City council ‘misled’ homeless woman over rent, watchdog finds

A homeless woman was charged £250 per week rent by the city council – which failed to write off arrears after it found the amount unaffordable.

Birmingham Council House
Birmingham Council House

A watchdog has rapped Birmingham City Council for misleading and causing “significant distress” to the woman who accrued arrears while in temporary accommodation.

She was told the arrears would be written off and the rent reduced – but there was a significant delay before this happened, by which time she had missed out on securing another property due to her rent arrears.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found fault with the city council and asked it to apologise and pay £1,500 in recognition of the “distress, hardship and inconvenience” the situation caused her.

The council has also agreed to write off all her arrears and review its own practices in light of the case within two months.

This includes reviewing how the council “identifies and addresses affordability issues for tenants in temporary accommodation”.

The woman – referred to in the report as Miss C – became homeless in 2018 and the council placed her in temporary accommodation, according to a report by the ombudsman.

The accommodation came with a weekly rental charge of £249.53 and she was told if she refused the offer, the council could end its housing duty.

The council received letters from Miss C’s Member of Parliament and another person in July and August 2019, stating the rent was too high.

Following a review, the council found the rent was unaffordable and said it would waive a part of the rent which related to furniture, management services and repairs as well as writing off the rent arrears.

But in April 2020 a complaint was again lodged with the council, stating the full amount was still being charged and it was causing her financial hardship.

In its response the council said it awarded Miss C an extra payment to reduce the shortfall between her rent charge and housing benefit. This payment did not cover the shortfall in full, the report states.

But it said this payment “was not an ongoing entitlement” and Miss C should “try to secure cheaper accommodation”, according to the ombudsman’s report.

The council also said Miss C’s rent account at the time was £600.53 in arrears.

An investigator writing on behalf of the ombudsman said: “I find fault with the council. It reviewed the suitability in August 2019 and found it was unaffordable.

“It told Miss C it would write off her arrears and remove [part of the rent]. It took until February 2020 to write off the debt.”

The investigator states instead of removing the element of the rent relating to furniture, management services and repairs, it continued to add this charge and awarded Miss C an extra discretionary housing payment (DHP).

They continued: “The DHP did not cover the shortfall in full so Miss C continued to accrue arrears on her account.

“The council should have ensured the information it told Miss C in its review response in August 2019 was carried out.

“It misled Miss C and caused her significant distress by causing her financial hardship and uncertainty over a prolonged period.

“It caused her to miss out on a property she was offered. The landlord withdrew the offer because of her rent arrears.”

The investigator added the ombudsman welcomes the council’s acknowledgement the case “was not handled as well as it should have been” and the actions it has suggested to “remedy the injustice to Miss C”.

A Birmingham City Council spokesperson said: “We apologise for any distress caused to Miss C as a result of this case and agree to carry out the actions as recommended by the ombudsman within the agreed timescale.”

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