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When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

Adviser: Advising social tenants with rent arrears

Here at Housing Rights Service we do a lot of work helping tenants who live in social housing deal with rent arrears and housing benefit problems.  There are so many different aspects to advising someone in this situation that I thought it might be helpful to look at some of the most important elements of a rent arrears case.

So, here’s a basic “How to” on helping a client deal with arrears and any possession action they might be facing.  Obviously, this is no replacement for detailed debt training, so if this is something you’re doing regularly, why not check out our Preventing Homelessness and Safeguarding Homes courses?

Understand the arrears

Your clients need to understand the risks involved in not paying rent.  When you meet a new client find out how they are currently paying their rent and make sure the arrears aren’t increasing. 

The first thing I do with a new rent arrears case is get the answers to the following questions:

  • How much are the arrears?
  • Is the client confident that they actually owe the arrears or has an error been made?
  • Has legal action started yet – has a Notice Seeking Possession or a civil bill been served?
  • Is this a technical arrear – has there been some sort of administrative error or delay in processing a benefit claim?
  • What state are the client’s finances in? It’s important to get an honest account of these, as there’s no point drawing up a proposal that the client can’t stick to.
  • What kind of realistic proposal can the client make to start repaying the arrear?

It might seem daft to make this point, but it’s really important that your client knows the risks involved in not paying rent and is actually making the full monthly rent payment.  

Benefit problems and rent arrears

It’s not unusual for rent arrears to mount up because of a benefit problem.  Clients don’t always know about all the benefits they’re entitled to so a full benefits check is essential.

It’s also possible that some sort of deduction has been applied incorrectly.  I’ve had a few cases where deductions have been made for adult children who are under 25, even though they’re receiving Income Support or Income Based Job Seeker’s Allowance.  We’ve also had cases where clients have had overpayments wrongly deducted from their current housing benefit claims, so any deductions should be checked out.

Clearing the arrear with a lump sum payment

Have a chat with your client about their employment history.  If your client has previously worked in certain types of employment you may be able to make an application to a benevolent fund.  A benevolent fund may be able to contribute a lump sum payment to clear your client’s arrears.

Various different professions have these funds and in the past we’ve successfully applied to funds associated with the Civil Service and the Royal British Legion.

Dealing with legal action for rent arrears

Where the landlord has served a civil bill asking the client to appear in court you’ll normally only be able to stop the court hearing if you can reduce the arrears below £300.

Sometimes a client might only seek advice the day before a court hearing.  With the pressure we’re all under it’s going to be very difficult to work out a proper, affordable repayment proposal without doing all the necessary legwork.  If this happens, explain the situation to the judge at court.  I’ve been able to secure a number of adjournments once I’ve explained to the judge that the client has contacted Housing Rights Service for help to manage the debt.

Post possession order debt advice

Some clients don’t get in touch until the last moment, when officers from EJO are knocking on the door.  Even at this late stage, it’s not always too late to save the client’s home. 

If, and it’s a big if, having looked at the client’s finances there is a genuine proposal to address the arrears and manage the debt you can apply for a Stay of Eviction in the County Court.  In some cases, Legal Aid is available to help with the costs of this.

Of course, all advisers will have to admit defeat in some cases and recognise that there’s no realistic way of saving the client’s home.  When this happens, it’s important that your client knows

  • what the timescale is for eviction or surrender of the property;
  • how to go about being assessed for homelessness and how to ask for a review if they receive a negative decision;
  • how to go about securing a home in the private rented sector and how housing benefit for private tenants differs under the Local Housing Allowance rules;
  • how any outstanding debt is going to be recovered by their former landlord;
  • that they can always come back to you or your colleagues for help and advice.

The Tenant Debt Advice Service (TDAS) is an arrears management service which we offer to social and private landlords.  Find out more about the Tenant Debt Advice Service.

Tagged In

Repossession, Social Tenancies, Affordability, Adviser

This article was written on 23 September 2013. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.