Liz Davies summarises the provisions in the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which broaden the scope of local authorities’ duties and aim to avoid homelessness by addressing problems when they first arise.
Hard-pressed local housing authorities will struggle to find private rented accommodation that is affordable, particularly for applicants dependent on housing benefit.
The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 (HRA) originated as a privatemembers’ bill, following lobbying by Crisis and other homelessness charities. It received government and cross-party support, and royal assent was given on 27 April 2017. The government’s intention is to consult on a draft Homelessness Code of Guidance in October 2017, and bring the Act into force in April 2018.
The HRA will significantly change how local housing authorities help people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness. Applying the prevention model pioneered in Wales (Housing (Wales) Act 2014), the aim is to help all applicants find accommodation at an early stage.
To be effective, the prevention and relief duties in the HRA require authorities to make extensive use of the private rented sector; gone are the days when a successful application for homelessness assistance might result in social housing. However, hard-pressed local housing authorities, especially in London, will struggle to find private rented accommodation that is affordable, particularly for applicants dependent on housing benefit.
The HRA amends Housing Act (HA) 1996 Pt 7 (homelessness). Statutory references are to the amended HA 1996.
General duty to provide advisory services: amended s179
The duty at s179 is strengthened to provide for detailed advice, especially on prevention and on the rights of homeless people, and targeting that advice at particularly vulnerable groups.
Assessment of the applicant’s case and personalised plan: new s189A
Where the local housing authority is satisfied that an eligible applicant is homeless, or threatened with homelessness, it must assess the applicant’s case. This involves assessing the circumstances causing the homelessness, his/her housing needs and what support s/he requires (including the needs and support required by his/her household). The written assessment must be notified to the applicant.
The authority and the applicant should then agree what steps each will take to secure accommodation: a written ‘personalised plan’. If they do not agree, the authority should record what advice it gave to the applicant. The assessment and plan will inform how the authority performs its duties to prevent homelessness and to relieve homelessness.
Threatened with homelessness: amended s175 and new s195
A person will be threatened with homelessness if it is likely that s/he will become homeless within 56 days, rather than the current 28 days (s175(4)). A new s175(5) deems a person to be threatened with homelessness where a valid notice under HA 1988 s21 has been served, expiring within 56 days.
Where an authority is satisfied that an eligible applicant is threatened with homelessness, the prevention duty arises: the authority must take reasonable steps to help secure that accommodation does not cease to be available (amended s195(2)). The duty lasts for 56 days, or longer if the s21 notice is still in force. During that time, the authority and applicant should work together so that alternative accommodation can be found, or s/he can remain in the existing accommodation. If accommodation has not been secured, the applicant will be homeless and the relief duty (new s189B) arises (see below). The duty ends where the applicant has accepted or refused alternative suitable accommodation (available for at least six months, or in other circumstances set out at s195(8)).
The applicant can request a review of any decision as to whether the duty is owed, the steps the authority will take, or that the duty has ended (amended s202(1)).
Homelessness: new relief duty: new s189B
Where an authority is satisfied that an eligible applicant is homeless, a new ‘relief’ duty arises, requiring the authority to take reasonable steps to help the applicant find suitable accommodation. If the authority has reason to believe that the applicant may have a priority need, there is a duty to secure interim accommodation (s188(1)). The authority can refer the duty to another authority under local connection. A new s199A sets out which authority will be responsible for interim accommodation.
The authority will help the applicant find his/her own accommodation, based on its assessment of the applicant’s case and the personalised plan. The duty lasts for 56 days. If, during that period, the applicant accepts or refuses an offer of suitable accommodation (available for at least six months), the duty ends (s189B(7)).
At the end of 56 days, no duty will be owed to an applicant who does not have a priority need. An applicant with a priority need will be accommodated, either under the main housing duty (s193(2)) or (if s/he has become homeless intentionally) for a short period (s190(2)(a)). However, if the applicant has refused either a final accommodation offer (defined as a six-month assured shorthold tenancy) or a final Pt 6 offer (offer of social housing), there is no duty to accommodate. Other events that end the duty are at s189B(7).
The applicant can request a review of any decision as to what duty is owed, what steps the authority is to take, or that the duty has ended (s202(1)).
Interim accommodation: s188
Where the authority has reason to believe that an applicant may be homeless, may be eligible and may have a priority need, the duty to secure interim accommodation arises, and continues during the relief duty. If the authority decides that the applicant does not have a priority need, the duty ends either when the authority decides that the relief duty is not owed, or when the relief duty ends. If the applicant does have a priority need, the interim accommodation duty ends when the relief duty ends. If the applicant is still homeless, there is a duty to accommodate either under the main housing duty (s193(2)) or in the short term (s190(2)(a)).
Decision that the applicant has deliberately and unreasonably refused to co-operate: new s193B
An authority may decide that the prevention or relief duty has come to an end for this reason. The applicant must first receive a warning notice, containing the steps in the plan that s/he has failed to take, warning of the consequences and giving a reasonable period to comply. If s/he still does not comply, a notice can be served that s/he has deliberately and unreasonably refused to co-operate. The applicant can request a review.
Applicants who do not have a priority need will receive no further help. Applicants who have a priority need and have not become homeless intentionally will continue to be accommodated (s193C(4)). They will be made a final accommodation offer or Pt 6 offer. The duty ends if they refuse that offer (s193C(5) and (6)).
Local connection: amended s199
There are two new local connection criteria for care leavers. A person will have a local connection if either:
•s/he is owed a duty by a local housing authority, or by a district council in the local housing authority’s area, under Children Act (CA) 1989 s23C: continuing functions in respect of former relevant children (s199(8)); or
•the person was normally resident in the district of a local housing authority as a result of having been provided with accommodation under CA 1989 s22A for a continuous period of at least two years, at least some of which fell before his/her 16th birthday (s199(10)).
Each criterion applies to young people aged under 21. The first criterion could also apply to a former care leaver who is aged under 24 and in education or training.
Duty on public authority to refer cases to local housing authority: new s213B
A public authority which considers that a person may be homeless or threatened with homelessness must ask him/her to agree to it notifying a local housing authority, and must send the notification if s/he agrees. The types of public authority will be specified in regulations. The intention is that hospitals and prisons will notify before a homeless person is due to be discharged or released.
Suitability of private rented sector accommodation: HRA s12
Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012 SI No 2601 article 3 will apply to a final accommodation offer during the relief stage, and to any accommodation secured from a private landlord to a person who has a priority need offered to end relief or prevention duties. Article 3 contains a 10-point checklist governing suitability.