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.”

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 …

Developing Positive Partnerships

Partnership working is at the heart of effective service delivery.  Alan Ross, of CHAI’s Development Team, takes a look at some of the positive partnership working that he and his colleagues are currently engaged in:

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Over the past year a primary focus of the Development Team has been on building stronger links with statutory and voluntary organizations in the local community. We have done this by adopting a pro-active attitude and being open to approaching organizations with our ideas. In fact, in testament to potential benefits of this approach, almost every piece of work we have been involved in this year has involved a significant degree of partnership working. We’ve brokered relationships in a number of ways through utilizing past associations and friendships and keeping our eyes and ears open for opportunities.

Partnership working is of course a dominant theme in today’s voluntary sector and something we all have to adjust and accommodate ourselves to then idea of. The message from above is that, in terms of securing funding, partnership working is the way to go and bids or tenders highlighting partnerships will be looked at favourably in the future. Aside of the pragmatic reasons for developing partnerships we also believe that working alongside local organizations offers us an invaluable opportunity to reach out to more members of the community and provide an enhanced service.

As such it is useful to look at a few examples the partnership working we have been developing this year and the various ways in which pieces of work have evolved.

Fathers Group – In partnership with Sighthill and Hailesland Children’s Centre:  A major piece of work for us this year has been the development of a fathers group in partnership with the two local children’s centres. This partnership evolved through our historical link with the children’s centres nurtured through our family and young persons support service that often supported clients using the centres facilities. We approached Hailesland Centre with the idea of piloting a group and they jumped at the opportunity. The pilot sessions went well, despite the lack of an activity budget. We later applied for some funding via a health inequalities and building social capital tender which we were successful in getting. Since then the group has gone from strength to strength creating opportunities on a weekly basis for fathers to develop supportive peer relationships and spend quality time with their children as well as filling a much felt gap in service provision.

Calder’s Community Flat Drop in Advice service – In partnership with Edinburgh City Council:  A particularly interesting piece of work which has developed in part out of our employability contract. We were originally asked by the Council to focus some of our resources on the Calder’s neighbourhood as the area is considered remote from some of the services provided in the wider community. We initially hit upon the idea of providing a drop in advice service out of the local community flat in one of the neighbourhoods high rise flats. We then brokered input from the Councils Community Safety and Rents Team who began attending and offering outreach advice. The service gathered some attention from the media and after receiving positive feedback from the Council measures have been put in place to properly develop the flat into a genuine community hub where a wide range of services of benefit to the local community can be delivered.

EVOLS Environmental Volunteering – In partnership with Dunedin Canmore Housing Association and the Edinburgh & Lothian Greenspace Trust: The EVOLS group aims to bring together young people who are unemployed to undertake various pieces of practical environmental work. The partnership evolved out of a relationship we had with a Community Learning and Development worker who was seconded to Dunedin Canmore to develop their youth services. The worker, alongside one of the CHAI Development Team staff, had been involved in environmental volunteering projects in the past and had come to appreciate their value as both a method for delivering youth work and a way of giving something back to the local community. The involvement of the Lothian & Greenspace Trust has meant that we have been able to carry out some work they have been commissioned to do, much of which has involved the regeneration of the local Hailes Quarry Park.

These pieces of work are the tip of the iceberg in terms of our ambitions for the Development Team. We have been doing some fantastic work of late which has been generating regular positive feedback. We intend on utilising the CHAI blog as a way of making the community aware of the work we are undertaking, highlighting real examples of the ways in which the community and individuals are benefiting, as well as exploring some of the reasons why we are so firmly committed to the work we do.

We’re always open to suggestions for new areas of work, so if you have any, comment away – or contact us on 0131 442 2100.

Joining up Service Delivery

Well, we’ve had the UK Coalition Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review.  We’ve had the subsequent Scottish Budget handed down from Holyrood … now all we wait for is the local budget from the City of Edinburgh Council, and confirmation of where the pain will be felt.

We know there will be cuts – we’ve been softened up for it ever since the Conservative/Lib-Dem Coalition took up the reins of power at Westminster in May.  We know, in the Edinburgh context, that these cuts are going to be serious:  we’ve been hearing that message loud and clear from the Council administration and officers.

Some Local Authorities, in response to what is coming, have started talking about pooling resources; joining up the way they work in areas of common interest.  There has been some talk that those organisations in the Voluntary Sector who are reliant on public funding need to be thinking along similar lines.

It’s all about maximising value from reducing resources; joined up thinking leading to joined up working.

At CHAI we like to think we’ve been doing this for years.  We were designed specifically to take a broad and holistic view of social welfare; to build services around individuals and families.  The range of services CHAI provides: advice, information and representation; housing support; substance misuse support; youth and community development; early intervention family support; and furniture recycling – and the various office bases and outreach venues from which they are delivered – provide, literally and figuratively, a range of ‘entry points’ into the wider, holistic service.  A genuine ‘One Stop Shop’, which – when it works properly – delivers a range of appropriate social welfare interventions, even where the service user was initially unaware of the existence of those services or supports.

A new tenant may initially contact CHAI because they had heard that we can provide basic furniture items (Furniture Recycling Service), but that initial contact may open up those ‘doors’ into those other services about which the enquirer had no knowledge:  Housing Support, to help a sustainable transition into a new community and onto independent living;  Advice Services to provide specific interventions around maximising income or addressing debt issues;  Substance Misuse Support if there are any drug or alcohol issues that might inhibit integration to the community.

At a time when the public purse is being squeezed more tightly than ever before, it is even more important that value is provided from those resources.  Joining up service delivery is one way that CHAI achieves that value.