Does Social Housing Policy at SHDC have a reverse gear?

A vote among South Hams District Councillors in November 2017 led to 10 families in social housing – leased to South Devon Rural Housing Association – being given notice to quit their properties by the first week of November 2018, in order to make the properties available for emergency homeless. The reasoning by the council is that existing accommodation and use of B&Bs for emergency homeless have hitherto been “harmful to those accessing the accommodation, due to its location and lack of facilities, … also very expensive for the local authority”. Cllr H Bastone, press release and quoted in Totnes Times.

In short, it sounds like a possibly logical and fair plan on the surface, IF some essential questions are properly answered and explained in full, and duty of care to tenants properly taken; IF NOT then it should surely be looked at again.

1) Why wouldn’t it be better to allow established long-term tenant families to stay where they are, and use whichever vacant properties they would be moved on to as the sought after emergency accommodation, instead of forcefully uprooting happily settled families?

2)If there really was an overriding valid reason (as yet unannounced and unexplained) to force families out of well established homes into emergency accommodation, rather than use the vacant properties they would be moving to, surely honesty, sensitivity and regular communication would be used in abundance to minimise anxiety about the many uncertainties they have? According to the tenants we’ve spoken to, sadly not. We have been told of tenants being being treated with disdain, a failure to respond to emails and even one saying they were openly laughed at: “x* laughed in my face when I said that my solicitor advised me not to signed anything until he checked it. After laughing s/he said “sorry I shouldn’t laugh really “ I was absolutely fuming at the way s/he spoke down to me.” *(redacted by Totnes Pulse)

For example, two sisters in Totnes, both in wheelchairs, have lived in a bungalow for 7 years, on which the council spent around £8,000 of tax-payers money to adapt it to their specific needs – including access ramps, widened doors and a wet-room. Their parents also spent another several thousand pounds to upgrade the windows to double-glazing to stop the cold blowing through.

Example of adaptations made to a tenant house

So where’s the even purely financial logic in moving them on? Unless the property is earmarked for being sold off in the national climate of government underfunding and with councils being forced to sell off assets? Are there really pairs of disabled homeless regularly needing accommodation in Totnes who have priority over these long-term tenants? Is there any evidence for that?

South Hams communications officer Lesley Crocker assured me on the phone that if / when the tenants move out, the house would not be sold off, and also that more public money would not be spent on re-adapting the adaptations that public money paid for on the house, to go backwards and make it suitable for non-disabled usage. These were phone comments which were not included in her emailed written statement, incidentally.

Another Totnes social housing tenant in the group facing the same notice to quit by early November, described the “cruel insanity” of her family being forced out of their home of the last 7 years. They are being moved to an as-yet unknown vacant property, so that in theory, other homeless people could have her family home: “Why are the emergency homeless who the council is so concerned about not offered the vacant property they want us to move into?”. She asks. Why indeed?

Totnes Pulse was further contacted by an affected tenant, heartbroken for her family to be under threat of being moved on from their 7-year home. She expressed that she needs to be in Totnes for her job, her child’s school and her support network; yet she was told by a South Devon Rural Housing officer ‘explaining her lack of need‘ to her that “some people need to be In Totnes for their jobs, schools and support network”!  She was understandably left fuming after being spoken to in that demeaning way.

Cruel insanity

There are also accusations – repeated among the affected tenants – of changes to the dates to quit that were given out in July 2018: from “April 2019” when first shockingly announced over the phone, to “November 2018” when discussed in subsequent face to face meetings with SDRH and SHDC representatives.

On the positive side, relatively at least, South Hams communications officer Lesley Crocker has passed on in response to our questions – by both phone and email – that no one will be forced out until another suitable property is found for them: “if necessary we can extend the notice period to enable the housing officers to continue to support them to find accommodation, to avoid any of them becoming homeless”. Similarly John Birch, Lib Dem S Hams Councillor who says he misunderstood the negative consequences for tenants in voting for this policy in November 2017, has said too that he can reassure frightened tenants that there will be no forced evictions by bailiffs or court costs.

These are assurances that South Hams District Council and South Devon Rural Housing have not shared with tenants up to now – based on the information and anxiety we’ve encountered – and we’re glad to have helped to bring them out to hopefully allay at least some of the extreme fears we’ve heard expressed.

As observers and citizen journalists, we pick up a strong sense – in conversations and social media – that along with the remaining tenants themselves, most people would strongly like to see South Hams District Council look again at both the strategy being followed and the specifics of each case with fresh eyes, and offer those tenants who want to stay in their homes a fair and respectful appraisal.

Responses and comments are welcome below.

  6 comments for “Does Social Housing Policy at SHDC have a reverse gear?

  1. Katina Laoutaris
    28th October 2018 at 9:42 am

    Thank you for that Mark El-Kadhi. avery good article with all the right questions.I would like to reiterate here that as my date for moving was moved forward by more than a month, i have been responsible for the rent on both properties as i could not POSSIBLY have been ready to move in the 4 days given over the phone. Furthermore this has necessitated, at a very difficult time, that _I_ have had to seek financial help, from the council, with all the rigmarole that entails of endless letter writing and form filling and navigating of an inadequate online system regarding my particular circumstance, in order to cover these costs: So. Yet another added expense to the taxpayer when the property we moved to had been empty for 9 months (in the current climate, surely another disgrace) and it was in the housing associations domain to waiver these expenses considering they had been without rent for the whole of that time.

  2. 29th October 2018 at 10:39 am

    This is for anyone who would like to see the full statement provided by South Hams to Mark El-Kadhi when he approached us for comment – which has not been used in this article:

    A spokesperson from South Hams District Council Said: “When any landlord / owner takes back a property from a sitting tenant it is can be a difficult time, this is why it is so important for tenants to understand the terms of their lease and understand how secure their tenancy is. The tenants involved in this case were all on short hold tenancy agreements with South Devon Rural Housing Association, which means that none of them were guaranteed a long lease.

    “However, as the local authority we are able to provide the families with the kind of support to find new homes that private property owners would not be able to do. Firstly we recognised that it would be of benefit for these tenants to have as long as possible to secure alternate housing. For this reason we requested that South Devon Rural Housing Association give the tenants verbal notice in June and then formal written notice later in the year.

    “In addition to this, all of the tenants involved have been given support from the housing team, they have been placed in the highest available priority banding on Devon Home Choice and if necessary we can extended the notice period to enable the housing officers to continue to support them to find accommodation, to avoid any of them becoming homeless.

    “Of the 10 properties, 6 households have now been rehomed and a further family is due to sign a tenancy agreement next week. Those tenants who have been now been rehomed into alternate social housing, are now living in a property which has a longer more secure tenancy agreement, giving them a more secure future.

    “We are currently working with the remaining families to secure new accommodation, and in some cases we were already working with these families prior to the eviction notice being served to find them more suitable accommodation that better suited their needs, so we have a detailed understanding of their situation.

    “We have also been made aware that one of the tenants made alterations to one of the properties at their own cost. This is not something that we would recommend that tenants on short hold tenancy agreements should do because the tenancy can be end at any time in accordance with their contact. In this kind of situation tenants are therefore incurring costs are at their own risk.

    “Where the council has made adaptations for disabled tenants these will not be reversed, these types of properties are invaluable for ensuring that those people who approach us as homeless with a need for adapted accommodation are able to access suitable emergency accommodation.

    “We are confident that all households will have been found suitable alternate accommodation before the Spring of next year and they will be able to stay in their current homes whilst we support them with finding alternate accommodation.”

    Additional information also provided to Mark El -Kadhi: The Dedicated Housing Related Support Service is still available and has been offered to all tenants should they like to take up the offer.

    They are commissioned by Devon County Council can help with the bidding and Devon Homes Choice process, can accompany them to property viewing or letting agencies. They can also provide them support to navigate the private rental sector, even offering them budgeting advice, should they wish to look at private renting.

  3. Mark El-Kadhi
    29th October 2018 at 10:23 pm

    Thank you Lesley for adding that. It was too long to use in full in the actual article, but I referred to some of what this contains, and to having had phone and email contact with you.

    The key problem with the statement is that it completely sidesteps the key question:
    Why are emergency homeless not offered the vacant properties which settled families are being forcefully moved to, instead of uprooting people from where they have jobs / kids at school / a long-term support network of friends and family?
    I appreciate it’s your job to present what the council does in positive terms, but can we please get a real answer to this, or an honest admission that there is no good answer?

  4. Jo Doran Hartley
    30th October 2018 at 10:24 am

    Of course Zoe Pole & her sister should stay in their converted disabled home (SHDC will have to spend £1000’s reconverting unless there are 2 disbaled homeless people needing temp accomodation – very unlikely) & I hear now that Rachel Paine can stay until the Great Court Farm is ready….which is great for them. What about all the other families that have had to move through intimidation & immense stress already, maybe needlessly? Sorry but this is far bigger than just a protest to stop a few evictions, it’s about the huge injustices that have been put on local families at the expenses of incompetencies within the local government structure that leans towards evidence of corruption & hoodwinking. This is far from over, even if those few remaining families are allowed to stay, it shows gross negligence if they back track & they will of course have to pay for that in more ways than one.

  5. 30th October 2018 at 11:00 am

    Dear Lesley,
    Thankyou for your response. I visited two of the people yesterday who have been served eviction notices. They are the wheel chair users as mentioned by Mark in Totnes Pulse article. They have between them multiple, complex needs and disabilities. They understand that they have been told verbally by yourself that they won’t be evicted. However, they are not sufficiently reassured this will be the case. Please could you give them wtitten assurances. This uncertainty is having a profound impact on their emotional well being. Could you also please return my call? I left a message with you yesterday asking for further clarification. These two women are extremely concerned that in expressing their worries about being evicted that this will impact on them negatively and they will be penalised as a result. I have assured them that this would not be the case. I am a Town Councillor so am not party to the minutiae of housing policy that a district councillor would be. However, in complete agreement with Mark’s post above, I still require an explanation as to why already settled people, some of several years are being forced to leave their home to make them available for emergency housing for the homeless? I completely understand and support the need for providing housing for the homeless. However, why can’t homeless people move into the accommodation that is availabe for proposed evicted tenants?
    Please could you respond to my enquiry as a matter of urgency and provide written NOT verbal assurances to all affected persons that they will not be evicted from their homes on the 4th November. Please could you give further assurances that they can remain in their homes until suitable accommodation is found that is comparable with their current accommodation and in the same locality (Totnes) or areas nearby so that they can reasonably access existing support networks and infrastructure.
    Louise Webberley
    Totnes Town Councillor

  6. Mark El-Kadhi
    31st October 2018 at 6:58 am

    Dear Lesley

    Louise reiterates what pretty much everyone else is asking: why do families ‘need’ to be uprooted against their wills after several years of developing a support network – proven to be absolutely vital to physical and mental health* – and in some cases having jobs / kids’ schools / essential family nearby, ‘to make space for emergency homeless’; rather than the emergency homeless being housed in the vacant properties that settled families are being forcefully rehomed to?

    Can you seek out the responsible senior official(s) at SHDC to publicly provide an answer to that specific basic question; or to nobly put their hands up and accept that there really isn’t a strong enough answer, and assure that the remaining families under threat will be reappraised and offered the option to stay where they are?

    Thank you for supporting an open democratic process in our community, a key goal of Totnes Pulse, too.

    Best regards,

    Mark El-Kadhi

    *On the value of support networks, eg:
    “Social support has been shown to be associated with better physical health (Uchino, 2009 and Uchino, 2004). People with higher social support have a lower risk of death (Uchino, 2004) and an increased likelihood of survival (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010). Social support is also associated with better mental health (Taylor, 2011). People with higher social support cope better with stressful times and are less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression (Taylor, 2011). The support provided by family, friends or neighbours has also an important economic value (ONS, 2013a; Understanding Society Insights, 2014).”

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