April sees the commencement of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, a radical overhaul of nearly 40 years of existing homelessness law.
A piece of legislation that is being greeted by many in the business with the same enthusiasm as Charlton Heston in the end scene of the original Planet of the Apes, when he comes across the statue of Liberty on the beach.
Given that my work in rogue landlord enforcement often impinges upon homelessness casework, and the fact that I teach both branches of housing law, I am naturally curious about the link between the two fields.
Points of note for landlords
I thought I would highlight parts that may be of interest to landlords, leaving out things like changes to local connection rules for care leavers, or duties of public bodies to refer.
My aim here is not to argue the practicalities of this Curate’s Egg of legislation (God knows, I’d be here all day) but to explain what is being required of councils in terms of their relationship with private landlords.
Mindset needs to change
The main thrust is simply that the mindset of homelessness units has to swivel around to focus more on homelessness prevention at an early stage. Getting involved much earlier on in the process, whether a potential Applicant is facing rent arrears before the landlord even realises it, or picking up people about to be discharged from prison, hospitals and the armed forces.
That point alone tells you that simply dealing with a case when they walk through the door of the Town Hall is not going to satisfy the new requirements.
Code of guidance
As with the Housing Act 1996, the HR Act comes with its own code of guidance, which interestingly states in paragraph 6.33:-
“Housing authorities will be mindful of the need to maintain good relations with landlords providing accommodation in the district”.
A point I shall return to shortly.
One major change that is causing concern
If only in terms of officer time spent, is the brand new requirement inserted as s189a of the Housing Act 1996, at the start of a case to produce a written “Personal Housing Plan”, that is used as a map to guide the applicant through their homelessness process.
The gist of this is for applicant and caseworker to sit down and agree on a list of actions each will take. But the legislation holds some curious wording:-
“The Authority may include in a written record produced under subsection (5) or (6) any advice for the applicant that the authority consider appropriate (including any steps the authority consider it would be a good idea for the applicant to take but which the applicant should not be required to take)”
The eyes of everyone in my end of the business are alighting on the phrase “Good Idea”. Knowing full well how many legal challenges there are already to the interpretation of the word “Reasonable”.
How long is a piece of string?
A caseworker may consider it a “Good idea” for a homeless applicant to relocate to an area where the rents are more affordable for them but will the applicant and/or their solicitors, also consider this “A good idea”?
William Hill should open up betting odds on the first Judicial Review challenge with that one. I’ll give it a week.
Statistics are going to change
Persons currently threatened with homelessness within 28 days are considered officially a homelessness statistic but this is now being rolled out to 56 days. On the plus side, this gives the local authority extra time to get something sorted but it also means that a spike will appear in homelessness statistics, as those previously not recorded will now appear.
Landlords may be interested to read about section 4 of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 replacing section 195 of the Housing Act 1996, widening the duties on homelessness prevention and specifically as referenced by paragraph 12.4 of the code of guidance, which states:-
“The first option to be explored, with the applicant should be enabling them to remain in their current home, where suitable. Where this is not possible, the focus should be on helping to secure accommodation that the applicant can move into in a planned way. This will often involve taking steps to extend an applicant’s stay in their existing accommodation until they can move”.
The code specifically states “The first option”, so evidently, this is where many homelessness units in areas of high demand, think London, are going to focussing their efforts….as the code advises them to.
This may involve benign things, such as clearing rent arrears, negotiating with landlords, offering rent top-ups or it could also mean defending possession applications, through the identification of things like invalid section 21 notices.
There are twelve different legal breaches that can invalidate such notices and as tenancy sustainment is the ‘First option’, it seems reasonable to assume that much attention will be paid to repossession paperwork.
Balance that off against keeping the landlord happy
Though I wonder how that approach might play out against the aforementioned para 6.33 of the new code, to maintain good relations with landlords providing accommodation in the district.
The ways that different councils go about meeting the prevention duty will, of course, differ widely depending on whether that authority deals with 150 homelessness cases in a year, in a rural council or 6,000+ as with an average London authority, limited in options by swinging benefit caps v. market rents in the capital.
The HR Act widens the duty of care
The new ‘Relief Duty’ set out in s5 of the HRAct also requires the council to offer greater services to those who were not previously owed much of a duty, namely single people, to take ‘Reasonable’ (that word again) steps to secure accommodation for at least 6 months.
How does this look in reality?
So, a duty to find homes for more people than they had to before, in a situation where, in many areas, benefit caps don’t match rents and landlords are reluctant to rent to anyone coming through the homelessness route, whether because of a negative image of such people or a refusal to entertain working with councils.
That’s the background and practicalities folks.
We need a growth mindset
Personally, I think much can be done but the cultural mindset of many local authority homelessness units is really going to have to change to make it work.
Some councils are well on top of things and ready for D-Day, whilst others are just staring like a rabbit at a headlight wondering how the hell they are going to cope when the doors open on the 3rd of April.
The HR Act is a version of something that’s been operating in Wales for a couple of years. I recently spoke to the head of homelessness for one Welsh local authority and he informed me that the sky didn’t fall in as they were expecting but Wales is not Manchester, neither is it Hackney or Birmingham.
So we’ll have to see. It really will be a mixed set of response on an area by area basis.
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