Iwona is early. She is always early for appointments, including being interviewed by a journalist. This is no easy task. She is a lone parent and a carer to her mother who both has dementia and uses a wheelchair. Iwona works in a supermarket, volunteers at a local food bank, and is studying part time to become a social worker.
Her first eviction was eight or nine years ago because the landlord was trying to sell the home. She went to the council, who found her somewhere to live in Kensal Rise, northwest London. Her family moved from a one-room place into a three-bedroom house. But this was around the time of the benefit cap, so it became too expensive to stay.
Iwona’s mental health has been badly affected by a string of evictions since. Within minutes of starting the interview she is in tears. Her WhatsApp messages, used to arrange the interview and keep in touch after, portray a different side to her life. Her profile pictures are made from a series of mischievous and cheeky snaps, with friends and fancy dress playing a big part. She’s someone who clearly enjoys life, has friends, family, and is part of a community.
Eviction is an everyday crisis in England. From 2010 to 2017, the official number of evictions recorded by the Ministry of Justice rose by 53 percent, to 169 evictions a day.Even those figures are a dramatic underestimate. They only capture the number of evictions that take place through the courts. Private landlords in England can use the hated Section 21 notice to end a tenancy without reason with two months’ notice. Research from Shelter found that the loss of a private rented tenancy accounted for 78 percent of the rise in homelessness since 2011. While it is possible to challenge a Section 21, for example where details are wrong on the notice, it is only really a stressful means of stalling. Many tenants move on rather than contest their eviction, and these never make their way into the statistics.
Nor are many illegal evictions recorded: those where the landlord has told someone to leave without a formal notice, through threats, and where the most vulnerable tenants do not know enough about their rights or are too fearful to do anything about it. In housing associations, where rent are usually lower and tenants have greater rights, evictions due to rent arrears have still risen by 32 percent in four years.
During her third and most recent eviction a year ago, Iwona started feeling suicidal and was prescribed antidepressants. The landlord was phoning her every day, threatening her, and eventually took her to court. Iwona’s crime? It was taking too long for her to find a new place to live. “I am really worried, it just makes me crazy,” she says. Thinking of her mother and daughter kept her alive, but despite her responsibilities, she still felt utterly unsupported. “I have been everywhere… I knocked every door, every door, and no one helped me.” The local council said she would have to be rehoused outside London, in Birmingham, and that if she became homeless they would have to put her mother into a care home – something Iwona felt would be a disaster for them both. “I cannot start a normal life, I cannot work, I cannot live my life because constantly I am moving,” she says. Iwona has thought about moving back to Poland, but is worried that her daughter, who was born and raised in the UK, will experience racism because she is mixed race.
The rents in Brent, the borough of London where she has lived for 13 years, have risen 15 per cent since 2011. A two-bedroom flat in Kensal Rise in north-west London, the kind that would just about meet the needs of Iwona, her mother and her daughter, would cost around £1,400 a month in rent. “When I look for accommodation, it seems impossible to find anything,” she says. “First, I am on housing benefit, second I have a disabled mum in a wheelchair.” Each time she struggles to find guarantors, since landlords often demand these be both property-owners and in full-time work.
Being evicted tips people like Iwona further into a cycle of poverty. Ronald Daley is a housing lawyer working for Advice4Renters, an organisation set up in the 1980s to help private renters in the London borough of Brent. “Our clients are very clear that they find it disruptive and damaging to family life, to children’s education, to children’s happiness, to be evicted and forced into a situation of homelessness,” he says. Many of his clients started their tenancies able to pay the rent, but over time, welfare reform and specifically the benefit cap have led to them experiencing a financial shortfall. This means they quickly get behind on rent and face eviction. Thanks to the buoyant rental market, even landlords whose tenants’ rent is covered by housing benefit are known to evict their tenants in favour of someone who can pay more. Elsewhere in the area, he explains, landlords are buying up bedsits and converting them into self-contained flats to rent out for more money. “One way or another money, or the profit motive, is a big incentive for the landlords to evict private tenants.”
But the impact of eviction on an individual can be devastating. A Swedish study of over 23,000 evictions over three years found the suicide rate was four times higher than the control group, even accounting for vulnerabilities like addiction and pre-existing mental health issues. In 2013, the North London coroner’s court ruled that Nygel Firminger, a housing association tenant, took his own life as a direct result of his eviction. A year earlier in Spain, the banking association suspended evictions for two years in cases of “extreme hardship” following the death of a woman before her eviction for mortgage arrears
“In a lot of cases now you’ve got housing officers who are managing thousands of tenancies. They can’t possibly make personal contact on a regular basis,” says Deborah Garvie from Shelter. The systems have become more automated, which means problems that could have been solved by a visit and now dependent on tenants receiving, understanding, and responding to auto-generated letters. One distressing development she has seen is housing associations using High Court bailiffs to evict tenants rather than County Court Bailiffs. The latter will give notice so that people can prepare and effectively hand over the keys. High Court bailiffs do not need to give any notice – “you could have a child very unwell in bed or something like that and the High Court bailiff could turn up and you all have to get out now”.
The problem is not just in London. Outside of London, the places with the highest level of eviction include Luton, Halton and Peterborough.
“They’ve brought us to court over trespass,” says Nick. “It’s not a legal site so obviously we’ve no permission to be there, however, they’ve been supplying us with bins for god knows how many years so they’ve known we’re there.” Nick has lived in a caravan for the past four or five years on a bit of land owned by Sheffield City Council. Others on the site have been there 20 years.
Before moving to Sheffield in his caravan, Nick worked as a Tree Officer in London and Essex. He is clear in his mind what is behind the decision to move them off. “It’s just basically down to money. I know for a fact that a small plot of land sold for £140,000 and the site we’re on is probably about 20 times that size. So you’re talking hundreds of thousands if not millions.” A previous attempt to evict the residents was thrown out of court several years earlier, he explains.
Nick has been on the housing list for two years, and hopes to move into a flat but is frustrated by the complicated process. “Every time I go they’ve lost my paperwork and once I get the paperwork filled in they say it’s because you’ve got two dogs, if you just had one dog we could house you, which just sounds like rubbish to me because it can’t be any different with two dogs than one.”
Barking and Dagenham has one of the highest numbers of evictions in the UK. Adrian Brazier and Peter Phillips at the local Citizens Advice Bureau are on the front line of the housing crisis. They provide legal advice and representation for people facing the loss of their home. They have both noticed an increase in evictions, both from private landlords and social landlords. The causes include welfare reform, banks taking action against landlords, and retaliatory eviction as in Brent. Barking and Dagenham Council try their best, explains Adrian, but they cannot solve it. This leads to “irrational decisions being made”, according to Adrian. He and Peter win nine times out of ten when challenging the council.
One relatively straightforward fix for Adrian would be to allow councils to use their “discretionary housing payments” to help tenants pay down their housing debts. At the moment there is an end-of-year rush to spend this funding before it is taken back by government. Adrian would like tenants to be able to apply once a year for debt relief of up to £500. This, he believes, would have a dramatic impact on the number of people being evicted because of rent arrears.
Iwona got in contact a couple of months after we spoke. Her landlord had told her she wanted her to leave. This was one year into what was meant to be at least two-year tenancy, but not one guaranteed in law. A few days earlier Iwona had been awarded a prize for her volunteer work in the community. She managed to find a new place for at least the next twelve months somewhere nearby, but could not find somewhere adapted to her mother’s disability. Within a month Iwona’s mother had a bad fall and has been in hospital since.
Additional reporting by Joanna Eckersley.