Government statistics released on 24th June 2015 show that the number of homeless applications made to local authorities between 1st January and 31st March 2015 were 27,640. This was an increase of 2% compared with the same quarter in 2014. Applications between 1st October and 31st December 2015 also increased by 1% compared with the previous year, totalling 28,460. Unfortunately, in these difficult economic times, this rise is unsurprising.
The figures show that the most frequent reason for loss of previous accommodation, leading to homelessness is the ending of an assured shorthold tenancy by a private landlord. This has also been an increasingly common cause of homelessness rising from 11% of cases in 2009/2010 to 29% of cases in 2014/2015. Although when most private landlords issue court proceedings using the non-fault based accelerated procedure, in our experience the underlying reason for seeking the return of the property is rent arrears. Unfortunately in this climate of benefit cuts and sanctions and a difficult, competitive employment market, we see a large volume of tenants struggle to afford their rent and fall into financial difficulties.
When faced with impending Court possession proceedings due to rent arrears the first step for the tenant is to get some advice about ways of maximising their income. They should check they are receiving any benefits they are eligible for at the right level and should consider applying for a Discretionary Housing Payment from the Local Authority. Although only intended as a short term measure, this benefit can top up the difference between a tenant's rent and Local Housing Allowance to give them a bit of breathing space to either resolve their financial difficulties if possible or to find more affordable accommodation. When the possession proceedings arrive the tenant needs to respond to the Court papers (usually within 14 days) and should seek legal advice to check if there is any defence. Often private landlords make mistakes on the Court papers or will have failed to adequately protect a tenancy deposit which could invalidate a Notice Requiring Possession given to the tenant. Although defending the proceedings often only delays the inevitable (as the landlord will usually correct any mistake and issue further proceedings), it can buy the tenant extra time to find alternative accommodation and avoid a situation where they end up seeking emergency accommodation from the Local Authority.
Tenants should ask the Local Authority for help as soon as they realise they are at risk of eviction as the Local Authority will usually assist in finding other accommodation to prevent a homeless situation arising.
If the situation does reach the point of eviction from the Court Bailiffs, the tenant will need to make a homeless application to the Local Authority and should get legal advice to make sure the Council complies with its obligations under the legislation. Sadly, in our experience, on many occasions the Local Authority will turn people away or decline to assist them after they have completed some enquiries. Indeed of the 27,640 applications made in the first quarter of 2015, less than 50%, just 13,520 were accepted as being owed a duty to be rehoused. Good legal advice is crucial to check the legality of the Council's decision and to challenge it if it is unlawful.
Legal Aid is available to assist with possession proceedings and homeless applications.
By housing law solicitor, Elizabeth Lowe