Liz Davies disscusses the changes to Part 7 Housing Act 1996 (homelessness) made by ss 148 – 149 Localism Act 2011 which come into force for local housing authorities in England today: 9 November 2012. It is not known when, or indeed whether, the Welsh Government intends to bring those changes into effect for local housing authorities in Wales.
The principal change is that local housing authorities in England will be able to make private rented sector offers to any applicant whose application was made today or subsequently. Those private rented sector offers can be made in order to bring the main housing duty (s.193 Housing Act 1996) to an end. If the private rented sector offer is suitable for the applicant and for his or her household, then accommodation provided under the main housing duty will come to an end whether the applicant accepts the offer or refuses it.
Private rented sector offers are offers of assured shorthold tenancies, for a minimum period of 12 months. A new regulation on suitability of accommodation offered also comes into effect, for local housing authorities in England, from today. The Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012 sets out ten factors concerning the physical condition of the accommodation offered as a private rented sector offer and the landlord’s fitness to act in the capacity of landlord. Private rented sector offers will not be suitable until each of those factors is satisfied. When making private rented sector offers, local housing authorities must be satisfied that the applicant can afford the costs of the accommodation. As amounts paid under housing benefit can be considerably less than the rent actually charged under an assured shorthold tenancy, local housing authorities will have to be satisfied that the applicant can afford to pay the whole rent, with the help of whatever amount of housing benefit might be available.
All offers of accommodation made under a local housing authority’s duties at Part 7 Housing Act 1996 to secure accommodation for homeless people must be suitable. The new Suitability Order also requires local housing authorities in England to consider the location of any accommodation offered (whether as a private rented sector offer or any other accommodation offer). Local housing authorities must consider the distance of the accommodation offered from their own districts, if the accommodation is outside the district, the significance of any disruption to employment, caring responsibilities and education to any of the people who will live in the accommodation, the proximity and accessibility to medical facilities and other support which are currently in place and which are essential to the well-being of any of those involved and the proximity and accessibility of the accommodation to local services, amenities and transport.
The changes apply to anyone whose application for homelessness assistance was made today, or any later date. They can also apply to an applicant who had made his or her application for homelessness assistance before 9 November 2012 but where the local housing authority did not owe the applicant any accommodation duty. This would generally occur where the local housing authority did not have any reason to secure interim accommodation, most often because there was no reason to believe that an applicant had a priority need. If, after 9 November 2012, the applicant subsequently acquires a priority need and the local housing authority owes him or her a main housing duty, it will be able to make the applicant a suitable private rented sector offer.
Local housing authorities are not required to make private rented sector offers. They can continue to accommodate homeless people in temporary accommodation until there is a secure, assured or introductory tenancy made available, from a council or a private registered provider (generally a housing association). It remains to be seen how much use will be made of private rented sector offers. It is also not known how many local housing authorities, in areas where private rents are expensive, will try to send homeless applicants outside of their own districts and perhaps many miles away.