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Health & Wellbeing in a Crisis READ ONLINE


Gatekeeping, Part II

May 22 2009
The National Association of Landlords condemn local authorities‘ gatekeeping practice as "absolutely abhorrent" A new form of 'gatekeeping' is being used to keep the numbers down... Tenants whose landlords have served them with a notice to quit are being advised by their local authorities to stay in the property until a possession order or bailiffs force them to leave, according to a recent report in the Guardian. While they argue their aim is to give the tenant more time to find alternative accommodation, local authorities are using the practice to cut the number of homeless people on their books and delay the cost of having to find the tenants housing authority accommodation. The practice evokes past reports of local authorities discouraging people from registering as homeless (as reported in The Pavement, Issue 29) - in fact, both tactics are known as 'gatekeeping'. When a landlord wants to take back possession of their property, they first have to issue a notice to quit under Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988. This notice gives their tenants two months to leave. However, local authorities are advising tenants to stay on rather than quitting the property at the end of that period. The landlord must then go to court to seek a possession order and, if the tenants still don't leave, a possession or bailiff's warrant. If the tenants leave before the landlord takes up legal proceedings, some local authorities say that they will lose their eligibility for council housing and be unable to make a homeless application. The whole process can be very lengthy, lasting up to six months, causing extra strain on an already stretched court system. Landlords are unable to sell up and so are forced to resort to court action, while tenants face the possibly of having to pay costs if a possession order is granted. And because the tenants who are most likely to turn to their local authority for help in this situation are those who are on housing benefit, some landlords are said to be increasingly discouraged from renting out to people who are on housing benefit. Tony Ross, a specialist housing practitioner at 1 Pump Court Chambers in London, told The Pavement that in his work, predominantly around South-East London, this practice of gatekeeping was "very common". This view was backed by Elizabeth Brogan, senior policy officer at The National Association of Landlords, whom the Guardian reported as branding the practice "absolutely abhorrent". In the Department for Communities and Local Government's Homeless Code of Guidance for Local Authorities, paragraph 8.14 warned: "authorities should note that the fact that a tenant has a right to remain in occupation does not necessarily mean that he or she is not homeless". Should a housing authority decide it would be reasonable for an applicant to continue to occupy their accommodation after a valid notice has expired, that decision "will need to be based on sound reasons which should be made clear to the applicant in writing," the Code added. Paragraph 8.32 outlines three criteria, which indicate when it would be "unlikely to be reasonable for the applicant to continue to occupy the accommodation beyond the date given in the s.21 notice". They are: the person is an assured shorthold tenant who has received proper notice in accordance with s.21 of the Housing Act 1988; the housing authority is satisfied that the landlord intends to seek possession; and there would be no defence to an application for a possession order. The Pavement contacted a random selection of London councils to ask what their policy is in this situation. A spokesperson for Hillingdon Council explained: "We tell clients that they are legally entitled to remain in the property until the point an eviction notice/bailiff's warrant is served, and we work with them and use this time to actively source alternative accommodation to rent." Tenants can apply as homeless only when they will be homeless or "threatened with homelessness" within 28 days. Barnet's Council's response was much the same, though they said they accept homeless applications "once a bailiff's notice has been issued". Newham Council's policy was once again to advice tenants to stay until "the eviction process through the court is exhausted" and use this time to negotiate with the landlord. Tenants could submit homeless applications before this point, but only in "exceptional circumstances like severe disrepairs or medical problems". Readers can expect to see a continuation or even increase in all forms of gatekeeping as local authorities struggle to keep their homeless numbers down to meet targets. A shame, as with such disconcerting means being employed, they ultimately hurt people more than help them.