A lack of awareness about housing rights, the "bewildering" complexity of benefit system changes, and delays in payments are leaving many tenants needlessly facing eviction and homelessness across Liverpool, according to a city housing solicitor.
Siobhan Taylor-Ward, who advises tenants facing eviction proceedings at the Merseyside Law Centre, said the situation is likely to be exacerbated by the loss of the Landlord Licensing Scheme.
She says she often comes across situations where tenants don't even realise there is a problem until they find themselves being taken to court for rent arrears.
Siobhan says that part of the problem is the roll-out of Universal Credit , which leads to payment delays and has left some tenants not realising the landlord is no longer being paid directly - causing arrears to build up.
She said: "The amount people get changes, it often goes down, and they don't realise that the money they are now being paid each month includes their rent. They think it's still being paid to the landlord and so people end up in arrears.
"People often don't understand what is happening to them until the landlord comes knocking at the door over arrears."
Creating misery for many
As well as the Bedroom Tax , the benefit cap is creating misery for many.
Siobhan said: "Single mums can have real difficulties because of this. Often we'll come across women who were just getting by and can't manage on top with money being taken away, and then it all spirals."
The centre sees not just people who are homeless, but those who find themselves staying away from home because of poor conditions, she added.
Another major problem for people is no fault evictions, where landlords evict tenants after their fixed-term contract ends without having to give a reason.
In 2019, the government announced plans to end these evictions - known as Section 21 notices - but the new laws are yet to come into effect.
Siobhan said that the landlord licensing scheme provided extra protection for tenants at risk of no-fault evictions.
She said: "These are Section 21 notices which the landlord license scheme provides a protection against as landlords can't go through the courts to gain possession under this legislation without having had the property licensed under the scheme.
"Quite often this gives people longer to get the situation sorted out - without it people lose that protection."
New organisation can help
To try to deal with the situation, Siobhan and her colleague Tom Lavin at Merseyside Law Centre, along with a group of local people, activists and others working with tenants and the city's homeless population, plan to set up a Liverpool branch of the community union Acorn - a mass membership organisation and network of low-income people similar to a trade union.
Acorn deals with issues outside the workplace, such as housing, and has been using direct action to take on rogue landlords, big banks and multinational companies nationwide.
Siobhan said: "There is only so much you can do as a lawyer because we are limited by what legal aid will pay for as well as by what protections the law offers. There is often an imbalance of power in favour of the landlord.
"Tom and I were keen to be involved with Acorn because there is so much stuff that we can't do anything about at the law centre, and that's where Acorn can step in.
"It's also about telling tenants what their rights are and what they can do in certain situations, and telling landlords that we know what our rights are.
"That's important - often if people think they can act with impunity they will act badly."
In one case that Acorn picked up in Liverpool, a tenant suffering from cancer faced eviction because her landlord wanted to make more profit by turning her home into a house that could be let out on a room by room basis.
Siobhan said: "In the first Acorn case in Liverpool, the landlord stepped way back as they realised how bad they looked if that tenant had gone in public with their case and name.
"She had cancer and was really poorly. It looked terrible for the landlord as they were getting rid of her to turn the home into a HMO [house of multiple occupancy] for profit and this had been her home for years."
One of the central campaigns for Liverpool's Acorn is to push for an extension of the city-wide landlord licensing scheme - a move by central government to close the scheme was announced earlier this year and led to an outcry among local politicians, campaign groups and members of the public.
How the Landlord Licensing Scheme works
The scheme provides a framework for a register of private landlords who have applied for and been granted licences for each of their properties. In order to obtain a licence the landlord must show they are fit and proper, and their property must meet a number of health and safety standards.
The Licensing team has the power to issue orders for work to be done and can prosecute landlords who fail to comply with the orders. The scheme offers a protection for tenants to ensure a safer and more stable living environment.
The license fees are ring-fenced for the Licensing Team and this has created a well-funded department that has been able to respond to the needs of the community.
What happens next
In the wake of the decision, Liverpool City Council has written to the Housing Minister and requested full written reasons for the decision. It has said its intention is to seek advice on a Judicial Review of the decision if it remains unchanged.
This is a move that has also received support from the city's MPs.
On 30 January, housing union Acorn held a meeting at Blackburne House on Hope Street, which was attended by newly elected Riverside MP Kim Johnson and Wavertree MP Paula Barker, alongside several city councillors as well as members of the public.
On the panel was Greenbank councillor James Roberts, who told the ECHO: "My ward, which encompasses the Smithdown corridor is an area with a lot of private renters, a lot of houses of multiple occupancy with students and people of ethnic minority backgrounds.
"I hear a lot of problems with landlords and this scheme has really helped with that. To lose it is pretty galling and we weren't told why and so have written to the government to request why.
"The scheme had made such a difference. City-wide there had been over 37,000 inspections of properties, over 2500 penalty notices issues and about 250 prosecutions.
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"Some landlords have been handed serious fines for example for illegal evictions. We lack the legislative teeth to enforce good practice without this scheme."
For Acorn, coordinated action is needed to resist the loss of the licensing scheme and to ensure that housing tenants know their rights and know how to access them.
Siobhan said: "We need to fight for the rights of housing tenants, and the only way we can do that is by coming together."
More information about Acorn can be found on its website .