Not far enough – Domestic Violence survivors and secure housing
As a law firm dealing with housing issues we come across a lot of difficult situations that those who are about to be made homeless or who are currently homeless have to go through. An unhappy situation that we have dealt with quite often is the situation that arises when a person is fleeing from domestic violence, and as a result stands to lose not only their home but their secure (lifetime) tenancy. Until now there has not been any guarantee that a person who has fled from their home would ever be able to re-gain their security of tenure.
The Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Act 2018 received royal assent on 10 May 2018. In summary the Bill proposes that lifetime secure tenancies would be granted to victims of domestic abuse, as long as the applicant meets the following criteria;
- (i) The tenancy is offered to an applicant who is or was a tenant prior in another dwelling under a qualified tenancy
- (ii) That the applicant is or has been a victim of domestic abuse by another person
- (iii) That the tenancy is granted on reasons connected with the domestic abuse
The bill has also gone on to define “abuse”, “domestic violence” and a “qualifying tenancy” which can be located in section 2C of the Bill. It defines a “qualifying tenancy” as an old style secure tenancy (previously offered in exceptional circumstances) or an assured tenancy (not an assured shorthold tenancy) which is then granted by a private registered provider of social housing.
There appears to be widespread support for this Bill. As it is an attempt by the Government to ensure “victims who have lifetime tenancies and flee violence are able to secure a new lifetime tenancy automatically”.
The current options for Domestic Violent Victims fleeing accommodation
A condition required to have a secure tenancy is that the
- The tenant occupies the dwelling as her/his only or principal home, or
- At least one of joint tenants occupies the dwelling as her/his only or principal home [s.81 Housing Act 1985].
This obviously cannot be satisfied if a tenant flees a property and lives elsewhere and cannot show that they have an intention to return. The tenant may live with family or friends however sometimes the risk is too great and the tenant would either have to attempt to (usually with great difficulty) be transferred by the landlord or make a homeless application.
A domestic violence victim can make a homeless application because “[a] person shall not be treated as having accommodation unless it is accommodation which it would be reasonable for him to continue to occupy.” Housing Act 19976 s.175(3). This means that housing assistance can be offered to the domestic violence sufferer, but they would usually have to give up their secure tenancy.
Due to changes in legislation in recent years, a lifetime Secure or Assured tenancy is a rarity. When making a homeless application, the local authority does not have to provide a secure tenancy for the applicant and can offer the applicant private accommodation instead, which offers significantly less security as a person can be evicted for no reason.
A secure tenancy is much better as it normally has a lower rent, you can normally live there for an indefinite period of time as long as you do not break the conditions of the tenancy.
Potential impact of the Law
Sole and Joint Secure Tenants and Assured Tenants will be granted a like for like tenancy if they are offered social housing. The tenant would need to prove that they have suffered from domestic violence and a new tenancy is required “for reasons connected with that abuse”.
This would have had great impact for a lot of families and individuals who are usually not given the chance to have their tenancy kept intact when fleeing domestic violence or harassment. However, victims of domestic violence are often not offered social housing at all, instead being placed into temporary accommodation or housed in the private sector. Those who are offered assistance in this way will likely never regain the security of tenure that they once had.
Increasingly all new tenancies offered by local authorities and social housing would be a “flexible” fixed term of 56 years, following a period of 12 months as a probationary tenant.
However, whilst in practice this would seem to offer victims some further relief and support where there would other not be any, not all local authorities would be able to function under the proposed new rules or guarantee that any form of social tenancy will be offered to a survivor.
The government requires more experienced officers to be able to liaise with new applicants for housing assistance who have experienced domestic violence, yet not all local authorities would have the means to achieve this.
Melanie Onn (Labour member for Great Grimsby) stated that “The truth is that the quality of domestic abuse homelessness provision varies massively from authority to authority, and getting the proper care is far too much of a postcode lottery.”
While this Act may have good intentions, it seems that the benefits will be available to all too few survivors of domestic violence who have been forced to flee their homes. The Act would have needed to give people priority for social housing, as well as guarantee their security if it was to offer survivors restitution for what they have lost.