An Open Letter to Brent Landlords

Brent Housing Action

c/o Brent Trades Hall

375 High Road, NW10 2JR

breanthousingaction@gmail.com

7th July 2013

Cllr Mclennan and Director of housing at Brent Council, Brent Housing Partnership,

Genesis Housing Group, Catalyst Housing, Network Stadium Housing Group

Metropolitan Housing Trust, Paradigm Housing, Innisfree Housing, Origin, London Strategic

 

Dear All

 

RE: Some requirements from Brent residents

We are contacting you regarding the current changes to welfare benefits affecting Brent residents – namely the current under-occupation penalty, or Bedroom Tax, and the forthcoming move to Universal Credit and an overall Benefit Cap.

In total there are approximately 2,400 properties in Brent[1] affected by the bedroom tax. Up to 2,500 households are also likely to be hit by the overall benefits cap due to be introduced in the next few months (over 1,000 of which will lose more than £100 per week). These figures do not take into account possible additional pressure on social housing stock caused by recent changes to the Local Housing Allowance or the impact of the move to Universal Credit, and the true figures may be much higher.

We are concerned by the response of some Social Landlords operating in Brent to the current changes. It is not appropriate for landlords to send generic letters to unaffected residents, thus causing undue worry and distress. It is not appropriate for landlords to put pressure on elderly or disabled tenants unaffected by the cuts to give up their homes to mitigate the impact of changes on other tenants. It is particularly inappropriate to attempt to move tenants from the community outside London or pre-emptively issue notices to quit to vulnerable tenants in anticipation of possible future arrears. We call on all Social Landlords operating within Brent to ensure that all communications are specific, relevant, empathetic and supportive of tenants.

Brent Housing Action members have spoken to others across Brent, and found numerous examples of residents already struggling with high levels of social rent and facing further cuts to their income. Many reported receiving confusing or threatening information from their landlords, and none of those affected by cuts reported receiving appropriate support from a social landlord. This must change.

As Social Landlords, with a remit to supply housing at an ‘affordable’ level to tenants, and to operate for the benefit of local communities on a not-for-profit basis, we feel that it is entirely within your remit to resist these changes and support your tenants through the following measures:

  • Working and communicating with local campaign groups to exchange information
  • The adoption of a ‘no eviction’ policy
  • The re-designation of properties as having fewer bedrooms
  • Cutting rents to real ‘affordable’ levels, so that people don’t get hit by the benefits cap
  • Committing to providing only relevant, specific information to each tenant, including information on support available (ie DHP) and criteria by which they may be able to challenge your designation
  • Purchasing more ‘suitable’ properties to ensure residents don’t need to move out of the area
  • Recognising that if you are unable to offer suitable alternative accommodation that does not involve uprooting tenants, it is unjust to enforce a policy that neither you nor they were party to.

On behalf of all your tenants, both inside and out of Brent, we urge you to fulfil your social purpose by formally and publically adopting the above. Further information on how you might implement these policies, and examples of other housing providers who have already taken steps to support tenants; are provided overleaf.

 

Yours,

 

Brent Housing Action

 

  • A ‘no eviction’ policy

This is a key requirement. National Housing Federation research suggests that benefits changes will lead to an increase of 51% in arrears. It is not legitimate to evict tenants based on arrears caused by cuts to entitlement or welfare levels which were neither instigated nor approved by tenants or landlords in Brent. Edinburgh council has approved a ‘no eviction’ policy for council tenants affected by the under-occupation penalty. Under the policy, residents who fall into arrears despite “doing all they can” to pay their rent and are actively engaging with the council will not face eviction proceedings. This would be a simple guarantee which could be extended to all tenants to demonstrate the commitment of landlords to stand with and support tenants.

  • Re-designation of properties

DWP guidance suggests that “we will not be defining what we mean by a bedroom in legislation and there is no definition of a minimum bedroom size set out in regulations. It will be up to the landlord to accurately describe the property in line with the actual rent charged.” For example:

  • Where a member of the family has a disability or medical condition that requires that they sleep alone, or where they have adaptations to their home or need extra space for specialised equipment, it may well be a breach of Disability Discrimination &/or Human Rights legislation to enforce the ‘bedroom tax’.
  • Where a large family has only a galley kitchen, they may need a dining room; where a room is not big enough to qualify as a bedroom (i.e. under 6.5m2 [2]) it should be re-designated as a box room or storeroom.

There are clear precedents for the re-designation of properties. Knowsley Housing Trust recently reclassified 566 properties as smaller homes – thus exempting 194 tenants from the bedroom tax and limiting the benefit reduction for a further 75 – as they realised that adapting the designation of homes to residents who wanted to occupy them prevented rapid turnover of properties. Nottingham city council also reclassified more than 1,000 two-bedroom properties in high-rise tower blocks as one-bedroom, thus saving all tenants from benefit cuts. The move acknowledged the unsuitability and lack of demand for certain properties, and the likelihood that they would be impossible to let to tenants that would not under-occupy.

  • Working with local campaign groups

Local campaigners and advocates can provide insight into the unintended or associated consequences of welfare cuts, and communicate insights from other local councils illustrating innovative ways of dealing with issues. Knowsley Housing Trust has begun communicating with local campaign groups, helping them to better understand one another and ensure that communications to tenants demonstrate some empathy.

  • Providing tenants with information and advice on support available and opportunities to challenge their benefit cuts

We have evidence of a number of Social Landlords operating in Brent having already provided premature and sometimes contradictory information to tenants, while information on challenging decisions and/or alternative options within the public or affordable sector has not been adequately promoted.

Advice provided must not be dependent on tenants accessing information online or attending appointments with benefits advisors. It must be contained within every communication with residents, whether by phone, letter or in person. Information provided should include: a précis of the impact benefits changes may have on individual residents, an outline of your understanding of the situation, an outline of the impact that you feel this may have on their tenancy, a clear statement of the import of any advice given (ie are your points legally binding or simply suggestions? Is your understanding of their situation based on facts or conjecture?), an outline of the process through which they might challenge any changes, and a clear guide to ways in which they may avoid or mitigate the effects of cuts (ie will they be penalised in other ways for taking in a lodger?).

  • The purchase of additional ‘suitable’ properties

The Bedroom Tax merely serves to penalise residents financially for the failure of Government to ensure construction of appropriately sized social housing. One method of avoiding this would be to boost the number of smaller homes available to social housing residents, as Glasgow Housing Association have done. They have purchased 300 one- and two-bedroom flats to let to social tenants affected by the bedroom tax.

  • Recognising that without suitable alternative accommodation available it is unjust to enforce benefit changes which may lead to homelessness

The National Housing Federation has noted that an ‘affordable’ rent in many parts of London (set at 80% of market rates) may in itself push residents over the benefits cap threshold. We therefore call on Brent Landlords to adopt a truly affordable rent policy and to refuse to demand full rent or pursue evictions where there is no suitable alternative accommodation.

This letter is supported by a petition signed by over 200 Brent residents, calling for the adoption of a no evictions policy. An online version of the petition can be accessed at http://chn.ge/1bWp2mJ.


[1] This size is suggested in Salford Council’s advice on HMOs http://www.salford.gov.uk/d/hmo_standards.doc and in http://www.homebuilding.co.uk/ advice about building regulations


[2] National Housing Federation figures

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