Magda*

Magda* (*not her real name) applied for Universal Credit (UC) on her payday.

On months when her payday falls on a weekend, her employer pays her early, on the nearest working day (e.g. on a Friday instead of a Saturday).

As a consequence, the monthly assessment of her earnings sometimes counts her pay twice, catching the regular payday of the previous calendar month, and the ‘early payday’ of the current month.

This drastically reduces her entitlement to UC and makes it very difficult for her to budget.

I am in rent and childcare arrears. If I had applied for UC a day later or a day earlier, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s maddening that such a simple thing can have such a big effect. I don’t understand why I wasn’t told about this at the point I applied.

The advice I was given was to withdraw my claim then reapply 4 weeks later giving me a new assessment period and avoiding the problem. But that would mean going 9 weeks without any money. I’ve also read online forums which discuss this problem where people have done this and their assessment period still hasn’t changed.

I am now at the point of feeling very depressed and useless. I’ve been to my GP due to the stress it’s causing and I’m going to book an appointment with my midwife because I’m worried this is now affecting my pregnancy.


Magda* is not the only one affected by UC assessing their earnings twice because of where their assessment period falls. In January, the High Court ruled in favour of three single working mothers, stating that UC assessment periods should be adjusted “where it is clear that the amounts received in an assessment period do not, in fact, reflect, the amount of earned income for that period“.

More information about this ruling can be found here.

Magda* is also not the only one to fall into rent arrears due to UC. A BBC investigation in November found Council tenants on universal credit have on average more than double the rent arrears of those still on housing benefit. The five-week wait built into the application (why Magda says that if she withdraws to reapply she would have 9 weeks without money and not just 4) has been cited as a key contributing factor.

Asmita*

Asmita* (*not her real name) has three young children and currently fears eviction because her housing benefit has recently been cancelled.

Two years ago, Asmita* was fleeing an abusive relationship, dealing with her terminally ill father (who passed away a short time later) and was caring for her children, including her then six-month old twins who had been born prematurely. It was in this context that her ex-partner asked for her signature so he could sell the flat they owned.

Because Asmita’s* priority was keeping her children, and because she had not contributed financially towards the cost of the flat during the relationship, she signed.

Despite her proof that she never received money from the sale of the property, and that she had signed under considerable stress, a court hearing ruled that because Asmita* had given up her interest in the proceeds of the sale of this flat (just over £20,000), she must be treated as having had this money. This makes her ineligible for housing benefit.

It also means that the council benefits team have previously considered her to be ‘intentionally homeless’ (see here), which affects their understanding of their duty to house her and her children.

By the grace of God, I have a landlord willing to accept me and my kids even with my personal circumstances. In order to secure this property, I was forced to borrow money from friends again to pay the deposit. I am a single mum of 3 young children, I work part time at a school which is a 7 minute walk from my current rented property. My children’s school and nursery are really close too.

However, I fear that I cannot pay my rent the next coming months and cannot escape the fear that I will be made homeless and my life will turn into a dark place again.

I was born and raised in the UK since birth and have resided in the borough since I was a child. I have never applied for any benefits during my life,  apart from the statutory child benefits, until where I needed it the most to help me with my personal situation of being made a single mum.

The last two years has caused nothing but misery and mental strain on me, I have found it difficult to cope with my life, I don’t know how I have done it but I have and thankfully I was able to get some support at my place of work.

However just as I thought I had settled in a home and was on the road to some happiness with my kids, it feels like my life has been turned upside down again by cancelling my benefit. I am so afraid that I will not be able to pay my rent, council tax, utility bills, food. That means I will fall into arrears and eventually be evicted. I have been extremely stressed since that notice which arrived a few days ago and I am feeling severely depressed over this situation again. I really need housing benefit in order to keep a stable roof over the head for me and children and continuing to be a working mum.  


Asmita*’s situation is very difficult. If she is evicted, it will mean yet another move for her young children (who stayed with multiple friends and relatives before they were able to finally rent somewhere of their own), and a battle with the Council who, if they deem her to be ‘intentionally homeless’, will most likely house her only under the Social Services budget. This will be temporary accommodation that is likely to be unsuitable.

Her situation also highlights the difficulty that many people face finding somewhere to privately rent, and not just on the basis of affordability.

The following is from Shelter’s 2019 report, ‘A vision for Social Housing’ (p61):

“Many households who receive housing benefit face discrimination… Four in ten private landlords surveyed (43%) say they operate an outright ban on renting to people in receipt of housing benefit, with a further 18% saying they prefer not to, but occasionally do. Government figures show these discriminatory practices have a disproportionate impact on women and disabled people, who are more likely to be claiming housing benefit in the private rented sector.

On top of this, almost one in five private landlords operate an outright ban on families with children and a further 13% prefer not to let to families. Families on housing benefit are therefore particularly likely to be affected by discrimination.

Renters from outside the UK can also experience significant stigma, which has been exacerbated as a result of changes in government policy requiring landlords to check renters’ immigration status. Since the Right to Rent legislation came into force, almost one-third of private landlords (30%) surveyed say they are less likely to let to people who do not hold British passports or who do not appear to be British.”

Charlotte*

Charlotte* (*not her real name) recently emailed to tell us about the following situation.

I’m emailing on behalf of my mum. She has a serious case of black mould in one of her bedrooms that can’t be used now, and in her bathroom. She was told by the council that it’s due to overcrowding but they refuse to do anything about it told her it’s down to her to remove it. My mum has a respiratory disease which she has had surgeries for, I am asthmatic, and my daughter was born with a heart and lung defect – we shouldn’t be living in a home like this one.

She has been in touch with councillors [x and y] about this who sent someone round 5 weeks ago who said they would be in touch but no one has. She has been emailing everyone but no one has replied to her. She also went to speak to a councillor [z] this morning and he was very rude and unprofessional. He discussed her issue in front of everybody and told her she hasn’t got a damp issue. My mum asked him to come and look for himself and he told her he hasn’t got time for that. She then explained she was waiting for councillor [x] to get in touch with her and he replied there is no councillor [x].

I feel she is being given the run around, this is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with A.S.A.P I would be very grateful if you could look into this for me.


Charlotte* talks about the health conditions affecting her and her family.

Respiratory diseases are common in Newham; asthma is one of most prevalent diseases after diabetes (Newham NHS Needs Report).

There are proven links between poor housing and ill-health. Poor housing conditions increase the risk of severe ill-health or disability by up to 25 per cent during childhood and early adulthood (Shelter, Chance of a Lifetime, 2006).

Charlotte* is understandably concerned about the impact of her housing on her family’s health – mould is a known trigger for health conditions such as asthma.

The Farooq family*

Last year, the Farooq family* (*not their real name) sadly lost their father. The family are tenants are in a housing association property and expected that the tenancy would pass to their mother.

Instead, they received a letter without right of appeal from the housing association saying their mother could only have tenancy on a new property.

This is what Rashad* said in March:

My mother is particularly affected. She is constantly in tears and has fainted twice since receiving the letter. We fear losing her because her health has deteriorated to such an extent after this news.

We have lived in the property over 25 years and we’re proud to be part of the community here, especially on this estate. We have wonderful friendships here and don’t understand why we would have to move.

The housing association upheld the decision, telling the family that the mother did not have the right to inherit the tenancy because she was not the father’s first wife. This was despite their marriage of over 40 years, including the entire duration of the family living in the property.

Thankfully this decision has now been overturned.


Housing associations have been discussed on this blog before (see here) where a possible critique concerning their lack of transparency was mentioned in passing.

The decisions made by housing associations have potentially life-changing consequences – as made evident by the experiences of the Farooq family* – but they can operate according to their own rules, This gives at least some validity to the accusation that they act as a ‘law unto themselves’.

Kes*

Kes* (*not her real name) is not local to East Ham, but she is currently being housed here by Waltham Forest Council. Kes has three young children, and has another on the way. She is struggling in the temporary accommodation she is in – it is over an hour’s bus journey away from both her children’s nursery and her father, who she cares for.

I have been housed in an unfurnished two-bedroom flat (it is actually a one-bedroom flat where the living room has become a bedroom). I have restricted mobility because of a hip condition and it is impossible for me to get up the stairs to reach the property and along with my children and pram.

I have no savings and no furniture at the
moment and I’m scared of using what little money I do have to buy
furniture for this unsuitable accommodation. We have nothing.


Gemma*

Gemma* (*not her real name) phoned the office in early January because the closer on the front entrance gate to the block she lives on had been broken.

I think the gate has been broken over 15 times in the last year and each time we have a hard time getting it fixed.

When the closer on the gate is broken, I worry about a break-in happening while I am at work, because I have already had someone try to do this, and my window got smashed in. One of my neighbours can’t sleep because they get so worried.

Chasing the Council is exhausting, and I wish a camera could be installed to make the gate more secure instead of the back and forward when it gets broken.


This time, it took Gemma* and the other residents of the block 7 weeks to get the front entrance gate fixed.

According to research by Shelter, most social renters have a reasonable relationship with their landlord, with 65% of social renters agreeing their landlord resolves issues in their home in a timely way. However, people often talk about frustrations with communication, and long waits for essential work to be completed.

There is also an interesting regional variation in the percentage of social renters who feel their landlord doesn’t consider their interests – 16% in the North East contrasts with 38% in London.

Louise*

Louise* (*not her real name) lives in a small two bedroom property with her daughters.

Currently, only the living room and bedrooms have heating. The family are relying on fan heaters for the kitchen and outside lean-to – which contains the only toilet. This means her heating and gas bills are extraordinarily high.

She knew the property had no central heating when she viewed it, but the Council promised to repair this by the time she moved.

When you view a property you don’t have much time, so I felt pressure to accept. It took the Council 2 years to install heating after we moved, and this is still only in the living room and bedrooms.

There are lots of other problems, like damp and dust from the layers of wallpaper. One of my daughters has fractured her ankle because there is no stair-rail. I struggle to cook because there is not much kitchen space.

I don’t invite anyone to our house. I slap on a smile and keep it all in when people are around.

Mostly I don’t feel like I’m living, I’m just existing.




Louise* mentions viewing a property and the pressure she felt to accept the offer. Viewings often aren’t very long – Louise* says hers was about 10 minutes.

When people are given an offer of a property by the Council, they are advised always to accept the offer. This is because not doing so may result in them being deemed ‘intentionally homeless‘. In such a case, the Council can discharge their duty to house someone and they can be removed from the housing register.

This can put families under a lot of stress when they are offered housing that is outside of the area (it is not uncommon for housing to be over an hour away from a family’s work or school) or even the city.

In 2017/2018, 103 homelessness applications in Newham were rejected on the basis of intentional homelessness (Local Authority Homelessness Statistics).

Anita*

Anita* (*not her real name) has three children. Her oldest son was stabbed on Christmas Day, 2017. The attackers were known to the family and intended the stabbing to prove fatal. On the advice of police, her housing association agreed to move her out the area. Over a year later she is still waiting to be moved.

“This last year has been extremely difficult. We feel scared and unsafe in our own home. My youngest son has even tried to sleep with a knife under his pillow. It is hard to tell him not to be scared when I am so fearful myself. 

I have been struggling with my mental health, and struggling to sleep properly. Often I can’t get through to the housing association and have to ask the MP’s office to phone so that I get a response. I don’t feel listened to, and all the time we remain here I am scared. Life feels like it is on hold.” 


Anita* is housed by a housing association.

Housing associations (HAs) are not-for-profit businesses that provide social housing. 

As seen below, they now house approximately 8% of the general population, and about half of social renters (IFS, ‘Long-term trends in British Taxation and Spending‘ p8) .

The growth of HAs was partly driven by two changes.

Firstly, while Local Authorities suffered sharp cuts in government spending on housing ,and strict limits on their ability to borrow, from 1989, HAs were allowed to borrow outside of the public borrowing and accounting regime.

Secondly, the Large Scale Voluntary Transfer (LSVT) programme (from the Housing Act 1985), allowed for local authority housing stock to be transferred to HAs.

The LSVT programme had a number of aims, including bringing in private finance to tackle backlogs of repairs without increased public borrowing, and bringing (presumed) private sector efficiencies into the sector. Since 1988, 1.3 million homes have been transferred to HAs in this way (IFS, pg 9).

HAs have been highly effective in attracting private finance into the sector for development purposes under the mixed-funding regime introduced by the Housing Act 1988. It should also be mentioned that, because HA residents do not have the statutory right to buy, their housing stock is retained as affordable in perpetuity.

However, there are concerns that HAs are becoming more commercial, with a focus on development and non-core activities, rather than services provided to existing residents (see here and here).

And, whereas local authority controlled social housing gives residents the opportunity to go directly to their elected councillors if they are unhappy, HA boards are, arguably, rather less transparent. This can be seen in Anita’s* case, as she struggles to get through to her HA.

Susie*

Susie* lives in a one bedroom flat with her two children. Her son Aidan*
(*all names changed) suffers with focal epilepsy and nocturnal seizures. These seizures mean he is also doubly incontinent.

“Every night Aidan has seizures in his sleep, which means every night, I am awake to help him and change the bed-sheets. Every night I am scared, I am worried about Aidan hitting his head on the wall, and I have been told by doctors it is possible he could die while he is asleep.

Because we are all in one room, my daughter Kayla* also wakes multiple times in the night, and her school is worried because she can’t concentrate well in the day.

Doctors have given us special medical equipment to install in the flat for Aidan, but there isn’t enough space. At the moment my kids share a bunk bed and my bed is placed immediately next to theirs.

We applied for medical priority on the housing register in October, but this was rejected on the grounds that our housing is not having a ‘direct impact’ on Aidan‘s health.

Everything feels like a fight. I feel responsible for my children but don’t feel able to even keep them safe and healthy.”


Susie talks about applying for medical priority.

Under the current Housing Allocation Policy of the London Borough of Newham, applicants can move up the housing register with either “transfer/priority homeseeker status” (which Susie’s family are eligible for on medical grounds) and/or “additional employment priority“.

To receive additional employment status an applicant must be:

  1. In employment of at least 16 hours per week and have been in employment 9 out of the last 12 months.
  2. Self employed and have proof that they have submitted their last 3 years tax return.
  3. In receipt of the support element of the Employment Support Allowance.
  4. Receiving carers allowance for looking after a child or an elderly person who is not their partner.

Susie is eligible for additional employment status because she is also unwell and receives the support element of ESA. She is currently in the process of applying.

It is up to the Council (also called the Local Authority) to determine their own housing allocation policy. According to a 2018 FOI request, 64% applicants were listed under the type “Homeseeker with Priority” or under the “Priority Homeseeker” band.