Recent repossession figures have unfairly cast social landlords in a bad light. But they are facing terrible choices, argues Ann O’Byrne
Lies, damned lies and statistics
I don’t really trust statistics. Or rather I don’t trust how people try to use statistics.
Simple figures, like the sudden 8 per cent rise in social landlord possession claims identified by legal publisher Sweet & Maxwell, might make good headlines but ultimately are not very helpful.
It is particularly unhelpful when that increase comes at the end of the far more significant three-year trend of declining possession claims. There is nothing to suggest that this is anything more than a coincidental spike, lots of longer term cases coming together in one quarter. Clearly if the trend continues I would be worried, but it hasn’t yet, so let’s not get carried away.
In fact the social housing sector should be proud of the way it has faced up to the recession and supported tenants through what have been very difficult times.
I don’t know any housing provider that hasn’t put in place extra resources to help tenants maximise their benefits, find work and manage their money to best effect.
Seeking possession has always been a last resort for the sector. Eviction does not help the tenant but nor does it really help the landlord - the chances of getting the unpaid rent diminish significantly and void costs increase. Eviction doesn’t fit with our broader social aims but nor does it make good business sense.
However, regardless of what the statistics tell us, we all know that there are tough times on the horizon. The raft of impending welfare and housing reforms will place further pressure on tenants’ ability to pay rent, leave families trapped in homes they can no longer afford and reduce the certainty of payment currently provided by housing benefit.
As the impact of that legislation bites, the financial pressures on tenants will increase further, debt will rise and social landlords across the country will be faced with increasingly stretched business plans.
So the dilemma emerges - when is it right to seek possession?
Can we blame tenants suddenly caught by under-occupation for mounting arrears when we don’t have smaller accommodation to offer them?
Can we penalise vulnerable families caught up in a confusing change to universal credit, having to take greater personal financial responsibility and slipping into greater debt because of a lack of support and guidance?
And can we make homeless those caught between a government policy that simultaneously caps benefits but encourages rent rises in the social housing sector as a replacement for government grant?
Yet neither can we ignore business imperatives. There is only so far a business plan can be stretched before falling rent income means reducing services, loss of staff and, ultimately, adds to the overall financial malaise.
What is most frustrating though is that all of these problems are a knowing and deliberate result of government policy.
Here in Liverpool we are doing everything we can to prepare for the difficult time ahead: providing tenants with information and education, moving to a sub-regional lettings model to increase choice and tenant mobility, pushing on with our financial inclusion agenda and exploring alternative ways to ensure regular and timely rent collection.
The council is working closely with housing associations, developing new models of collaborative working. We’re also investing £1 million in growing the local credit union sector as we seek to bolster community-based financial institutions which will responsibly support tenants in managing their money.
Undoubtedly all of our efforts, no matter how strenuous, will not be enough to protect every tenant. Eventually, no matter how much co-ordination, investment and mutual support we generate, each and every social housing provider will need to make their own tough decisions on where the dividing line between social aims and business has to be drawn.
Ann O’Byrne is cabinet member for housing and community safety at Liverpool Council