Lack of understanding among housing officers about the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 (HRA), and its relationship to existing housing legislation, could end up thwarting its aims.
The whole point behind the HRA, which came into force this April, was to assign new legal duties to councils so they could better assist those at risk of homelessness, irrespective of their priority need status. In other words, the intent was clearly to improve the legal framework in order to speed up the process of housing those on the streets or at risk of eviction.
Recent reports show that rough sleeping in England increased by 73 per cent between 2014 and 2017
and the number of homeless households in temporary accommodation has risen by 60 per cent since 2011
. Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported in The homelessness monitor: England 2017
that nearly two-thirds of the local authorities responding to a survey said they were struggling to find social tenancies for homeless people, while half found it ‘very difficult’ to assist applicants into privately-rented accommodation, with young people particularly difficult to house. A staggering 94 per cent of the council respondents said they expected to face greater difficulties in finding accommodation for the young homeless in the next two to three years.
Part of the problem is that, previously, councils would not help those threatened with homelessness until they received an eviction order from the court and, generally, officers waited until the day of eviction to intervene, leaving it far too late to prevent hardship. On paper, then, the HRA should have encouraged housing officers to act sooner, but, in my experience, the situation appears to have deteriorated. While we’re currently awaiting the latest homelessness monitor that will clearly show whether the HRA is working, my concern is that things will get worse if the Act is not taken seriously.
Act, what Act?
This apparent ineffectiveness appears to be caused by two things: confusion among housing officers as to what the new Act means and how it impacts on their existing duties under the Housing Act (HA) 1996; and the false assumption that as long as someone is housed in any accommodation, the council is relieved of its responsibility to ensure that people, especially the vulnerable and the disabled, are housed in suitable accommodation.
In my cases, I frequently come up against council officers who are failing the requirements of the HRA to make a plan/take the necessary steps to assist someone who is seeking their help with accommodation,1See HA 1996 ss189A, 189B and 195, inserted/substituted by the HRA.
not least so that person has the relief of knowing that there is a strategy to house them in place. One such case involved a young woman with very complex needs who fled her tenancy outside London because she was abused there and, understandably, refused to go back. She sought help from the council and was encouraged to report the matter to the police. The council did the right thing by not referring her back to her original authority, but it then failed to put a plan in place for her. In the meantime, it housed her in interim accommodation not suitable for her disability. Wrongly assuming it had fulfilled its duty to her, it then took a very long time (and a lot of persuasion from us) to find her a suitable ground-floor property that met her needs.
Generally, my experience is that officers are still trying to follow the old HA 1996 instead of implementing the HRA alongside it. They seem not to understand that the two Acts work in conjunction with each other. Others are following only the HRA and forgetting they have parallel duties under the HA 1996, such as providing interim accommodation or making a decision that states they will accept a duty; or they demand extra, unnecessary paperwork from a claimant, thereby delaying council intervention or putting it off altogether when forms are not forthcoming.
In another case, the officer asked the person who was homeless which Act – the HRA or the HA 1996 – they wanted to be processed under? This is clearly not the job of someone who is homeless. We, the lawyers, spent a lot of time explaining to the council it was not for our client to advise it about the law, but the other way around. We subsequently advised the officer in question to seek help from the council’s legal team to explain the new Act, again prolonging the process and compounding the stress for the client. Anecdotally, I hear that some housing officers are not even aware the new Act has come into operation, vaguely believing it is due at some point this year.
Given the impact of HS2, and the ongoing impact of right to buy as well as other policies that are reducing the social housing available, our concern is that if the relevant councils involved do not step up and properly understand and implement the HRA, the unprecedented hardship of those facing homelessness will simply get worse and the huge cost and bureaucracy involved in passing the Act will have been in vain.