Evictions … and how to prevent them

Shelter Scotland today published their annual update on trends in Scotland around eviction actions initiated by social landlords for rent arrears.  It makes for interesting reading, and can be viewed here.   The encouraging news is that across Scotland evictions by social landlords (local authorities and registered housing associations) are down by a third on the previous year.

Obviously, there are local variations in these figures but CHAI has, naturally enough, a particular interest in the picture in Edinburgh.

Since April 2009 CHAI, along with partners Granton Information Centre, Four Square and Move On, has been operating a City wide Housing Advice Service – commissioned by the City of Edinburgh Council and focused on preventing homelessness.  As well as providing housing advice and information in a range of neighbourhood, prison and schools settings, the Edinburgh Housing Advice Partnership has been delivering an advice and representation service at Edinburgh Sheriff Court for tenants who are subject to legal proceedings to recover their tenancy – mainly on the grounds of rent arrears.

It is encouraging to see that the City wide trend over the period that EHAP has been operating has seen reductions across a series of key indicators around eviction cases. However, we have been keen not just to focus on representing the rights of tenants at the legal sharp end of the evictions process,  but also to promote earlier interventions aimed at resolving difficulties before they become so entrenched that Court action – and potential eviction – follows.

To that end, since last summer, EHAP has been working with key partners, the City of Edinburgh Council, Prospect Community Housing Association, Dunedin Canmore Housing Association and the Cyrenians Homelessness Prevention Service to promote an Early Intervention Rent Arrears pilot project in the South-West area of the City.  What we’ve collectively been trying to do is to reach out to those tenants who, for one reason or another, tend not to respond to landlords’ traditional attempts to contact them when they start to show early signs of rent arrears.  These are often the cases that landlords end up having to take to Court because of that lack of earlier engagement.

We produced a postcard that landlords distributed to their non-responsive tenants, offering independent advice and support from EHAP and the Cyrenians HPS – and gradually we started to see contact from tenants at an earlier stage in the arrears recovery process than had typically been the case.

This new approach was underpinned by genuine collaborative working between the organisations involved; promoting real culture change.

The effectiveness of this early intervention approach can be seen in the results.  The table below, relating to City of Edinburgh Council tenancies, shows a generally positive trend in key eviction indicators across the City comparing the year 2009/10 with the previous year.  However, that positive trend becomes even more marked when the figures are broken down into the South-West Neighbourhood, where the Early Intervention pilot has been operating.

Area 2008-09 2009-10 Difference

Notices of Proceedings Issued

City 1159 944 -19%
South West 407 253 -38%

Cases Lodged in Court

City 1273 753 -41%
South West 443 216 -51%

Decree for Eviction Granted

City 681 492 -28%
South West 277 168 -39%

Evictions Carried Out

City 263 175 -33%
South West 98 55 -44%

This encouraging trend has continued into the current year, with the first 6 months (April to September 2010) showing that across the City, the Council had commenced 54% less legal actions for eviction than in the corresponding period the previous year (2009/10). The reduction in commencement of proceedings has, again, been even more pronounced in South-West – with a reduction of 78% in eviction actions started.  At the same time, the Council report that the levels of rent arrears has also fallen – by £500,000.  This is real win, win territory.

And it’s not just Council tenancies.  One of the Registered Social Landlord partners involved in the South-West Early Intervention pilot,  Prospect Community Housing Association, reports a 25% reduction in their legal actions since the start of the project – and that their Housing Officers and tenants are now much more routinely engaging with Advice and Support agencies prior to Court Action becoming necessary.

Win, win again because the landlords are incurring less expense and less staff time chasing rent arrears and the increased engagement of tenants with EHAP and the Cyrenians HPS leads to their receiving advice and support which maximise their income and reduce the risk of homelessness.

Shelter’s Report highlights that the national trend reflects real changes in policy and practice by many social landlords. CHAI’s experience locally shows that joint working and culture change can produce real and tangible benefits for everyone involved.

Win, win …

Housing Benefit Reform Risks Homelessness Increase

The UK Government produced a White Paper on Welfare Reform last month –  ‘Universal Credit: welfare that works’ (available here).

Among the raft of new proposals to reform the, admittedly over-complicated, welfare system lurks a worrying set of reforms to Housing Benefit, building on changes which had already been announced as part of the emergency budget earlier in the year, and as part of the more recent Comprehensive Spending Review.

Of course, for ‘reforms’ and ‘changes’, we can read ‘cuts’, and it is the extent and potential impact of these cuts that are causing significant alarm to those of us who work with people who are already financially marginalised, struggling and who will now face an increased risk that they may lose their home.

The earliest impact of the cuts will be felt by those in the private sector, where Local Housing Allowance (Housing Benefit for Private Sector tenants) will be subject to significant restriction from January 2012.   Figures released by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) indicate that a change in the way that Local Housing Allowance is calculated will lead to almost 6,500 Edinburgh households losing anything from £300 to £1,400 a year.  This currently goes straight towards help with housing costs, and the loss of that level of income – for people already financially insecure – may end up pushing people into homelessness as they struggle to afford rent charges.  Housing charity, Shelter Scotland, reported earlier this month that 84% of Scottish Local Authorities will see low income households losing up to £30 per month as a direct consequence of these cuts.

To make matters worse, from April 2013, a further reform will potentially impact on Housing Benefit recipients across all tenures.  It is proposed that those in receipt of Job Seekers Allowance – who currently may get all their rent costs met by Housing Benefit – will have their Housing Benefit cut by 10% after 12 months of unemployment.   Housing campaigners estimate that this change alone could result in over 200,000 additional homelessness cases across the UK, where over 4.7m people rely on Housing Benefit to help meet rent costs.

All this comes at a time when the Scottish Government has set a target to remove priority need  assessments for homeless applicants by 2012, a move which it is accepted will already increase pressure on local authorities to meet the needs of homeless people.

With the wider economy already in the grip of a recession, and the costs of food and fuel on the rise, the worry is that we’re going to see a ‘perfect storm’, which will impact on the poorest and most vulnerable sections of our communities.  We have to be ready to respond.

CHAI is lead partner in the Edinburgh Housing Advice Partnership (EHAP), which plays a key role in providing advice, information and representation aimed at preventing homelessness across all tenure types, and across the whole of the City of Edinburgh.  We’re gearing up to respond to increased demand for housing advice.  A demand that is already evident, and one which – as we can see – is only likely to become more insistent.

EHAP can be contacted on 0845 302 4607, or through the EHAP website.