One family gets season’s greetings of the less than festive kind

This Is Wiltshire: ‘Anne’ simply had not understood the seriousness of her housing situation ‘Anne’ simply had not understood the seriousness of her housing situation

When a 41-year-old single mum from Malmesbury received an official-looking letter about rent arrears, she worried about what it meant.

But Anne, not her real name, had a bigger shock when she was told the letter meant she was being evicted from her two-bedroom home yesterday. She simply had not understood the seriousness of her situation.

Anne, who has mild learning difficulties and has been a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her ex-husband, is now being helped by HEALS Malmesbury, a charity for those who are vulnerable or in crisis – but who are unable to find support elsewhere.

She said: “I was worried when I received that letter. I asked HEALS to help me, showed them the letter and they’ve acted quickly. I’m so grateful.”

Anne has lived in the town for more than ten years and has two children, aged 16 and nine.

Her problem with rent arrears began in 2011 when her benefit entitlement changed. At that time, her housing benefit stopped automatically and she had to make a new application. The time this process took meant she built up rent arrears running into hundreds of pounds.

She has a two-bedroom property, owned by social landlord GreenSquare, where the rent is just under £89 a week. Anne agreed to pay off the arrears in a separate weekly payment.

Then, in July this year, her benefits changed again, housing benefit stopped and the application process began yet again.

Rent arrears began to mount for a second time – when money was already owed from the first occasion. However, it’s taken almost four months for her housing benefit to come through.

In the mean time, Green-Square, under its legal operating name Westlea Housing Association, applied to the local magistrates’ court for her eviction.

Anne is adamant she did not know that the matter had become this serious, but her landlord, GreenSquare, and Wiltshire Council, feel they did try to contact her, mostly by letter, without success.

In a statement GreenSquare said: “Whilst it’s not appropriate to comment on the specifics of this individual case, we can confirm that we would never get to the point of taking court action without first having contacted the resident concerned in the weeks before any such action. Our wish would always be that there is a dialogue between GreenSquare and the resident and that, ideally, a workable solution can be found before matters are taken further.” At the end of November, Wiltshire Council, which determines and administers housing benefit, made a large back payment to Anne which brought the arrears down to £730. However, a notice of eviction was still sent out.

Alison Cross-Jones, manager at HEALS, feels Anne has been treated with little compassion as she does not have an official diagnosis of learning difficulties. The charity is now acting as an advocate.

Alison said: “This whole thing has been dealt with inappropriately for someone who is vulnerable in our community. As far as Anne is concerned, she wasn’t warned that she could lose her home. A large part of the debt has been cleared two weeks ago and yet this eviction notice has still been sent out.

“We have to highlight the fact that unacceptable delay between benefits being changed or altered – and then having to wait for housing benefit to start again – can damage the finances of a vulnerable person on low income.

“Once they are in debt, it’s very hard to get out of it.”

Chippenham-based solicitor Paul Shearer, of Shearer & Co Solicitors, is now working with Anne. He succeeded in getting the eviction notice suspended.

He said: “Anne was at real risk of being evicted but she clearly had not understood the letters which were being sent to her.

“Housing law is a minefield at at the best of times for anybody.

“Things are getting worse since the government’s welfare benefits cuts. People are suffering, particularly those with a learning difficulty, and those with serious mental health conditions who are being declared fit for work.

“And there are less of us around to offer suitable advice. Legal aid is still available for very serious matters such as dealing with possession proceedings or unlawful evictions but there’s no legal aid for dealing with the underlying problems behind these proceedings.”

Wiltshire Citizens Advice Bureau said its staff often see people who encounter problems due to benefit changes.

Sarah Cardy, chief executive of Wiltshire’s CAB, said: “I don’t think this issue is necessarily related to welfare reforms – I think the aftermath of that is yet to be seen. We regularly see people who get into difficulty when their benefits change, applications take time and that causes problems.

“People don’t always realise that there is going to be an impact because the administration of benefits is slow.

“My advice is, as soon as your circumstances change, or you are told you are being re-evaluated, speak to your landlord, especially if you are in social housing, and then seek advice.”

The government has a protocol for social landlords if someone is facing eviction and is being taken through the courts. It states: “If the landlord is aware that the tenant has difficulty in reading or understanding information given, the landlord should take reasonable steps to ensure that the tenant understands any information given.

“The landlord should be able to demonstrate that reasonable steps have been taken to ensure that the information has been appropriately communicated in ways that the tenant can understand.”

GreenSquare insists it has followed an appropriate protocol.

A spokesman said: “The key point is that any resident with rent arrears does need to engage with us or our partner agencies – and not ignore our attempts to make contact.

“We will always leave a message or a calling card and will always try and help a resident; and whilst it is never too late, the earlier in the process this is, the better.

“We have a proven track record of providing support and advice to residents experiencing problems with debt and other money-related issues that may affect their tenancy.”

A spokesman for Wiltshire Council said: “People should always let us know if they have a change in circumstances so we can ensure they continue to receive their housing benefit they are entitled to.

“Unfortunately we cannot continue to provide benefits if people do not respond when we contact them for further information.

“As soon as we receive the information and their claim is validated, or if the person has worked with the Department for Work and Pensions to resolve any issues, we will set up the housing benefit again and backdate the claim.”

FACTFILE

  • Wiltshire CAB can be contacted on 0844 375 2775 (from a landline) or 0300 456 8275 (from a mobile phone).
  • The official protocol for behaviour in circumstances such as Anne’s can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/czkxtvw
  • A Real Life Reform report based on the experiences of families in social housing in the north of England can be found here:http://www.northern-consortium.org.uk/reallifereform

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