Polly Toynbee writes:
The bedroom tax and government cuts have led to a wave of evictions targeting the poor and vulnerable
The waiting room is packed, but with not enough seats some defendants hunker down. This is possession and eviction day at Clerkenwell and Shoreditch county court. Everyone here is in danger of losing their home.
The duty solicitor from Shelter gets just a few minutes to collect each person’s details before presenting their case to the judge to stop an eviction for rent arrears. That’s not long to extract difficult life stories from nervous people. He checks with the usher and smiles with relief: today it’s the nice judge. Every 90 seconds last year a renter faced legal proceedings and 99,000 ended up evicted, mainly due to rising rents and housing benefit cuts. Enfield tops the list, but Peterborough and Rochdale are high too.
First up is a 63-year-old man who creeps into the consulting room to perch anxiously on a chair. He brings such an air of despair he seems enveloped in a grey fog of depression. He has £2,737 of rent arrears for his two-bed flat. How did that happen? He sighs. His mother and sister died in the flat last year.
He hasn’t worked for five years, since an accident at work, and now suffers mental problems. “Bereavement,” he says. “I’ve never claimed anything, until now,” he adds, as if that were a defence. So how has he survived? “Friends helped out, selling stuff, odds and ends.” Finally, he was prodded by others to claim his £73.10 jobseeker’s allowance, and he may get disability pay. “I think I’m waiting for a letter from the mental health team,” he says. What tipped him over the edge financially was the bedroom tax, another 14% on his rent for the spare room after the family deaths. Now he has a notice to quit.
The judge notes this man’s mental state, agrees there is a small technical mistake in the landlord’s application and grants a 28-day adjournment to give Shelter time to try to sort out his affairs. If not, he will be out.
Next comes a grandmother, who cares full time for her 10-year-old grandson and has fallen £3,948 into arrears. She works in Tower Hamlets council’s kitchen – but it’s zero hours with unpredictable income, so sometimes she hasn’t paid the rent.
Next, the mother of a two-year-old has arrears after she lost all her housing benefit because the department of work and pensions thinks she’s a student, but she isn’t: she works in customer services. If she loses her home the council will have to put them up in a bed and breakfast, costing far more.
A self-employed man in arrears has been paying for his breakdown truck to get business going on his own, but his income is unpredictable: he has never thought to claim housing benefit. A mother has debts after her daughter moved out and she has to pay the bedroom tax: rent takes up 60% of her income. Only one case looks simple – a young single man who refuses to pay rent after a long-running dispute with his landlord over a wet carpet. Last, a woman comes in walking crookedly and sits rocking violently, trying to explain her mental problems: she has a small son and has only just applied for housing benefit, but if it’s not backdated she’ll lose their home. Looking at her obvious illness, how could a jobcentre have refused her disability pay?
The kindly judge that day adjourned most cases to let Shelter sort out benefit claims and debts. Without that, none would save their homes – and some may still lose them. The process is cruel: as evictions rise, councils insist tenants stay until bailiffs throw them on to the street to prove they are genuinely homeless.
Failing to claim, along with benefit delays and errors, lay at the heart of almost every case that day. That’s usual, says the solicitor. These are not scroungers, not the ones TV’s Benefits Street seeks out, but those who fall into debt through not claiming, out of ignorance or pride. Zero-hours and self-employment leave many vulnerable to debt. Universal credit, slowly rolling out now, was supposed to make benefits rise and fall automatically with fluctuating incomes, but it has made tenants less secure: so far 89% of those on universal credit have fallen into arrears, their rent no longer paid direct to landlords.