Ben Reeves-Lewis And The Future of Homelessness Law
I am a big fan of housing law blogger Ben Reeves-Lewis. I enjoy reading his posts on Landlord Law every Friday.
Last week’s piece on homelessness was particularly good. Ben considers what now seems to be the inevitable change to the law on homelessness which will soon mean that local authorities can discharge their duties to homeless persons by make arrangements so that they are provided with private sector accommodation.
I have always thought that it was strange that the law on homelessness so far has meant that local authorities had to provide council or housing association tenancies to homeless persons who were owed a housing duty. This seemed to confuse the issues the need for emergency accommodation and access to social housing. Don’t get me wrong. I would like to see all homeless people (and everyone else too for that matter) get secure low cost social housing. However, the trouble with the current system is that it has meant that people who are not homeless have often been denied access to what limited stock there is. It has also meant that homeless persons have spent long periods of time in temporary accommodation waiting for the offer of a council flat which never seems to arrive, especially if they need four or more bedrooms. As a result I agree with Ben that freeing councils up to refer people into private accommodation is a logical step for councils who don’t have properties anyway.
Moving on from this Ben thinks though how this will all work and hits the nail on the head in identifying the problem at the heart of the strategy. This is that just as there isn’t enough council or housing association housing available there isn’t enough low cost suitable private sector accommodation either. Whilst there may be property out there available for homeless people to rent it will be definition be the kinds of property that the landlords could not rent to wealthier tenants. This means that it will be in poor condition and bad areas. Councils will have to ensure that they are referring people to suitable accommodation. However, in order to do this they may be asking more of private landlords than they are prepared or able to give. What is the point of for a private landlord of doing up a property in order to meet with the necessary council standards so that prospective tenants can be referred to them if the low levels of Housing Benefit or Local Housing Allowance payable mean that the lanldord gets no return on the investment.
It will be very interesting to see how all this pans out. I suspect that it will leave quickly leave us were we started with not enough accommodation available in the public or private sector for homeless people to be referred to.
Where I take issue with Ben is that he suggests that these changes and the forthcoming Legal Aid cuts are bad news for lawyers. Firstly, I think that these new changes will create more rather than less work for housing lawyers. Secondly, I don’t want to tempt fate but as far as I am aware homelessness and the threat of the loss of a home are areas which Kenneth Clarke has ring fenced as protected from the cuts.
I have not studied the provisions in detail yet but I predict that the changes which Ben mentions in allowing councils to discharge duties by referrals to the private sector will not reduce work for housing lawyers but will increase it. This is because:-
- Most of the work of lawyers around homelessness at the moment concerns either the refusal of the council to accept a duty or the failure of a successful applicant to accept an offer. This will remain so after the changes. The council’s entitlement to offer private sector accommodation to successful applicants will not change this. It may actually lead to an increase in refusals of offers by applicants and so an increase in work for lawyers.
- The increased use of private landlords may mean that there are more unsuitable properties being offered. Private landlords are unlikely to maintain properties and refurbish them prior to an offer being made to the same standard as social landlords. This may lead to more people abandoning properties or applying to the council for alternative accommodation.
- The use of private sector tenancies which can end after 12 months means that there will be an increase in the number of people making fresh applications for accommodation after 12 months. This will give rise to more disputes about whether the tenants are (still) in priority need or whether they have become homeless intentionally.