|Brent Housing Action campaigner at Chalkhill on Saturday|
Lesson 1: Communicate with tenants
We have clients who have still not had any communication from their landlord about how many bedrooms they are considered to have and whether they are likely to be affected. The lack of information from their landlord, combined with the extensive media coverage of the bedroom tax, meant that our clients became extremely confused about their situation.
Many housing benefit teams are sending out letters detailing appeal rights. However, some are failing to include information about how to challenge decisions – which is crucial, since tenants have only one month to challenge from the date they are notified.
Lesson 2: Ensure data on property size matches tenancy agreements
Compiling accurate information on property size has been a challenge for some landlords. We have numerous clients whose landlords have told them they have more bedrooms than appear on their tenancy agreements. One social landlord in south-west Wales only compiled a list of property sizes in September 2012 and relied on the local authority to tell it which tenants would be affected.
Lesson 3: Housing benefit departments need to process discretionary housing payment applications quickly
When we rang to apply for discretionary housing payments for a disabled client living in an adapted home, the housing benefit officer specifically asked whether our client was disabled. The application was dealt with as a priority and the award was made within two weeks.
Unfortunately our clients have not had such efficient service everywhere. In some areas applications are taking six weeks or more to be processed. Although landlords are showing willingness to delay eviction proceedings until decisions have been made, the length of time is still leading to significantly more arrears being accrued.
Lesson 4: Be sensitive to tenants' needs – and don't make them feel bullied into leaving their accommodation
We have a client who is a tenant of a small housing association. Following the breakdown of his relationship, and his children growing up and leaving home, he is now the sole tenant of a three-bedroom house. He told us that he was strongly encouraged to sign a notice to quit at the landlord's office as he would not be able to manage the shortfall caused by bedroom tax.
Lesson 5: Now is not the time to start demanding the first month's rent in advance from housing benefit claimants
One large social landlord is now demanding the first month's rent in advance before accepting new tenants, even when a person is transferring to smaller accommodation due to the bedroom tax. This approach is a barrier to people on housing benefit being able to access social housing, and is going to prohibit tenants from downsizing.
Lesson 6: Extra help for tenants can make a big difference
Many landlords are employing additional staff and setting up assistance funds to help tenants manage the impact of the bedroom tax. Pembrokeshire Housing Association offers tenants up to £500 to cover moving costs or reduce arrears to allow them to move to accommodation more suited for them, while Powys county council offers up to £1,500 to assist older people that are under-occupying with moving costs.
Lesson 7: Exercise flexibility in allocations
We had a homeless client who was eight months pregnant and looking for accommodation in south-west Wales. She came out top of the list when she bid for a two-bedroom property. However, the landlord refused to allocate to her as, until the baby was born, she only qualified for a one-bedroom house. Before a formal challenge could be made, the landlord had already allocated the property to someone in a lower band.
Lesson 8: Ensure transfer policies do not prevent people from downsizing
Not all landlords have changed their transfer policies to allow people in arrears caused by the bedroom tax to downsize. Some of our clients are in a catch 22 situation with rising arrears but unable to downsize due to restrictive transfer policies.
Lesson 9: Housing benefit should not place onerous burdens of proof on claimants
In south-east Wales we have clients who are a disabled couple, living in an adapted property with one spare bedroom. Neither has the capacity to care for the other at night, so they have overnight carers for six nights a week. The local authority is requesting numerous pieces of evidence before they will accept that the couple need the extra room for a carer. This is despite the fact that they already have proof they meet the relevant disability living allowance and attendance allowance criteria.
Lesson 10: The courts may not be on your side
Our caseworkers have encountered a local district judge who is suggesting he may refuse possession where there are bedroom tax arrears, but instead may take other measures such as inviting the press and public into the court and using Human Rights Act legislation to deny possession. Landlords need to be aware that not all judges will look favourably on possession proceedings.