Intentionally homeless

In Samuels v Birmingham City Council the Supreme Court held that it was difficult to see on what basis the finding of intentional homelessness had been upheld.

The tenant was an assured shorthold tenant of a property in West Bromwich. The tenant fell into rent arrears and was evicted from the property. The tenant contacted the council on the basis that she was now homeless and sought their assistance in securing accommodation.

The council was under an obligation to secure accommodation for anyone as long as amongst other issues, they were confident that the tenant had not made themselves intentionally homeless. When making their decision to assist or not the council was also obliged to consider whether the West Bromwich accommodation had been affordable. Matters such as the tenant’s security benefits and other reasonable expenses could be considered.

The council carried out their assessment and in doing so decided that the accommodation in West Bromwich was affordable. They decided that the shortfall in the tenant’s rent payments could have been addressed had the tenant made changes to her household budget.

This issue before the Supreme Court was thus whether the council had adopted the correct approach in determining that the tenant’s West Bromwich accommodation was affordable.

The Supreme Court held that when making the assessment the council should consider all the tenant’s income including benefits and all the reasonable living expenses. This is an objective assessment of the tenant’s financial position and not a subjective assessment made by a particular case worker. The relevant guidance at the time was that if a person’s income was less than the benefit payable to an individual then they could not afford the property.

In this particular matter the case worker had considered whether there was sufficient flexibility to enable the tenant to meet the shortfall. But what the case worker should have considered was what the tenants and family’s living expenses were excluding the rent and followed the guidance correctly. Having reviewed the tenant’s income and expenditure the court found that the expenses were not unreasonable as they did not exceed the figure set by state benefit and on that basis quashed the council’s intentionally homeless decision.

Comment

This case is a little unique in that it has taken some 5 years to be heard by the Supreme Court. Within that 5 years there has of course been a vast amount of new legislation including the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. If the tenant had lost her accommodation today the council would be obliged to assist the tenant at a much earlier stage which could prevent homelessness in the first place. However, this decision makes the point that state benefit levels are subsistence only and that they are insufficient to afford most property and to low to allow for substantial rent top up. The government has said it will review the current caps on housing benefit but for many tenants and their landlords this cannot come soon enough.

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