This month, Greater Manchester housing advice and support organisations have written to MPs and decision makers to raise the alarm about the unprecedented crisis in the region’s housing sector. Kate Bradley from Greater Manchester Law Centre writes on the crisis and what the open letter is calling for.
This month, organisations that give housing advice and support in the North West have published an open letter to MPs and decision makers – which you can read in full here. It has been signed by organisations including Shelter, GM Law Centre, Citizens Advice, GM Homelessness Action Network, the Booth Centre, GM Tenants Union and several others.
We decided to write this letter because the housing crisis has hit record levels of intensity this winter, especially in our region and other urban centres. A recent report from the Smith Institute found that in the City of Manchester, there are now 17.8 people assessed as homeless per 1000, higher than in any London borough. At GM Law Centre, we offer legal advice on homelessness and evictions, we have seen demand for our services skyrocket over the last few months. This is reflected in the statistics: according to the June to September 2022 mortgage and landlord possession statistics, landlord possession claims have more than doubled in the past year. Possession orders have nearly tripled. Average rents have risen in the North West by nearly 10% in the same period, with rents rising in Manchester by a staggering 20.5%.
Many of the people approaching us facing evictions and homelessness are at the sharp end of multiple attacks: they may be single mothers whose benefits have been capped; migrants who have no recourse to public funds and so cannot access benefits or homeless help; women facing domestic violence who can’t afford to leave their abusive partners and find somewhere else to live; people whose incomes have fallen due to developing Long Covid or losing their jobs during the pandemic.
More so than ever, many low-income tenants can no longer find an affordable home in either private or social sector housing. Landlords are increasing people’s rents, but for those on benefits, the Local Housing Allowance has remained frozen since April 2020, meaning even fewer people can afford their rent. This is while costs in other areas of tenants’ lives increase, and incomes stagnate.
With Section 21 no-fault evictions up by 76% in November 2022 on the year before, there is a wave of people who need homelessness services. And yet local authority housing services are at breaking point. Many local authorities find themselves in the situation where they are under pressure to gatekeep their services and turn people away because of chronic underfunding – both of local authorities themselves, and the wider social housing sector. As a result, there are chronic failings in the delivery of homeless services.
The devolved nations have recognised the urgency of the situation: in Scotland, Holyrood has introduced an eviction ban and rent freeze; in Wales, notice periods have been extended. In England, though, there has been little done to stop the havoc being wreaked on tenants’ lives this winter.
Access to justice and failures due to legal aid cuts
We have written this open letter because the system has hit breaking point. Even where there are rights in place to protect tenants or hold landlords accountable, this winter there is not enough legal advice capacity available to ensure tenants can uphold them.
Government cuts to legal aid, alongside the reduced scope and eligibility requirements introduced in 2012, mean that fewer people are eligible for free legal help than ever. We have to turn away many people who fall into the ‘justice gap’ – they are not eligible for legal aid, but also unable to afford private legal advice.
The narrowing of legal aid has led to the closure of many services that were available just over a decade ago. Half of all Law Centres in England and Wales have closed following the cuts, and many law firms have stopped providing legal aid services. Now, there are many places across England and Wales with no advice provision in certain areas – ‘advice deserts’. Research has shown that around 12.45 million people in England and Wales are currently living in a housing legal aid desert, despite the need for legal services in housing growing.
Our organisations are doing the best we can to support people facing homelessness. Nevertheless, many services are unable to answer a majority of enquiries due to the scale of the demand, and there is often nowhere else for them to go. There is no doubt that tenants who might have a defence to their claim are being kicked out onto the streets because of the lack of advice available to them.
In our letter, we call on the government and local authorities to take urgent steps to ease this problem as the cost of living crisis bites. We ask policy makers to restore the Local Housing Allowance rates to account for rent increases; take urgent action to invest in social housing across the North West; bring forward the Renter’s Reform Bill to protect tenants from Section 21 evictions; provide emergency funding to Local Authority homelessness services; introduce rent controls and an evictions ban, following in Scotland’s footsteps; provide emergency funding to the legal aid system and advice services; and review legal aid scope and eligibility to allow more issues and households access to justice.
You can read our full letter here. You can also contact your MP to raise this issue in your area, or get in touch with one of the signatories of our letter to find out if there are ways for you to help by volunteering, campaigning or donating to our services.