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Eviction trends reveal human cost of Universal Credit roll-out and welfare reform

Eviction by social landlords may have increased in recent years. The cause, reflects Zhan McIntyre in her blog on eviction trends, is Universal Credit roll-out and welfare reforms, rather than an increase in callousness by social landlords.  

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No social landlord in Scotland sees tenant eviction as a positive outcome, either for the tenant or the organisation. Distressing to customers and employees, and costly to the business, eviction action is never taken lightly by social landlords and is only taken after all possible solutions are explored.

In April 2017, Shelter Scotland published a report on Evictions by Social Landlords in Scotland 2012–2016, and this report highlighted a troubling trend that there has been an increase in the number of evictions by social landlords in recent years.

This will come as a shock to some commentators in the sector but, for seasoned campaigners, this report signals what many of us have been saying for many years now – that the ideologically driven, poorly designed and badly executed welfare reform policies, instigated by the UK Government in 2010, result in vulnerable households being pushed into destitution, including losing their homes.

When welfare reform was announced in 2010, social landlords, including RSLs and local authorities, met and exchanged ideas of how best to prepare for oncoming storm. Early intervention, communication, and financial and digital inclusion are all recognised tools that social landlords had to become increasingly familiar with. In addition, pre-action requirements introduced by the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010 also meant that social landlords and tenants were aware of the steps that must be taken before eviction action could be taken, turning best-practice into legislation.

The level of financial inclusion and support available to vulnerable tenants from social landlords and partner organisations has increased manifold in recent years. One example highlighted that in April 2015, housing officers made five referrals to Financial Inclusion Teams, whereas in February 2017, they made 318 referrals, an increase of 6,260%. In April 2015, housing officers made two visits, while in February 2017, the number of visits made by officers was 256, an increase of 12,700%. The number of specialist surgeries held in April 2015 was one, while in February 2017, it totalled 53 – an increase of 5,200%. This is just one example, and the level of support and financial inclusion activity has increased nation-wide. However, not all organisations have the same level of resources to offer and, furthermore, face the added threat of growing rent arrears.

So, despite these efforts, the roll-out of welfare reform has undermined the best efforts of social landlords across Scotland. A system with in-built waiting periods and delays, as well as a shift from locally arrangement benefit payments to a centrally controlled system barely fit for purpose, meant that Universal Credit has heralded an automatic increase in rent arrears. The problem has been compounded by the lack of information from the DWP and its inhibiting the ability of housing associations and support agencies, such as Citizens Advice, to intercede on behalf of their clients, with many SFHA members reporting considerable delays in the processing of claims, some taking up to 12 weeks.

This situation is only going to get worse as the roll-out of the ill-designed Universal Credit full service system continues apace, with all households obliged to apply for this benefit rather than legacy benefits. Advice from the DWP in relation to delays in payments is to pursue the organisation’s rent recovery policy and, ultimately, this ends with eviction action.

But, it doesn’t have to be this way. The Shelter Report highlights that before welfare reform, good practice had meant a reversal in the growing trends in evictions. The SFHA, together with other campaigning organisations, has long highlighted that many of the welfare reform policies would eventually lead to an increase in evictions, and this has sadly been proven correct. However, SFHA has 10 simple suggestions that would reverse this trend, safeguard tenancies and ensure social landlords still have viable social businesses to provide housing services and new homes for the people of Scotland:

1.         Abolish the ‘bedroom tax’

2.         Abolish the seven-day waiting period for new Universal Credit claimants

3.         Reverse the LHA Cap on social housing rents

4.         Reinstate the Benefit Cap to £26,000

5.         Reverse the two-child policy for access to Child Tax Credits and Universal Credit – which would do away with the need for the ‘rape clause’

6.         Reform the ‘sanctions regime’

7.         Defer roll-out of Universal Credit full service until problems are resolved

8.         Reinstate implicit consent on full service

9.         Restore servicing costs of adaptations as eligible service charges

10.       Reform work capability assessments

Ultimately, while there is much social landlords can do to help their tenants, when the whole funding framework on which the system is predicated is altered for ideological reasons, everyone becomes a loser.

The SFHA will continue to collect evidence from members and tenants and lobby for sensible changes to help alleviate this growing problem.