paperwork hoops, Spanish inquisition techniques and (I thought the impossible) a letter of rent guarantee.  He turned up, bang on time, with a deposit, completed paperwork and 4 weeks rent – he is my hero and may just have enabled me to pay the mortgages next week.  Later turned out to be my pain, see Steve Messes Up.  Gut told me “no” based on him telling me he was an ex-gambler but I wanted to help and his actions told me he really wanted this.

Half an hour later I went to meet Steve number 2.  His paperwork was incomplete and had only managed his name, his work reference was abysmal (didn’t turn up to work in a hotel and nicked money, but the manager very sweetly invited me for coffee) and there was something just not right.  He’d been referred to me by another tenant who met him through AA (Alcoholics Anonymous, not roadside assistance) but was scant on where he’d been for the last few months claiming the pub he lived and worked in had burnt down – presumably taking the forensic evidence with it.

Decided to take Tom (one of my larger lads who had nothing better to do that afternoon) as I had my young son with me and felt Steve may decide to hit me when he found out I wasn’t going to let him in.  I told him what I’d found out and, before you could say “you ain’t going in that front door, you scoundrel” he ran off down the road as fast as his legs would carry him!!!!  That really is a first.

Reminder

I have a constant reminder of that day as I ruined my wheel trim (the silver disc that covers the nuts?) as I hit the pavement at speed because I didn’t want to be late for the appointment.  Every time I look at that wheel I remember him and the importance of reference checking.  Happy times.

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