We have got used to hearing over recent years about the problems facing families and households struggling to afford the essentials, the growth of foodbanks and having to choose between heating and eating. About how the impact of stagnating incomes, cuts and restrictions in benefits are pushing households in Scotland into more precarious situations. Here at Shelter Scotland, we see the consequences of this every day, as people struggle to afford to pay for essentials in life, such as keeping a roof over their head. We also see the consequences for families who are unable to keep up with their rent payments. Increasingly this has meant that they face losing their homes.
For social landlords, threatening eviction action has been a common approach to trying to get rent paid. But forcing someone to leave their home, or even threatening to do so, should only ever be used as a last resort. Historically, the majority of all social sector evictions are for rent arrears. We believe that eviction, in most cases, is a blunt and ineffective tool to deal with individuals and families often struggling with debt and other complex financial and social issues. Leaving aside evictions for anti-social behaviour, which only constitute a tiny minority of cases, eviction and the threat of eviction are used too frequently as a mechanism for collecting rent and in many cases simply displaces the problem rather than solving it.
Shelter Scotland has campaigned in the past for the numbers of social rented sector evictions to be reduced, and for a fundamental change in the approach to rent arrears management and tenancy sustainment. With local authority arrears currently standing at £60.1m and RSL arrears at £49.7m, the payment of rent is rightly a priority. Social tenants should always prioritise ensuring that they pay their rent on time, it is vital for effective housing management and a key obligation of any tenancy agreement. Shelter Scotland believes that a clear policy focusing on helping tenants meet their tenancy obligations and resolve debt problems as early as possible can reduce arrears and evictions at the same time.
Between 2009 and 2013, Shelter Scotland published annual reports on social sector evictions in Scotland for 2007/08 to 2011/12. During this time, a change in legislation and the policy and practice of local authorities and Registered Social Landlords resulted in a significant reduction in the number of eviction actions.
Over the last two years, our advice and law services here at Shelter Scotland have seen an increase in eviction actions in response to rent arrears against social tenants so we decided to look again at the national picture. Our report, published today, confirmed the anecdotal experience of our advice and law services. The progress in reducing eviction actions for rent arrears achieved during previous years has stagnated and, especially in relation to many local authorities, has gone into reverse.
It is evident from the figures that landlords, especially local authority landlords, are increasingly resorting to using the threat of eviction in response to rent arrears. Between 2007/08 and 2013/14, the number evictions fell by 52%, while over the course of 2013/14 to 2015/16 evictions have increased by 25%. Shelter Scotland is concerned that this upward trend will continue unless clear changes to policy and practice are made.
Our analysis shows that some local authorities and Housing Associations are bucking the trend and are setting clear examples of what can be achieved despite ongoing challenges to rent payment caused by changes to social security. With significant changes to the backdating of housing benefit and the introduction of the benefit cap in 2016, it has become even more important for the rest of the social rented sector to learn from their examples. The increasing uncertainty regarding the UK economy following Brexit is likely to further impact social sector tenants. It is therefore vital that the policies and practices of social landlords reflect the challenges that their tenants face and adequately address them in a way that reduces rent arrears and helps tenants to stay in their homes.
Shelter Scotland wants to see a renewed focus by social landlords aimed at reducing the number of eviction actions. There are considerable costs involved in taking eviction action – especially for local authorities, who might subsequently face additional costs when their former tenant becomes homeless – a proactive approach focusing on early prevention would benefit both landlords and tenants. Social landlords, especially local authorities, must remember their wider obligations, including preventing and reducing homelessness and securing children’s well-being.
Eviction compounds many of the issues that have contributed to the mounting of arrears and places additional stress onto individuals and families. Forcing someone to leave their home should only ever be a last resort.
Download Shelter Scotland’s Social Sector Evictions 2012-2016 Report here.