Sue James sets out some key issues of the housing crisis and outlines next steps in the battle to secure greater rights for tenants in the private rented sector.
‘It hurts. Obviously nothing like as much as for those going through it, but it is hard to manage and respond appropriately to such a relentless tide of misfortune and misery, where there is nothing I can do.’ A tweet from Giles Peaker (@nearlylegal)
on a Saturday night (17 April 2021), responding to, or being unable to respond to, an email from a person stuck in shared ownership with a ‘wife seriously suicidal'. I also feel the hurt for Giles, who continued: ‘Get about one a week and it breaks my heart each time. So many cases we can’t take, or where there is nothing we can do, and each a life in crisis.’ Mostly, though, I feel for the man, for all the people trapped currently in high-rise blocks; in shared ownership, with cladding and fire safety issues, unable to sell or to leave without huge losses.
As a housing lawyer, I’ve seen a lot of people in crisis and I’ve seen the way that housing advice has the ability to transform lives, by resolving rent arrears, improving living conditions and taking people out of poverty. So physically transformed are clients that often I have not recognised them many months later. One client told me: ‘I used to have a life. A girlfriend. A car. We used to go on holidays.’ The usual, normal things you hope to have as part of your life. But the type of case that Giles was tweeting about can’t be resolved with housing advice. It needs more fundamental political and systemic change.
Fit for homes?
When you think of tower blocks, it’s hard not to think of Grenfell. In the first few weeks after the fire, I went to North Kensington Law Centre to help with their increased demand for housing advice. There was a rota for Housing Law Practitioners Association members and as a housing solicitor in Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre, which was the closest Law Centre, I wanted to lend my support. For an experienced housing lawyer, it was harrowing. I am glad the inquiry
has moved to the stage where the families are starting to tell their stories. They need to be heard.
Problems in tower blocks aren’t new. The 1996 BBC drama Our Friends in the North told the story of four friends, with a backdrop of 1960s post-war housing policy, political corruption and badly built tower blocks. It documented the demolition of streets of houses, and with them communities, to make way for high-rise homes. But the homes in the sky weren’t properly built: gaps appeared between walls and floors, enabling mice and rats to enter, and damp and condensation blackened the walls.
That was 60 years ago. It would not be out of place now. Damp and dangerous are words that immediately come to mind when watching the footage from News at Ten
. Daniel Hewitt, the ITV News political correspondent, shared the stories of tenants living in tower blocks in Croydon. They were shocking: black mould (think of fire damage) covering every wall, and water continuously dripping through large holes in the ceilings. What you don’t get from the footage, though, is the smell. It’s a smell that permeates everything. I knew when a client had damp as soon as I met them. It travels with them, in their clothes and fabrics and their papers.
The ITV report has caused hundreds of tenants from around the country to contact the news channel. Such is the problem that the Housing Ombudsman has agreed to investigate and publish its findings in the autumn
– but only for tenants of social landlords. There is, though, a much wider issue here, identified by Hewitt
: there will be a recognition by the Housing Ombudsman that this actually is a problem, but not why it is a problem. It will not address why people are living in these homes – that there aren’t enough homes for everyone.
But I think the problem is much more complicated. There are lots of homes but not where people want to or can live. Ken Loach rose to fame in 1966 with his BBC drama on the homeless crisis, Cathy Come Home. I interviewed him in February 2021, when I asked him if we needed another Cathy: ‘Yes, but the problem with Cathy is it begs many questions. We realised quite soon after we made the film that we had failed because you can’t solve the problem of homelessness in a capitalist market economy – because you can’t create sustainable communities … There is no point in building a fine housing estate if there is no work. People will leave … So, homelessness will continue and so will the migration of people from one part of the country to another.’
So, what of the conditions inside the tower blocks – the damp and the mould – that will form the basis of the Housing Ombudsman’s investigation? It was interesting listening to Hewitt talk about the causes of damp and the familiar narrative from the landlords, one I have heard many times. He said: ‘Our investigation has found time and time again that tenants say they are not listened to but also they are blamed; they are not ventilating their flat enough, they are not opening the window and they are using the washing machine too much. Effectively, the mould and damp in their flat is their own fault.’
I wonder how much the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 has contributed to these extreme conditions and tenants not being listened to when complaining of disrepair. Legal aid is now only available in disrepair cases that involve a serious risk of harm to the health or safety of an individual or a family member and, as a result, cases have dramatically reduced since the Act. David Renton, in his book Jobs and Homes: stories of the law in lockdown
(LAG, 2021), refers to an article in Legal Action
that gives the numbers: in 2010–11, there were 2,063 applications for legal aid for disrepair but in 2018–19, there were just 168. He writes: ‘The grim thought struck me that I had probably represented tenants in around one in 10 of all disrepair cases brought on legal aid in 2018–19. Just me, alone’ (page 182).
We have a housing crisis in the UK: it is increasingly unaffordable, often unobtainable, in poor condition and insecure. But I think there is hope.
On 29 March 2021, Deputy District Judge Byfield of the County Court at Worthing declared that estate agent Michael Jones & Company had discriminated against Hayley Pearce when it told her that ‘people in receipt of benefits would not be acceptable to the landlord’ and refused to consider her for a property that she had seen on its website. It was the third time that Hayley had been refused accommodation because she was claiming benefits, so she contacted Shelter.
Our research shows that 41 per cent of female single-adult households renting privately claim housing benefit, compared to just 27 per cent of male single-adult households. This means that women are in some cases 1.5 times more likely to rely on housing benefit than men, so they’re more likely to be excluded by a No DSS criterion.
This amounts to unlawful indirect discrimination on the ground of sex contrary to Equality Act 2010 ss19 and 29, and it was on this basis that Hayley’s case was won.
But this isn’t the only good news. On 15 April 2021, the Renters Reform Coalition
was launched. The date was chosen because it marked the two-year anniversary of the government’s promise to bring an end to Housing Act 1988 s21
, which has become known as the ‘no fault eviction’ ground. Essentially, a landlord can apply to evict without a reason and as long as the paperwork is correct, there isn’t even a hearing, just a formal process known as accelerated possession proceedings.
Hayley had been served with a s21 notice (the reason why she was looking for accommodation), which was served only after she challenged an increase in rent. As a single mum who worked part time, she claimed benefits to help with the high rent, but the increase was much higher than the local housing allowance and she could not afford to pay. This cycle of short-term accommodation is common for single people and becoming increasingly so for families, but it doesn’t work for anyone. It impacts on family life, on work, on children and their education, and on health.
The coalition is a broad group of 20 leading charities, think tanks, and housing and renters’ groups who have banded together to urge the government to reform the private rented sector and ensure a fairer system. The breadth of organisations involved highlights the importance of and need for reform on private renting, and is why I have agreed to chair the coalition.
1Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions must be abolished.
2Once section 21 is abolished, tenancies should be open ended, providing greater stability and preventing the continuous cycle of moving that many find themselves trapped in.
3The intention of the Renters’ Reform Bill is to abolish no-fault evictions. The new grounds for possession must ensure this intention is met and do not undermine renters’ security of tenure.
4The government must ensure that rent increases are not used to force tenants to leave, operating as a de facto unfair or retaliatory eviction.
5Notice periods should be increased from two months in all but the most serious cases.
6The affordability crisis in the private rented sector should be addressed.
7The government must ensure that private rented homes are safe and decent, through introducing a well-resourced national register of landlords.
8Illegal eviction is a crime and must be treated as such.
9The private rented sector should be free of all discrimination.
10To deliver a housing system that rebalances the power between tenant and landlord, access to justice is imperative.
‘What’s needed is a government that realises it’s a crisis and treats it as such.’ It’s a line from Cathy Come Home – a film made 55 years ago. Isn’t it now time?
While I have your attention …
Please save the date for the LAG Housing Law Conference on 17–18 June 2021 (two half-days). We will still be online, but will make it as interactive, practical and fun as we can (there may even be some merchandise) – but with purpose. We will be picking up on some of the issues mentioned in this article, but also: top tips on emergency cases; homelessness and eligibility post Brexit; law and community activism; journalism and cause lawyering; domestic abuse and the interface with housing; vulnerability and capacity; supported housing; and much, much more. There will even be a chance to have lunch in the judges’ chambers and, of course, some storytelling.
There is much talk of levelling up from government, but 10 years of austerity and more than a year since the start of the pandemic, it will need much more than words. It is time to transform inequality into action.