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When everyone has a home

Housing and debt helpline for Northern Ireland – 028 9024 5640

ADVISER: Temporary absences, abandonment and housing costs

Ursula Toner reviews a selection of recent cases, where Housing Rights successfully challenged decisions disadvantaging people who had to leave their homes temporarily. Anyone who is going to be temporarily absent from their home should inform their landlord of this absence, in order to best protect their tenancy rights. Being away from your home for a period of time can lead to problems with Housing Benefit or to a suspicion that you are no longer living in the property. Get advice if you find yourself in this situation.  
 

Temporary absence from temporary accommodation

Sarah was a full duty applicant , who had been placed in a “single-let” by the Housing Executive as they felt that her complex health needs would have made hostel accommodation unsuitable.  A “single-let” is a unit of private housing, leased by NIHE from a private landlord and used to accommodation homeless individuals or families on a temporary basis.

Sarah decided to stay with family for a while over Christmas as she was recovering from a short illness and couldn’t manage on her own. While away she received an email from NIHE to advise her that her right to remain in her single-let had been terminated as she was deemed to not be in occupation of the temporary accommodation. Sarah explained that she was only absent in order to receive recuperative care from family and that it was her intention to return in the near future, as soon as she had recovered from her illness. Despite this explanation, Sarah’s belongings were removed from the single let and the locks on the property were changed.  As a licensee, Sarah did not enjoy the same protections from unlawful eviction as a tenant would.

Housing Rights submitted a formal complaint on Sarah’s behalf, arguing that action to seek recovery of the accommodation should be fair and reasonable, particularly in light of Sarah’s disability needs.

The Housing Executive’s policy team met with Housing Rights representatives to review Sarah’s case. NIHE agreed that guidance regarding terminating temporary accommodation arrangements and notice periods for reasonable packing up time should be reviewed and amended.  Sarah received an apology and was able to move back into the same single-let.

The Housing Executive has a duty to provide temporary accommodation for homeless households but it can be difficult to match the needs of these households with suitable temporary housing, particularly when this is a scarce resource. It is important to note that the onus is on the individual to report any absence from temporary accommodation.

Abandonment procedures brought due to tenant's temporary absence from home

Carl contacted Housing Rights in a distressed state as he had returned to his social tenancy to find that the locks had been changed and that an abandonment notice had been placed on the door. Carl’s landlord had taken action to recover possession of the property and Carl had been disqualified from social housing.

Carl acknowledged that he’d been absent from the property for prolonged periods of time, but this was to allow him to provide care for his father who was suffering from a very serious illness. He advised that it had always been his intention to return to the property and said he’d had no idea that his landlord suspected that the property had been abandoned.

We believed it was apparent that Carl had always intended to return to property but that his caring responsibilities had impeded his ability to do so. Our adviser liaised with the housing association to ensure that no steps were taken to reallocate the property to another applicant.

Our legal team applied for and secured legal aid funding, allowing us to challenge the association’s actions in county court.   We intended to evidence Carl’s intention to return to his home and to question the depth of the association’s investigation which led to its conclusion that Carl did not intend to return to the property.

Prior to the court hearing the social landlord agreed to settle the case and to allow Carl to resume his tenancy. Carl’s keys and possessions were returned to him and his secure tenancy was reinstated.

We continue to liaise with the housing association involved to seek assurances that its decision making procedures in respect of abandonment cases will be more robust and that abandonment action will only be taken where the decision maker is satisfied and can evidence investigations to support the argument that there is no clear intention to return to property.

Covering housing costs during a temporary absence from the principal home

Paul and Janice were owner occupiers whose home needed considerable adaptations due to their disability needs. The Housing Executive awarded the couple a disabled facilities grant and provided accommodation for them to live in while adaptations were carried out to their home. The work was scheduled to take at least five months to complete.

Paul and Janice were receiving social security benefits and were receiving Support for Mortgage Interest payments to help with the mortgage costs on their home.  The eligibility rules for both SMI and Housing Benefit hold that the housing costs incurred must be in respect of the client’s only or principal home.  In this case, the client had, in essence, two homes and needed to assert that the property they owned was their principal home, in order to claim Support for Mortgage Interest.

Realising that it wouldn’t be possible to get Housing Benefit to cover the costs of the temporary housing, our adviser applied for financial assistance from the couple’s health and social care trust under Art 15 (1) of the Health & Personal Social Services (NI) 1972 Order & Section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (NI) Act 1978. This article requires that the trust shall provide assistance to facilitate adaptations to secure greater safety, comfort or convenience. It was clear that the adaptations required to Paul & Janice’s home fit with this description.

Having considered the submission from Housing Rights, the Trust agreed to pay the full rent for the duration of the period the adaptation works were being undertaken. This lifted a huge concern from Paul and Janice who were worried that they’d have to choose between getting the adaptations carried out and running up huge rent arrears or cancelling the adaptations and continuing to live in an unsuitable home. 

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Social Tenancies, Practical tips, Adviser