Unlawful letting agent fees – money for nothing?

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This month we have a special ‘Guest Blog’ from our friends at Shelter Scotland.

They are currently running a successful campaign to encourage private tenants to reclaim tenancy fees that have been unlawfully demanded by landlords and their agents.

Tom Youll, Writer for Shelter Scotland’s online housing information resources, tells us more:

“Consider this scenario, you’re looking for a flat to rent, you see an advert for one that matches your requirements, you enquire if it is still available, it is and what’s more the letting agent is happy for you to move in. So you pay the first month’s rent and deposit and move in. Yes this is an idealised story of what happens when people rent in the private rented sector and you’d be right to say that there is something missing, like all the admin fees that sometimes come with the renting process.

Whether they are called reservation fees, reference checks charges, credit checks, inventory fees or check-in fees, it seems that when you rent a property from some letting agents you have to pay all the associated fees with setting up the tenancy. And if you refuse to cough up the cash, then you run the chance of losing the property to someone who is willing to pay.

We believe that this should not be the case and Rent (Scotland) Act 1984 offers protection from having to pay fees. It states that any premium in addition to the rent and deposit cannot be charged in the granting, renewing or continuing of a tenancy. This legislation has been law for nearly 30 years, but is regularly misinterpreted or simply ignored.

Here at Shelter Scotland we recently launched the Reclaim your fees campaign to highlight this issue and our Campaigns team visited various towns and universities across the country advising people on unlawful fees and what to do if they think they’ve paid them in the past, or are being asked to pay them to take out a future tenancy.

We also have a dedicated website with a toolkit that can be used to reclaim any fees that you have paid to your letting agent. On the website you’ll find:

  • template letters
  • a step-by-step guide on how to about reclaiming your fees
  • answers to many of the questions you may receive from your letting agent once you have asked for your fees to be returned.

You can also find success stories on the website, such as Scott Kuku who got £320 returned from his letting agent after threatening to take his case to the small claims court and Tim Macdonald who received £150 after his case went to the small claims court.

So far, since the campaign was launched on 7 May 2012, 549 people have used the toolkit to start claiming back over £60k in total.

To find out more about the work of Shelter Scotland follow us on Twitter or Facebook.”

Homes at Risk

A poll commissioned by Shelter Scotland, by YouGov, has found that up to 280,000 Scots may skip their mortgage or rent payments in December in order to help pay for Christmas.

The results of the poll – reported here – make worrying reading as 1 in 12 tenants and 1 in 14 home-owners suggest that they may be prepared to go into arrears with their housing costs to meet the short term costs associated with the annual festive blow-out.

Of course, the immediate post-Christmas period, when the credit card bills and over-spending tend to catch up with us all, has traditionally been a busy one anyway for Advice Agencies.  The cold, harsh weather of January and February is often mirrored by the financial hangovers that linger long after the Christmas and New Year sore heads have eased.

The impact of the continuing economic downturn and the ever-rising cost of basics such as food and fuel has placed even more pressure than normal on households to stretch beyond their means.

Delaying payment of mortgage or rent commitments may seem like an easy way to see us through the holiday period, when the messages of consumption and  festivity remain undiminished by the hard realities of many family budgets.  However, given the general pressures on those budgets, catching up with those missed payments may not be quite so easy – and the consequences of an uncontrolled spiral into housing debt can be traumatic.

CHAI would advise that the temptation to skip a mortgage or rent payment for the sake of that extra present is one that is best avoided.  For those – and there will be many – for whom the choices are perhaps even more stark at this time of year, it is important to remember that help is always available to deal with money and/or housing worries.

CHAI’s Advice Service can be contacted on 0131 453 6410 or through the CHAI website.

If you are worried about mortgage or rent arrears,  you can contact the Edinburgh Housing Advice Partnership (EHAP) on 0845 302 4607 or through the EHAP website.

Have a good, safe Christmas.

So, what exactly is it that you do?

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If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked that question about CHAI over the years … well, I’d have several more pounds than I do at the moment.  It’s commonly asked by a wide range of people who may have had a specific reason for initial contact with us, but who then quickly grasp that there’s more going on than they may have at first thought.

The basics:  CHAI – the Community Help & Advice Initiative – is a ‘third sector’ organisation with charitable status, operating as a Limited Company.  In very broad terms we are a social welfare agency, delivering a range of services which are intended to improve the conditions of life of vulnerable people living in our communities.

So, what do we do?

We’ve just started a new operating year (2011/12) so, in a summarised answer to that question, here’s a quick tour round what CHAI will be doing in the months ahead.  These are in no particular order:  they’re all equally important.

Advice Services

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One of the cornerstones of our service delivery is ensuring that the people we work with have access to quality advice, information and representation about income, debt, housing and the myriad of other issues which affect daily life.  Our National Standards Accredited Advice Service operates from full-time offices in Wester Hailes and Liberton/Gilmerton – as well as providing home visits and outreach surgeries as required.  We alsEHAPo provide specific support to NHS Lothian’s Vocational Rehabilitation Service – ‘Working Health Services Lothian’, and CHAI is the lead contractor for the City wide homelessness prevention advice service – the Edinburgh Housing Advice Partnership (EHAP).   During 2011/12 our Advice Service will continue to deliver Advice Services in line with City strategies on Advice and Health Inequalities.  Changes to Housing Benefit, and to the assessment conditions around Incapacity Benefits are likely to feature significantly in workloads this year.

Addictions Support

CHAI is commissioned by the Edinburgh Alcohol & Drug Partnership (EADP) to provide drug andEADP Logo alcohol support services across the South-West of the City, operating from office bases in Wester Hailes and Oxgangs.  The focus of these services is on individuals and families where substance misuse is an issue, with specialist staff working towards harm reduction, child protection and recovery outcomes through a mix of practical, social and clinical interventions.  Close links are maintained with the NHS Lothian Community Drug Problem Service and with a range of other referring medical professionals.  Joint working on delivery is carried out locally with the Wester Hailes Health Agency.  This will be an important year for the Service, with the recently launched EADP Strategy:  ‘A Framework for Partnership Action 2011 – 2014’ providing a template for service delivery.

Housing Support

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Maintaining vulnerable people in their homes, and assisting them to live as independently as possible is a key component of CHAI’s service mix.  Our Housing Support Service works across the City, supporting individuals who require help with independent living skills such as budgeting, dealing with official correspondence, managing appointments and relationships with third parties and generally managing their tenancy or home.  Although Service Users can be anything from 16 years to over 100 years old, most of the people supported by CHAI’s Housing Support Services are over 50, with over a quarter in the 65+ age range.  Our Housing Support Service is regulated and inspected by the new body, Social Care & Social Work Improvement Scotland (formerly the Care Commission).

Employability Support

CHAI contributes to the City’s ‘Joined up for Jobs Strategy’ JobCentre Plusthrough our South West Neighbourhood focused Employability & Support project.  This service is specifically aimed at people who are most marginalised from the job market; those currently at Stages 1 & 2 on the ‘Employability Pipeline’ – and categorised as ‘Not Job Ready’.  The focus of our engagement is on removing those obstacles and barriers that prevent our target client group from moving on through the ‘Employability Pipeline’ and on into work, training or education opportunities; barriers such as debt, addictions, housing crisis, income, health and low confidence.  The key to this work is engaging with service users in their neighbourhoods, and at the point in their lives where they are ready to receive that support.  It’s about planting seeds and helping people move forward at the pace that is most appropriate to their needs.

Early Intervention Family Support

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This service, focused on the Pentlands area of the City, is aimed at working with families where there are early indications of support needs, and providing interventions designed to address these at an early enough stage that they don’t go on to become more problematic later.  The activity supports the strategic objectives in the City Integrated Children’s and Young Peoples’ Plan.

Furniture Recycling Service

Furniture leafletOur Furniture project collects donations of re-useable furniture and household items and recycles these back out to the community.  Last year we diverted over 100 tonnes of furniture that may otherwise have ended up in landfill, carrying out 0ver 200 deliveries of basic start up and replacement furniture items to new and established tenants on low incomes.  If you have furniture items you no longer need, and are in good condition … give us a call!

DCHA Tenancy Support Service

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Commissioned and funded by Dunedin Canmore Housing Association (DCHA), this project works exclusively with new DCHA tenants housed in the Association’s ‘South Housing Area’, with the aim of assisting in tenancy sustainment outcomes.  Over 50% of new DCHA tenancies are let to people who have come through the homelessness route, and may have experienced issues with sustaining tenancies in the past.  This project works with the tenant and DCHA staff right from the very start of the new tenancy, addressing any issues which may impact on the sustainability of the tenancy.

Youth & Community Development Work

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CHAI’s work with the Rank Foundation promotes a range of group and individual support activities aimed at developing young people and the communities in which they live.  Realising potential and developing leadership is at the heart of this work: building the social capital of the community.

As well as this mix of advice, support and development services we also offer ‘Crisis Intervention Drop In’, where people experiencing short-term crises around, for example, income loss, can access emergency food parcels.

Joining these services together in one organisation maximises their impact, enabling cross-fertilization of the skills, knowledge and experience of staff throughout the Project – for the enhanced benefit of those using the services.

So, if you were wondering what we do … now you know.

For more information, details about how to contact CHAI – and how to access our services – have a look at our website:  www.chaiedinburgh.org.uk

It’s all going on …

Recognising Effective Practice in Tackling Poverty

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In December last year we blogged about some work that CHAI has been involved with around developing an Early Intervention approach to dealing with Rent Arrears problems in the South-West of Edinburgh.  See:(http://chaiedinburgh.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/evictions-and-how-to-prevent-them/)

We’re delighted that this work has now been recognised by the Scottish Government as demonstrating success and effective practice in tackling poverty.  The South-West Edinburgh Rent Arrears Early Intervention project has now been written up and published by the Scottish Government on its website as one of 12 ‘Good Practice’ Case Studies to be highlighted this year.

This has been a piece of genuine joint working and thanks are due to our partners in this activity:  Cyrenians HPS, City of Edinburgh Council South-West Neighbourhood Office and Prospect Community Housing Association.

The full Case Study can be seen here.

Celebrating Quality Advice

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On 17 March 2011, Councillor Paul Eadie, Convenor of the City of Edinburgh Council’s Housing, Health & Social Care Committee will host an Event at the City Chambers at which CHAI and Granton Information Centre (GIC) will be formally presented with National Standards Accreditation Certificates by Sheriff Principal Edward T Bowen QC – the Sheriff Principal of Lothian and Borders.

Of course, CHAI and GIC are – along with Four Square and Move On – partners in the Edinburgh Housing Advice Partnership, and the Event will also be an opportunity to highlight the positive contribution that EHAP has made to preventing homelessness in the City of Edinburgh.

The Scottish National Standards for Information and Advice Providers are a Quality Assurance Framework covering 6 key areas:

1.         General Management
2.         Planning of Services
3.         Accessibility and Customer Care
4.         Providing the Service
5.         Competences for Staff and Agencies
6.         Resources

The Standards define Advice in 3 ‘Types’:

Type I – refers to Information Provision

Type II – refers to Casework

Type III – refers to advocacy, representation or mediation at Tribunal or Court Action level

CHAI underwent an external audit, conducted on behalf of the Scottish Government by Michael Bell Associates, on how well we met the National Standards on the three assessable topics of Money Advice, Welfare Benefits Advice and Housing Advice and the outcome of this was that CHAI has been Accredited to Type III on all topics.  EHAP Partner, GIC were similarly Accredited to Type III on the Combined Advice topics, making CHAI and GIC the only two organisations in Edinburgh Accredited to this high level across the Combined topics.

The Auditors reported that “From the cases reviewed it is clear the service (CHAI) is providing a high quality advice service”.

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Commenting on the Accreditation, Alex Neill MSP, Scottish Government Minister for Housing and Communities, said that he was:

acutely aware of the valuable work carried out in Third/Voluntary Sector agencies across Scotland in providing housing and money/debt/welfare benefits advice and information to clients requiring such support.  The sterling service provided by organisations such as CHAI and GIC contributes enormously to the Scottish Government’s efforts to ensure a wealthier, fairer Scotland for all our citizens.”

CHAI provides advice, information and representation to thousands of Edinburgh residents each year – advocating on their behalf to Benefit Authorities, Housing Providers, Creditors and any other body that impacts on their lives.  We also represent at hundreds of Tribunals and Sheriff Court cases, achieving high levels of income and other positive outcomes for clients.

While never being complacent about it, we’ve always felt that the service we provide has been of a consistently high quality, and we are delighted that this has now been formally recognised through our Accreditation under the National Standards.

At a time when there is ever greater pressure on public resources, and increasing demand for advice and support from a public reeling under the impact of these pressures it is important that services like ours continue to be available, accessible and delivered to a high standard.

Check out our Facebook page after 17 March for some photos and chat from the Event at the City Chambers.

Anyone who needs to contact CHAI’s National Standards Accredited Advice Service can do so by phoning the Appointment Line on 0131 453 6410, or via the CHAI website.

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.