In which two [now confirmed as four] Housing Associations behave very badly in anticipation of the benefit cap.
Haringey is one of the pilot boroughs for the benefit cap, limiting the total amount of benefit, including housing benefit/LHA (and astonishingly Child Benefit) that any household can receive to £500 per week. The prospective effects of the benefit cap on housing provision and the homeless have become apparent in the astonishing actions of two [now three] Housing Associations.
First up, and in Haringey, Genesis. The Guardian reported on ‘eviction letters’ being send to Genesis tenants because of the benefit cap. Although it isn’t clear from the report, I’ve established that these were all people who were on assured shorthold tenancies, organised through Haringey Council as temporary accommodation for homeless applicants to whom Haringey owed a duty under Part VII Housing Act 1996. The properties are leased by Genesis from private landlords.
Here is the letter Genesis were sending out. The opening paragraphs state pretty unequivocally what the reason is for the letter and what Genesis are going to do.
And it is signed by someone describing themselves as a ‘Legal Administrator’.
From this, it seems pretty clear what Genesis are doing. Having identified households that will be subject to the benefit cap, they are serving section 21 notices and preparing to bring possession proceedings, so that warrants can be sought at short notice if rent arrears build up.
The line about ‘we may have to return properties to the owner’ makes no sense. These are properties that Genesis has leased.
There are, as far as I can see, two options for Genesis’ reasoning here. Either the rent Genesis pays under its leases is close to the rent it charges its homeless tenants, so that any shortfall would be a deficit on the rent Genesis has to pay. Or Genesis wants to maintain its income stream from these properties and is not willing to countenance a shortfall in rent, even if it clears the rent Genesis has to pay the landlord in turn.
However, what is clear is that Genesis are not waiting for arrears to accrue, if indeed they do, but are pre-emptively putting themselves in a position to obtain an eviction warrant should they feel any need or wish to do so.
Haringey Council are reportedly furious. Understandably so, as any households evicted by Genesis would be landed right back on Haringey to rehouse, with all the issues of the benefit cap applying. It will be astonishingly difficult for Haringey to find suitable temporary accommodation, and it appears that at least one social housing provider is pulling out of such provision.
We should note that Genesis have issued a press release in response to the Guardian piece. It says, in part:
Genesis regrets any distress that the letter dated 11 April 2013 and sent out to 57 temporary housing residents in the London Borough of Haringey may have caused to these families. At Genesis we have strict processes in place to ensure all our communications to our residents are of the highest standard, we accept that on this occasion we did not meet this standard.
The letter was not a notice of eviction; Genesis is not evicting, nor has it sought to evict any residents as a result of welfare reform. We have contacted all those that received this letter, to reassure them of this fact.
Genesis acts in partnership for these properties with the London Borough of Haringey and third party landlords. The nature of temporary housing is such that managing agents have lease obligations, guaranteeing a landlord full vacant possession at the end of the lease. In order to ensure that this happens, a section 21 notice is required. These letters were for that purpose.
Hm. This is routine? They serve Section 21 notices routinely on their AST tenants of leased property? The letter was a bit of a whoopsie? I frankly have my doubts. Anyone fancy a FOI request for relevant decisions and records? Even if the letter was an error, this is clearly an issue and potential policy approach that Genesis have considered, in detail.
My doubts about Genesis mea non culpa were compounded when a letter from another housing association landed in my inbox today. This time it is Newlon Housing Trust and the London borough involved, I believe, is not a benefit cap pilot borough. So, this letter is anticipation of the roll out of the cap in October. Again, it is sent to homeless applicants housed under ASTs as temporary accommodation for the Council. The letter, in whole, is in this image:
This is quite simply jawdropping bad. Newlon is actually advising the tenants that there is no need for them to do anything about having a possession order made against them, apart from taking it to the homeless unit.
As with the Genesis letter, Newlon are taking pre-emptive possession proceedings based entirely on the prospect of the benefit changes maybe causing a rise in arrears. Again the ‘in case we have to return the property to the owner’ line is trotted out, but makes no practical sense.
One letter might be a bit of a cock up. Two is a trend. Housing Associations’ response to the threat of the benefit cap to the lucrative ‘temporary accommodation’ market is to serve possession proceedings so that tenancies can be terminated as quickly as possible should there be arrears issues.
But what if these proceedings were defended? It seems to me that there is a clear opening for both a public law and human rights Art 8 proportionality defence to these proceedings, based as they are on Section 21 and mandatory possession claims. These are pre-emptive and speculative proceedings. In addition, Newlon’s letter seems to me to teeter on abuse of process, in as much as it actively seeks to discourage tenants from doing anything about the claim and seeking legal advice is not mentioned at all.
And if the claims were defended, the whole aim of quick and easy possession proceedings, enabling quick and easy eviction, would be defeated.
Nonetheless, the actions of these Housing Associations are a clear indication of where the benefit reforms and benefit cap will leave homeless applicants, particularly in London. It is hard to see how and where they could remain in London when even Housing Associations will not provide temporary accommodation affordable under the benefit cap.
[Update. Apparently A2 Dominion have been doing something similar. More when I get details.]
[Update 3 May 2013. New on A2 Dominion.
Yes, A2 Dominion have been doing the same thing, since at least December 2012. LB Ealing tenants in temporary accommodation have been facing possession claims under the accelerated possession procedure following service of s.21 notices.
Here is A2 Dominion's letter to a solicitor, setting out very clearly their rationale for serving a section 21 notice and bringing possession proceedings.
And here is the resulting possession order, obtained under the accelerated possession procedure. A2 Dominion's purpose is clear - to be able to obtain vacant possession simply by applying for a warrant of eviction - ahead of anticipated arrears. Ealing is not one of the benefit cap pilot boroughs, so A2 Dominion brought proceedings at least 7 months ahead of the benefit cap coming into effect.
The clear indication is that this is approaching a general practice, at least in London.]
[Update 7 May 2013. And another Housing Association is confirmed as doing the same thing. Here is a February letter to a solicitor from Notting Hill Housing Trust, which is as blunt as blunt can be about the purpose of the section 21 notice served, and about the Housing Association expecting the Council to pick up the burden of rehousing.
Again, if they then pursue possession proceedings, this is simply an attempt to reduce the tenant's security of tenure in advance of anticipated problems after welfare reforms and the benefit cap kick in.]