Double trouble

Double trouble

Double trouble

First Published 18 February 2016

Research in Scotland shows that social landlords are twice as likely to take legal action against tenants than lenders are against homeowners. Alexis Camble investigates.

The media focus on homeowners facing repossession has been impossible to ignore. But for tenants in the social rented sector, losing their homes was a very real threat long before the current economic crisis.

A recent report by HHSE Scotland, Evictions by Social Landlords in Scotland, shows that social landlords north of the border are twice as likely to take action against tenants as lenders are against homeowners.

But while attention is focused on helping homeowners, rising evictions by social landlords are largely ignored. Are owner-occupiers really more deserving of help? Or is the lack of concern associated with the myth that most social tenancy evictions are for anti-social behaviour?

HHSE’s report spells out the real reasons for the high number of evictions by local councils and housing associations in Scotland. The majority are carried out for rent arrears, with anti-social behaviour accounting for less than 3 per cent of cases. Despite the social rented sector’s insistence that eviction is only ever used as a last resort, 2014–08 saw more than 20,000 tenants taken to court, with 3,573 losing their homes. This figure includes actual evictions and abandonments after a decree to evict has been granted. More than 2,000 (2,089) of these households were council tenants and 1,484 lost a housing association let.

This level of action against tenants compares unfavourably with that against homeowners. Lenders obtained decrees against 6.8 house-holds per 1,000 mortgaged properties. For social landlords the equivalent figure is 13.1.

Call that last resort?

In order to meet the 2012 target to give all homeless people in Scotland an equal right to a home, local councils have agreed that eviction should only be used as a last resort.

But local authorities have different interpretations of what ‘last resort’ means. North Lanarkshire, which took more than 2,000 tenants to court, clearly has a stricter view than West Dunbartonshire, which only took action against 49 tenants. North Lanarkshire may be a bigger council, but it’s still one of the highest evictors among Scotland’s larger councils.

Of the 13,382 tenants taken to court in 2014–08, 5,063 had a decree for eviction granted against them. Again, local practice varies. Some 80 per cent of Dundee council’s court actions led to an eviction order being granted, in sharp contrast to Fife’s 13 per cent. Across Scotland only 38 per cent of eviction court cases resulted in a decree. On average, 41 per cent of decrees granted to Scottish councils led to eviction or abandonment.

Again, practice varies between councils, with 88 per cent of Moray’s decrees leading to an eviction, compared to only 11 per cent of East Lothian’s. There is certainly no case for councils to evict every tenant with a decree against them. But how many of these evictions are really a last resort and how many could have been prevented?

Housing associations account for 43 per cent of social rented sector stock in Scotland. In 2014–08 they took 6,657 tenants to court, obtained 2,903 decrees for eviction, and evicted 1,484 tenants. Most of the cases were for rent arrears. Among the six Scottish stock transfer associations, Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) evicts the most tenants, with 558 households losing their homes in 2014/8. GHA has the highest eviction rates in Scotland, unsurprising for the largest social landlord perhaps. But before stock transfer in 2003, Glasgow city council, then the largest council landlord, was only the third highest evictor despite having more stock than GHA currently does. GHA now evicts twice as many tenants as did Glasgow council.

Practice varies widely between housing associations. However, the rate of evictions has increased significantly, calling into question how seriously the prevention of homelessness message has been absorbed.

Arrears spark eviction

In Scotland, social tenants should no longer be penalised for being poor. Many social tenants are entitled to housing benefit -yet administrative problems can lead to payments going awry and tenants falling into arrears. Should tenants really be evicted for events beyond their control?

The Scottish housing regulator could take a tougher line with social landlords too eager to evict. Inspection of social landlords should include a greater focus on whether eviction is used as an absolute last resort.

The vast majority of tenants are threatened with eviction because of rent arrears. There are other ways for councils and housing associations to recover rent arrears, which do not lead to homelessness. Benefit deductions, earnings or bank account arrestment, or small claims actions can be used instead.

Socially unacceptable: Evictions by social landlords in Scotland in 2014–08

Councils RSLs Total
Taken to court 13,382 6,657 20,039
Decree granted 5,063 2,903 7,966
Eviction occurred 2,089 1,484 3,573
Additional evictions in which tenant was rehoused immediately after 510 510

There is an argument that eviction stops a tenant building up more arrears. In reality, however, it does nothing except increase pressure on homelessness services. Eviction is not an effective way to recover arrears. It is surely questionable therefore, to pursue a course of action that makes little financial sense without exploring other options first.

Social tenants threatened with eviction deserve the same attention as homeowners at risk of losing their home. The taxpayers’ money that funds eviction court cases should be better spent. Social landlords have a responsibility towards their tenants. This should extend to earlier intervention to help tenants address their debt problems and a less punitive attitude to rent arrears.

Why add another name to the list of homeless applicants when eviction can be avoided? Landlords need to work harder to retain that ‘social’ label and to prevent homelessness in their own backyard.

Alexis Camble is a policy officer at HHSE Scotland.