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How to get a Council House: is it easier if you’re non-British?

Channel 4’s programme ‘How to get a Council House’ is as popular as ever and is now in its fourth series. It well documents the ever-growing tension between the tangible needs of homeless applicants and the finite and over-stretched resources of Hounslow Council. Last week’s programme (aired on 24 May 2016) focused on the experiences of those from abroad who, being homeless upon their arrival in the UK, approach local authorities for housing. As indicated on the programme, a common public perception is that EU citizens seem to secure council accommodation with great ease, skipping ahead of British citizens in the queue.

The programme focused on 3 homelessness applications, a single woman from Bermuda who had been residing with friend, a Romanian family who had recently arrived in the country and a Polish and Ugandan couple with 2 children who had been evicted for rent arrears. The programme commented that statistically half of rough sleepers are foreign, with 1 in 10 being Polish and 1 in 5 being Romanian.

In the first instance the woman from Bermuda was considered to have had her last settled accommodation in Bermuda. On this basis it was deemed, although rather abruptly, even though she had a chronic medical condition, that she did not have a local connection to the Borough of Hounslow and hence could not be assisted. In the event that a Council has reason to believe that the applicant may be eligible, homeless and in priority need, they have to provide emergency accommodation while they investigate the case further. Hence, on the face of it, Hounslow’s actions may appear unlawful, however it is difficult to assess this solely based on the information shown on screen.

It is apparent that there is a belief abroad that Council Housing is readily available in the UK, although, it is not entirely clear where the belief emanates from. One avenue is the stories that EU citizens hear of others obtaining Council Housing which lead them to think that they will be entitled on the same basis. This fails to take into account the often very different personal circumstances of others. In some circumstances, as with the Romanian family, they sought a home in the UK purely on the basis they can no long reside in their own country because of their quality of life.

Ultimately, the Council did accept a duty to the Romanian family, housing them in temporary accommodation…in Birmingham! The lack of housing stock is resulting in more out of borough offers of temporary accommodation, which affects both, UK and EU citizens. The Romanian husband was happy to be housed in Birmingham, having had no prior connection to London. However, it is doubtful UK citizens will be as happy to be relocated out of borough to another city – the very issue challenged in our firm’s mammoth Supreme Court Nzolamezo victory in 2015.

The perception that EU citizens can secure a Council House with ease can be countered by the fact they must have ‘worker status’ to qualify. This is not required for UK nationals, although this was not expressly stated in the programme. The Council accepted a duty to the Romanian family on the basis that the husband was in receipt of Job Seekers Allowance (“JSA”) and as such, was deemed a ‘Qualified person’ pursuant to Regulation 6 of The Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006.

By way of further discussion, Regulation 6(4) states that an EU citizen must show “he is seeking employment and has a genuine chance of being engaged” in order to retain jobseeker status under Regulation 1(a). If after a period of 6 months an EU citizen had not been employed, a Member state is entitled to request evidence that the citizen is actively “seeking employment and has a genuine chance of being engaged”, failing which entitlement to the benefit may cease¹ , along with the jobseeker status.

With regards to the Polish and Ugandan couple, they had been evicted for rent arrears. Usually this is fatal for a homelessness application, resulting in the applicant(s) being deemed intentionally homeless. However, as they had contacted the Council when they fell into arrears and cited their property as unaffordable, they were deemed to be unintentionally homeless and assisted.

Their case highlighted an important Housing Benefit (“HB”) issue – the impact of zero hour contracts. The husband was on a zero hour contract, resulting in his income fluctuating week to week and month to month. Subsequently, this affected the couple’s HB claim. It begs the question, ‘Is the Council going to be able to deal with the change in an applicant’s income circumstances swiftly, when it is occurring so frequently?’ The obvious answer is no, as it is particularly onerous for the Council. This will result in those on zero hour contracts likely to have their HB suspended and fall into arrears through no fault of their own. At this stage, I would commend the programme for having brought this issue to light on a national scale, as we do often assist those in such circumstances.

While the perception is that EU citizens are treated advantageously compared their UK counterparts, not enough consideration is given to the Government’s failure to provide adequate housing in general. The fact that, as presented in the programme, the number of homelessness applications in Hounslow has tripled in the last five years, further highlights the lack of adequate housing, whether be it for EU or UK citizens. The programme portrays that the requirements for housing assistance are as strenuous for EU and UK citizens alike.

With the EU referendum looming on the 23rd June 2016, the leave campaign has sought to address the possibility of greater immigration should Turkey join the EU , leading to further strain on the NHS and housing stock. The European Commission has said that no new country will join within the next five years . However, it is likely the potential of Turkey joining will play on the mind of UK citizens when voting later this month. As a result, the increase in immigration should be considered in the context of an expanding population, in the UK and EU and the Government’s failure to supply adequate housing.

So whilst the programme is just the tip of the iceberg in these much-debated issues, Channel 4 should be commended for giving a voice to those who would otherwise remain anonymous statistics. Roll on Series 5..!

 1 Case C-292/89 Antonissen [1991] ECR I-745