A few thoughts on the government’s disingenuous guidance to *help* Grenfell residents with housing costs by providing Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs):
On Friday morning on twitter, some of us were discussing this DWP memo on getting DHPs to Grenfell residents. (This was hours before the Guardian finally picked up on the memo and ran a let’s-brown-nose-the-government-by-putting-the-government-defence-up-front story on it. That story didn’t offer an interview with anyone who had actually gone through the often-invasive and thankless process of applying for a DHP. Don’t start me on that. I’m not in the mood).
The memo told councils to prioritise Grenfell residents who applied for Discretionary Housing Payments for help with rent in advance, deposits on new homes and rent shortfalls in new homes. This memo made me furious, for many reasons.
One is, of course, that people who survived the Grenfell fire should not have to apply for anything at all, through any of these council processes. Deposits and full rents should be paid on the homes of their choice for the rest of their lives. I genuinely think that. I can’t see why people wouldn’t think that.
Another reason for disliking this government memo “initiative” is that DHPs are only stopgap payments. They are short-term payments made by councils from a government allocation. They are used to cover housing-cost problems for people on housing benefit, or the housing component of Universal Credit – say, a rent deposit for a flat for someone on a low income, or the bedroom tax, or a shortfall between the amount of housing benefit people can get and their full rent, particularly when people must rent in the expensive private sector. (I’ve helped people apply for DHPs).
DHPs do NOT change the welfare reform policies and issues that cause the problems in the first place – the bedroom tax, local housing allowance caps, benefit caps, the fact that homeless people must be placed in the expensive private rental sector because there’s not enough social housing to go around, and the fact that everyone who rents privately is exposed to runaway private-sector rents. Those problems go on – seemingly forever, at the moment. They’re not changed by DHP allocations. The DWP memo on DHPs made clear Grenfell people remain subject to welfare reforms such as the benefit cap.
It’s the short-termism of DHP help that really gets my back up. Covering payments and problems such as deposit and rent shortfalls with DHPs is a real get-out for government and councils. It means that the government via councils can use DHPs to mask housing and rent problems caused by the high rents, the discharging of homelessness duties into the private sector and welfare reform for six months, or a year, or, to put it crassly in this case, until mainstream press attention moves away from Grenfell and people are left alone to battle council and DWP bureaucracies. DHPs don’t address reasons for a housing crisis at all.
There’s another problem, too – one that isn’t discussed as often as it should be. People (I mean a lot of the mainstream media here) seem to assume that the bureaucratic systems that people must use to apply for DHPs, housing, housing benefit and the UC housing component function reasonably well, or even at all – ie, that there’s an operational system in place for people who are homeless and/or who need housing benefit and DHPs and so on. The truth is that these systems are in absolute shambles. I realise that government says rules should be relaxed for Grenfell residents and every effort made to assist people. I’m saying that I have no confidence in this being the case in an ongoing way. That’s because wherever you go in the country, things are so often an unbelievable mess. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gone to housing meetings, or jobcentre meetings, or whatever, with people, and come out with nothing resolved. This needs to be addressed in councils and bureaucracies all over. These problems apply all round.
I can say this, because I’ve spent a great deal of time in the past few years trying to navigate council and DWP systems with people who must use them. “Streamlined” is not the word that comes to mind.
Council and DWP phones ring and ring or leave you on hold or go unanswered. Here’s a post about a DWP call where I was on hold for 45 minutes. If you do get through, officers can’t or won’t help you: they tell you the rules, that people must pay what they owe, or call someone else, and that’s it. Officers have little support and no leeway a lot of the time. That being the case, they simply read from the rules. Papers and documents get lost. Jobcentres make the starting of a UC housing component payment extremely difficult even when arrears and eviction are on the cards. Homelessness and housing benefit responsibilities are split between councils if people are placed out of borough by their originating council. Homelessness and council offices can be closed when you turn up during work hours (that happened to me in Salford and Birmingham). By Closed, I mean Closed. There’s no waiting room. The doors are locked and you’re out on the pavement. People have to travel to different parts of town for different housing and benefits services, because those services aren’t in the same place, or even run by the same outfit. For example, First Choice Homes in Oldham takes and processes homelessness applications for Oldham Council in one part of town, on Union Street – but you have to walk up the hill to the Oldham Civic Centre to ask about a DHP. Some First Choice officers don’t know what a DHP is when you first ask. I know this because I’ve tried it.
Here are a few more of the issues and problems that came to my mind after reading that DWP memo on DHPs. These problems need to be noted and acted on, for Grenfell residents and everyone.
1) The fact that DHPs are a short-term fix is a problem. What happens when Grenfell DHPs allocated this time around for rent shortfalls in particular run out in six months’ time, or a year’s time, or whenever? Will people have to apply again. Is there any guarantee applications will succeed. There’s no such guarantee generally.
2) Is the government aware that a lot of councils won’t agree to a tenancy going ahead if they know that there’s a significant gap between the rent on a home and the amount of housing benefit a person can secure. I’ve heard that one plenty of times, all over. Here’s a Basildon council officer telling a woman I was with (she was affected by the benefit cap) that she’d need to go back to Newham council to argue the toss re: whether or not she could afford a rent.
As we speak, I’m writing a story with a young Newham woman called Chantelle Dean who is trying to find a place. She showed me this piece of paper for local LHA rates. The text at the top of the paper says (bit hard to see on the image):
“Please ensure that the rent for the property is within the LHA rates below. Newham will not allow any tenancies under the private rented sector scheme to go ahead if the rent is higher than the stated LHA rates.”
You see what I mean.
3) A lot of landlords simply won’t accept people who receiving housing benefit or UC housing costs. Chantelle told me on Friday that she’d contacted about 50 places in the past few weeks to see if she could find anyone who accepted housing benefit. She couldn’t. That is not an unusual story at all. Here’s a homelessness officer at Brent council telling the disabled man I was with to not even bother applying to high street letting agents, because they wouldn’t consider people on housing benefit: “There’s no point approaching the high street estate agents, because the majority of their clients do not consider DSS,” the officer said.
4) The DWP’s DHP memo makes clear that people from Grenfell may be housed in other boroughs (pt 8: “If the deposit or rent in advance payment is for a property outside of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea…” Leaving aside the fact that people should not have to leave the borough if they don’t want to, is the government aware that moving people to new boroughs can leave them in a nightmarish “between boroughs” No-Man’s land where people are pushed backwards and forwards between officers at their new and old councils, and where nobody takes responsibility for resolving problems? I worked with the Kilburn Unemployed Workers’ Group with a man who the group found a flat for in Haringey to house him from an awful place in Brent (the example I gave above). Trying to work out which council to approach to sort out a DHP for a rent deposit nearly did for us all.
In the Basildon council benefit cap example I gave you above, the woman who was affected by the benefit cap was told at the Basildon meeting to direct her housing benefit questions at Basildon council and her rent and homelessness questions to Newham. Newham was responsible for her homelessness and housing. Basildon was responsible for her housing benefit. Those councils are miles away from each other.
You see my point. DHPs deal with none of this. We’re talking about a system that is massively under-resourced and over-subscribed. We’re talking about housing costs and welfare reforms which make it impossible for people to find secure housing. Let’s see the government send round a memo which addresses all of that.