The Communities and Local Government Select Committee, who published a report on Homelessness recently were horrified, we are told, by the attitude of many Councils towards homeless people and people threatened with homelessness.
Apparently, many of them were just sent away with a list of local letting agents.
The recently published Homelessness Reduction Bill aims to force Councils to give people a bit more help.
One way of doing this is by changing the rules regarding section 21 notices and homelessness.
Section 21 and evidence of homelessness
For decades Councils have been telling tenants who have been served section 21 notices to stay put and have only treated them as homeless once a possession order has been made. Or in some cases, once a bailiffs appointment has been made.
But is service of a section 21 notice really evidence of homelessness? Up until recently I would have said no.
Until the rules were changed on 15 October 2015, section 21 notices effectively had an unlimited life during a tenancy. Indeed it was the practice of many landlords and letting agents to serve a section 21 notice, simply as a precautionary measure, at the start of the tenancy, with no intention of actually relying on it.
Although many section 21 notices were served by landlords who did wish to evict tenants, these were probably in the minority. So service of a section 21 notice in itself could not really be used as evidence of homelessness. How could Councils tell which notices were genuine and which had been served ‘just in case’.
However last year the law changed. Now, for tenancies which started or were renewed on or after 1 October 2015, a section 21 notice has a limited life and must generally be used within six months or so (the precise period varies according to the tenancy concerned).
So for those tenancies, service of a section 21 notice really is evidence that the landlord is going to seek possession.
A commencement date in 2018?
The problem at the moment is that there are still many assured shorthold tenancies where these new rules do not apply. For those tenancies, section 21 notices will still have an unlimited life, during the tenancy.
Indeed there must be thousands of cases where tenants have been served a section 21 notice months or even years ago where those notices are still valid.
Are all those tenants to be treated as homeless?
However, on 1 October 2018 the new rules will apply to all ASTs, not just those which started or were renewed on 1 October 2015. Which will presumably at a stroke invalidate all the older notices.
I would suggest therefore that the new definition of homelessness commence at that time and not before.
Thousands of possession cases go through the Courts every year which are solely brought to force Local Authorities to assist tenants in priority need.
The Courts are under pressure and could do without this unnecessary work.
Court proceedings are also stressful for both parties and expensive for both landlords and tenants (although in fact, many landlords do not expect tenants to pay the costs order).
So in that respect, the change will be a beneficial one.
The big problem though, is the massive shortage of accommodation in many areas of the country. This means that in reality Councils often have nowhere to put tenants threatened with homelessness. Which is the real reason for the insistence on a Court order and (in some cases) bailiff’s appointment.
This will have to be resolved somehow – as you cannot whistle up suitable accommodation for homeless families just by wishing for it.
In this context, it is to be hoped that the May government takes up the recommendations made recently by the House of Lords in their recent report on housing. Which you can read about here.
Note by the way that Ben has already written about different aspects of the Homelessness Reduction Bill here.