'We're about to be made homeless because estate agents won't touch us'
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
When David Woodward's family heard they were being evicted from their home in Ipswich, they were terrified they would end up on the streets.
Under current legislation landlords can evict private tenants without a reason as long as they follow due process, although the Department for Levelling Up wants to abolish the policy to give tenants more security.
Mr Woodward was first given a Section 21 no-fault eviction notice three years ago when a previous landlord wanted to sell.
He said he'd been "lucky" to find another tenancy in 2019, because a poor credit rating from a loan default six years ago meant "no estate agent wanted to touch him".
But now his "luck" has run out.
After he was served the most recent notice in December, he claims he has been rejected by over a dozen estate agents near his current home in Norman Crescent.
"It just makes you feel like giving up", he said.
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"We paid off our debts in full three years ago under a voluntary payment plan (IVA), but it still affects our credit score.
"Estate agents won't touch us without a guarantor who earns over £35,000, but we don't know anyone who earns that much.
"We made some mistakes a few years ago but we are not high-risk tenants. We always pay our rent. I work at Sainsburys and my wife has two jobs.
"The kids go to school just down the road."
Mr Woodward and his 31-year-old partner, Kerri, approached Ipswich Borough Council and made a homelessness application at the beginning of February, but were placed on the lowest band for a council home as they are not considered to be in "housing need".
The council said it was "working hard" to help find the family alternative private rented accommodation, but if that failed the couple and their two young children would be considered priority for an offer of temporary accommodation while another tenancy is secured.
A letter written to the council by Mr Woodward's doctor supporting his homeless application, which he shared with this newspaper, stresses that the dad-of-two has a history of PTSD following an aggressive assault in 2018, where he was "strangled to the point of losing consciousness".
It also says he has brain injuries from two episodes of meningitis in the past, one of which left him in a coma and affects him to this day, and that his daughter, who has ADHD, requires a "stable and predictable environment" to avoid "psychological harm".
Mr Woodward confessed he has even contacted his MP, begging for advice.
He is currently in hospital and has been signed off work for six weeks because his health has deteriorated so much — partly, he claims, because of the stress of the situation.
Originally, the date given for the eviction had been February 25, but because of the hospital admission has been pushed back by his "understanding" landlord.
At the time this newspaper went to press, the family did not know what was going to happen to them when their eviction day comes.
'I've not slept in weeks trying to find somewhere to live'
But it’s not just people with poor credit scores struggling to find places to rent in the private sector.
Mark Schueler, a 35-year-old with young children, had to leave Ipswich altogether after claiming letting agents “wouldn’t go near him” due to the fact his income is exclusively benefits.
This is despite a landmark court ruling in 2020 that housing benefit discrimination is in breach of the Equality Act.
Mr Schueler, who has autism and is disabled, said when he was served a Section 21 notice in December he struggled to find a landlord or letting agent who would accept him without a guarantor earning three times his yearly rent.
Exploring alternative options all over the country after being told it would be unlikely he’d get a council house locally, Mr Schueler found a private landlord in Barnsley, near where his children now live with their mum, who was willing to take him on as a tenant without a guarantor.
“Every time I move I’m discriminated against due to my benefits. But what can I do? I can’t work. I’m stuck in this position”, he said.
Universal Credit claimant Maria Pisaturo in Needham Market, who featured in our last report about poor housing standards in the private rental sector, has also been made homeless through a Section 21 notice issued by her landlord.
On February 25, she and her two children were forced to leave the property.
She claims Mid Suffolk Council is putting them together in a homeless unit on March 11, and until then Ms Pisaturo will be apart from her young boys for the first time ever.
"We were in tears the night before, all three of us", she said. "The kids are going to their dads while I'm having to stay with my own parents on the other side of Ipswich.
"Estate agents want nothing to do with me because I'm on benefits. I haven’t slept for weeks now trying to find somewhere to live. It’s absolutely ruining my mental health."
Like Mr Woodward and Ms Pisaturo, hundreds of people at risk of homelessness are put in temporary accommodation by Suffolk councils every year.
The Homelessness Reduction Act of 2018 obliges local authorities to house everyone who is unintentionally homeless or threatened with homelessness.
In the last five years, East Suffolk, West Suffolk, Ipswich, Mid Suffolk and Babergh councils spent more than £28m tackling the growing crisis through prevention and emergency accommodation costs, with Ipswich alone contributing £11m towards that bill.
Statistics on the government website do not show the total yearly number of households placed in temporary accommodation. They only offer a "snapshot" at the end of each financial quarter.
On September 30, 2016, there were 167 households in Suffolk placed in temporary accommodation, many of which included children. But by September 30 last year, this figure had jumped to 298.
Councils said this figure had ballooned because of the government's "Everyone In" initiative, which saw a surge in single adult households placed in hostels and B&Bs for long periods of time, mainly via grants from central government.
But councils also said the number of households in temporary accommodation has risen year-on-year since 2011 due to a lack of affordable housing and welfare reform.
'Letting agents work in the landlord's interest'
John Pitts, chairman of the Eastern Landlords Association, said he’d be surprised if a landlord was explicitly refusing to accept a tenant with benefits — though it was not unheard of.
“Legally, tenants can’t be discriminated against because they’re on benefits or they have an IVA on their credit record, but landlords can choose who they want to live in their property”, he explained.
“Letting agents especially, who often like to give their landlords rent guarantees, will definitely cherry-pick to get the 'model' tenant because they are working in the landlord's interest.”
He said the main issue with tenants on benefits is the “affordability check”.
Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates, which are calculated by the government to determine how much people on Universal Credit are paid in housing benefit, have failed to keep pace with rents in the private market, Mr Pitts said.
“They’re woefully inadequate. This means when landlords run affordability checks on a tenant on benefits, they’ll rarely have enough income to comfortably afford to live in a property”, he said.
He added that other factors, such as the increase in house prices due to the pandemic, insufficient social housing and the fact the government had taken away financial incentives for private landlords, with extra costs now being passed to the tenant, had contributed to a huge spike in rent prices.
“Landlords used to get a handful of people enquiring about their rental properties, but now they sometimes get 30 or more in a matter of days", said Mr Pitts. "It’s extremely competitive."
While a Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said in response that during the pandemic “they had increased LHA significantly and beyond inflation, benefitting over 1m households by an average of £600 over the year”, this comes after a five-year LHA freeze from 2016-2020.
Director of campaigns at housing charity Shelter, Osama Bhutta, said a survey carried out by the organisation in 2020 found 63pc of landlords nationally do not let to people receiving housing benefit.
This is called a “No Department of Social Services tenant policy”, or “No DSS policy”.
Mr Bhutta continued: “Guarantor requirements and No DSS policies are unfair and disproportionately hit lower-income groups, LGBTQ+ people and people of colour.
“Despite taking several cases to court which have resulted in ‘No DSS’ discrimination being ruled unlawful, we’re still hearing about discriminatory practice.
“Landlords and letting agents must consider potential tenants on a case-by-case basis, rather than raising the bar too high for most people on low-incomes."
Mr Pitts said one solution would be for the government to "accept liability" for rent defaults by DSS tenants, so that landlords have "more security".
As for Section 21 notices themselves, Ipswich landlord Richard Woolf said he thought they needed to be scrapped.
He said: “If a tenant is paying rent regularly and not causing damage to the property or disturbance to neighbours, I can’t see how it’s fair for a landlord to get rid of them.
“If a landlord wants to sell, then they should do it with the tenant in residence. There’s no reason a house needs to be vacant when it changes hands.”
Also in this series:
- 'I had to smash up mouldy furniture' - Private Suffolk landlords hit with 10,000 complaints
- 'I can't put my kids to bed' - Dad one of 10,000 applicants waiting for council home
- 'It was disgusting': Landlords say rogue tenants make their life hell
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