[Ben Reeve Lewis is getting depressed by the rising homelessness figures ...]
Last Friday morning, whilst I was beavering away at work preparing for that afternoon’s council event, ‘landlord’s day’, I received an email from Frazzy with a link to an article in London’s free newspaper Metro. She titled her email to me “Homelessness is rising and these twats are out playing tennis” how could you fail to be interested?
Boris and Camo looked a bit set up to be honest, that hoary old tabloid favourite of politicians photographed doing something daft while Rome burns approach, very easy to do. Whilst the London mayor was doing a great blonde Orang-utan impression, opposite Camo’s howler monkey the article was actually a serious one about concerns over homelessness.
Most of you know by now that I am a Tenancy Relations Officer in South East London. My remit being to negotiate in disputes between landlords and tenants, prosecute landlords in extreme cases and also to defend mortgage borrowers in repossession claims made by their lenders.
To be honest? Give me a baseball bat wielding Old Kent Road thug over a bank anytime.
The mortgage lenders are doing the same thing as the rogue landlords but are simply hiding behind the law and a family friendly website to do it. At least ‘Big Ron’ has a bit of honesty about him.
I am part of the council’s homelessness team, in that my legal expertise is used to prevent homelessness by spotting legal infractions or by going to court to get injunctions to get the illegally evicted back into their homes.
Despite being stationed in that office of around 50 homelessness crew I actually forget I am part of that world, even though I see around 20 people queuing up everyday with their worldly belongings in black bin liners half an hour before the doors open. It’s like something from a Dickens novel and yet most people don’t realise it is still like this.
So I set to thinking about the whole housing crisis, the dearth of properties available, high rents and mortgage repossessions in terms of homelessness and where things are going and had a look at the Herriot Watt university report mentioned in the Metro article and an opinion expressed by Nicholas Timmins in the Financial Times.
Homelessness figures have been declining in the past 10 years but have shown an alarming 11% increase lately and nicely coinciding with cuts to housing benefit. I certainly see it in our office where there is hardly a seat available in reception most days.
One point of the Herriot Watt report mentions the disincentivisation to rent to benefit claimants created by the government’s obstinate refusal to allow housing benefit payments to go directly to landlords. The current scheme being as unpopular with tenants as it is with landlords.
When I was busy pressing the flesh at our Landlord’s Day last Friday I was asking everyone I met what we would need to do to get landlords to work closely with us and repeatedly I heard the same thing “pay us direct and we will have more trust in HB tenants”.
The government’s argument for maintaining this system is that direct payments infantilise tenants and they should be encouraged to manage their affairs, in the same way that working tenants have to. I understand that point, I think people should take responsibility for their lives but I don’t think that you achieve that by simply dumping £1,000 a month into someone’s bank account that wasn’t there before. It takes more than that. It takes education, support, training.
On top of my landlord/tenant responsibilities I also have to do our council’s Mortgage rescue Scheme work. I was surprised, having attended a recent meeting with the Homes and Communities Agency who administrates this nonsense that out of the paltry few people who actually qualify for the MRS within a very short period of time 34% are in rent arrears. MRS clears their debts and makes them housing association tenants at an affordable rent, so why do people still end up in financial dire straits?
It goes beyond unemployment and the recession. The fact is, as a nation we do not educate our kids in any form of even basic money management skills at school. When my daughter Holly was studying history for her GCSEs her homework consisted mainly of researching the genocide of mid-19th century American expansionism. I am sure, when she has sleep overs with her mates she continues to be amazed at the amount of times the “Secession of the Black Hills” pops into the conversation.
If we taught our kids how to manage money, how bills work, how to prioritise, even how to invest money wisely I think rent and mortgage arrears would be a far more contained problem than it is.
But back to the report.
Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick of Heriot Watt said “Government reforms, in combination with the pressures of the economic downturn, seem certain to increase all forms of homelessness, from rough sleepers on our streets to homeless people hidden out of sight,”.
Grant Shapp last week urged those facing problems to seek early support but how is that going to help when, as Leslie Morphy, chief exec of Crisis accurately said “We need the government to change course now or risk returning us to the days of countless lives facing the debilitating effect of homelessness,”.
We can educate our young – we should do, and we can urge people to seek assistance with housing problems but we also need help from our politicians in creating a housing system that isn’t fighting against itself.
- Staff cuts in local authorities mean there simply aren’t the amount of ‘Boots on the ground’ that there were 3 or 4 years ago – which means dealing with rogues and licensing HMOs proves a logistical nightmare.
- Grants and funding streams have been cut so there aren’t the financial packages available for people that there used to be – meaning it is more difficult to raise housing standards.
- The system of housing benefit payments going to tenants – is wearing away landlord’s patience with HB Tenants.
- Escalating rents – are causing a rise in rent arrears, evictions and homelessness applications.
- Banks unsympathetic to borrowers in difficulty and the FSA’s recent announcement that they frown on transferring to interest only mortgages – means 10s of thousands of people are going to lose their mortgaged homes in the coming year.
- Planning permission that at least the government has acknowledged needs speeding up is being dragged back by Nimbyism and an increase in regulation that allows greater scope for blocking applications, – meaning the homes that need to be built to get us out of this crisis are going to be long in coming.
- Legal aid being cut for a range of housing related issues, including illegal eviction, which let’s not forget is a criminal offence – putting responsibility for action back onto staff-cut local authorities.
- The steadfast refusal of the government to license letting agents – works against the professionalisation of the rental industry and supports a growth, in a booming industry, in cowboys and crooks opening up shop on a daily basis.
- The imminent disaster that is coming through increasing the age limit of the single room rate from 25 to 35 in January 2012 – will see even more landlord’s turning away from benefit tenants and a rise in arrears and evictions.
This and more is the current nature of the housing crisis, 2012 version.
I hear the government make pronouncements about these various factors but I can’t name a single plan or policy that aims to seriously address them, other than suggesting that councils use boats and caravans to house the homeless and that people worried for their home seek advice early on.
As the posters say “Keep calm and carry on”.
Ben Reeve Lewis
Ben has started Home Saving Expert, to share his secrets to defending people’s homes from mortgage repossession Visit his blog and get some help and advice on mortgage difficulties and catch up with him on Twitter and check out his free report “An Encouraging note on Dealing with your Mortgage Lender” and have it sent right to your inbox.