Tag Archives: local housing allowance

Benefit Tenants – The Reality of When It Goes Wrong

You may remember a few months ago I told you the story of Joe who turned up on the doorstep, courtesy of a friend, with pennies in his pocket and a cat called Bill.

His accommodation story has now ended; after being awarded the local housing allowance of £67 a week and various promises of being able to afford the £33 a week top up, Joe received his benefit and managed to spend the lot. Various texts, telephone conversations and letters ensued to which he replied with protestations that he’d been to the bank and paid up. He progressed to a raft of excuses relating to poorly relatives and his own mental health issues, ending up at the “nobody likes me any more, I have nothing to live for” attitude. Eventually, he admitted he’d spent the lot.

But what on? He didn’t look like he was into drugs, drink or gambling but consistently never had any money. Eventually, even the cat got fed up of him and left the house last week and hasn’t been seen since. His housing worker and friend finally persuaded him to give up the room, leave the telly I’d bought and the keys and take up a work offer abroad before I submitted court papers under a Section 8 notice.

On clearing out the room I found out what he’d been spending his money on – SHOES! Pairs and pairs of shoes but none worth having despite us having the same foot size.

Eviction Looming

The current case we’re working on is that of 3 friends all claiming LHA who moved into a 3 bed house. Within a month they’d fallen out with each other (having been friends for over 20 years) and one of them left after the fixed period; they couldn’t find a replacement because they weren’t talking to each other and can’t leave because no other landlord wants the remaining two. They now have their Possession Order dated for next week and their benefit payments have been stopped.

I recently watched an interesting interview with Vanessa from Property Tribes and Kent landlord, Fergus Wilson. He said in one of the videos (you may need to watch both) that he doesn’t believe it’s up to the PRS to house the poor and needy (or in my case, mentally needy). At first I was shocked but after listening to his reasoning and based on my own experience, I’m actually starting to agree that the majority of the PRS landlords are simply not geared up to handle the social issues which accompany those tenants who don’t have a support network and are not mentally or mobility impaired enough to qualify for Supported Housing.

Those landlords like me who are happy to take a chance on someone claiming Housing Benefit are left out in the cold. When Joe’s rent was eight weeks’ in arrears I followed procedure and applied to the council for his benefit to be paid directly to me. At the same time, I emailed the council to find out whether they would act to home the 2 sitting tenants upon receipt of the Possession Order, the expiry date on the Order or when the bailiffs turn up to evict them. To date I have received absolutely no response. (But I’d rather say “Sweet F.A.”.

So, what will bring the plight of those not bright or able enough to hold down a tenancy in the PRS to the attention of the Government? The councils are fully aware of the scarcity of housing and prioritise need based on a banding system but even those people at the top of the waiting list spend their days with their fingers cross to find a secure base to call home. We’re based in Eastbourne and are lucky to have numerous promenade shelters and benches overlooking the sea . Perhaps when these are full and the octogenarian tourists from Up North, on their morning constitution, trip over the unfortunates and their empty cans of Special Brew, someone may raise a cautious hand in protest.

Keeping The Faith

Will I take a chance on a housing benefit tenant again? Of course I will. I like diversity in the HMOs and someone needs to be at home to put out the bins, let the plumber in and give a damn about the house. In fact, I’ve just offered a tenancy to a lovely 28 year old girl with a muscular disease who is currently sofa surfing which exacerbates her condition. She used to work in an office, shared a flat with a friend and was then struck down with this ongoing illness. Suddenly no one wanted to offer her a tenancy after her friend sold the flat. She’s ill enough to qualify for a PIP (Personal Independent Payment) and ESA (Employment Support Allowance) but not ill enough for Supported Housing. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place – that goes for both of us.

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No Home Comforts for Those on Housing Benefits

I’m reluctant to publish guest posts, but this excellent article written for me by Alex Murray of Safesite Facilities neatly encapsulates my experience on the front line of accommodating housing benefit tenants. There’s an additional, heart warming story at the end to prove landlords aren’t all inflexible, greedy sods.

No Home Comforts for Those on Housing Benefits

When “non-smokers only” started appearing in property-to-let listings in the UK, it was widely acknowledged as positive action which directly reflected the attitudes of British society and its wish to be free from the stench and alleged ill-effects of smoking.

Fast forward to 2014.  Although “non-smokers only” still appears, another two words, which first crept in during 2008, have begun to take prevalence.  Again, two little words which are accommodation-ad specific, but once more seem to represent the attitudes of a society  seeking to free itself from something seen as negative, pervasive and pernicious:

“no benefits.”

Sadly though, this advertisement addendum is far from a positive reflection on 2014’s British landlords and society.

How did it come to this?

Since the coalition came to power, the days of government and public benevolence or relative even-handedness towards those claiming benefits have been numbered.  Along with the government, much of the British media have stood in line to condemn benefit seekers as “lazy” or “scroungers” whilst fly-on-the-wall documentaries such as Benefits Street seek to demonstrate to the remaining public who display a live-and-let-live attitude towards others that they might be misguided in not jumping on the judgement band-waggon; after all, an alternative programme title might have reflected the difficult cycles some vulnerable families find themselves trapped in, but no, Channel 4 chose Benefits Street.

After the frosty reception which greeted their plans for the Bedroom Tax and the on-going disability benefits and ATOS Work Capability Assessments (as in don’t give ATOS) debacle, the government then rolled out its Universal Credit scheme nationally in October 2013.  This scheme replaces, amongst others, the long-standing housing benefit and involves making single monthly payments directly to claimants.  From this, claimants are expected to make their own rent payments direct to their landlords.

Government Assurances – for the Landlords

Although the government is adamant that Universal Credit gives landlords greater protection from tenants who fail to pay – review of payments kicks in after just one month of arrears – this hasn’t been enough for landlords.

A recent survey, conducted by SpareRoom.co.uk, revealed that landlords have lacked confidence in the government’s systems for handling benefits, largely since the introduction of Local Housing Allowance (LHA) within the housing benefit system, in 2008.  This change, which also allowed payments to go direct to tenants, was identified by 88% of landlords as having a negative impact on their businesses, through late payments and damage to their property.

With their confidence, revenue and portfolios already shaken from LHA, 6 out of 10 landlords (57%) state that they now refuse to accept tenants on benefits.  Of those landlords still willing to take housing benefit claimants as tenants, over half plan to will stop when Universal Credits become fully functional (around 2016) and several large property investors, including Kent property tycoon Fergus Wilson, have already served eviction notices on current benefit-claiming tenants, as reported by the BBC.

Assurances for the benefit claimants?  Anybody?

With low levels of social housing stock, eviction notices in hand, the “no benefits” banner across the rental sector and the benefit shakeup generally causing unknowns for those finding themselves claiming benefits (including reliable, responsible, hard-working families and pensioners), what hope is there for those relying both on benefits to make ends meet and the rental sector for a roof over their heads?

In truth, not much.

Whilst the landlords can gain the same (if not more) money by letting their properties on the open market, housing benefit claimants have no alternatives, just further belt-tightening.  This is inevitable as any landlords still willing to rent to them increase rents to match their own increased “risk” and to pass on their additional buy-to-let mortgage and insurance costs, which have risen considerably for landlords renting to the benefits sector, as many buy-to-let lenders also coin in extra cash from others’ misery.

As Matt Hutchinson, the director of SpareRoom.co.uk reflects: “the rollout of universal credit is set to make the situation even worse.   With rents rising and the welfare budget suffering from further government cuts, the outlook for tenants reliant on housing benefit is getting bleaker.”  Not only that, but thanks to the divisive “no benefits” mentality pervading the rental sector, the outlook for our prospects as a cohesive, empathetic society looks pretty bleak too.

Thank you, Alex.

55p and a Cat Called Bill

A couple of weeks ago, John contacted me through a friend.  An eloquent, skilled barber who had numerous men’s grooming awards under his belt but, following a breakdown, had been forced into sofa surfing whilst trying to get to grips with his own recovery.  How easy is it to recover your self esteem when you’re sleeping on a lumpy sofa in someone’s living room, with no privacy or hot water?  His only stable, trusting relationship was with Bill, a nonchalant black and white cat who clearly has no idea he holds his master’s wellbeing in the pads of his paw.  All John had to offer was 55p in his pocket and a promise that Bill wouldn’t pee in Jim’s newly planted containers.  All I have to do is to help him fill in the forms, wait around 5 weeks for the claim to be processed and I will hopefully have 2 very happy, contented, mentally stable tenants for a long, long time (and I get to stroke one of them).

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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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Filed under being a landlord, Future of HMOs, Rent