Ms Samuels applied to Birmingham City Council for housing assistance in June 2012 and July 2013, having fallen into rent arrears because of a substantial shortfall (just over £150 per month) between the rent on her private tenancy and her housing benefit of £550 a month.
She was a lone parent with 4 children and was unable to cover the rent shortfall from her non-housing benefits. She lost her tenancy, but the council decided that she was “intentionally homeless” on the grounds that her rent was deemed affordable and therefore the loss of that housing was said to be a result of her deliberate failure to pay the rent. As the council regarded Ms Samuels as intentionally homeless, it did not have to help her obtain housing under the Housing Act 1996.
Ms Samuels appealed at the Birmingham County Court and the Court of Appeal, following which the case went to the Supreme Court in January 2019, with Shelter and the Child Poverty Action Group intervening because of the importance of the issues raised. The Supreme Court was asked to consider whether it is lawful and reasonable for local authorities to take the view that social security benefits should be used to cover rent shortfalls where housing benefit is not enough.
Responding to the Supreme Court’s decision, Child Poverty Action Group’s Martin Williams, a welfare rights adviser, said:
“The question in this case was whether it is right and lawful to force tenants to spend subsistence benefits other than housing benefit (i.e. money intended for their and their children’s most basic daily living needs such as food and heating) on rent to avoid homelessness. We say that it is not and are delighted that the Supreme Court has agreed with us.
What this means is that families made homeless due to the inability to pay the rent because of cuts to housing related benefits (LHA restrictions, bedroom tax etc.) cannot be said to be intentionally homeless: there is no slack in the budgets of those on out of work benefits to make up shortfalls in housing related benefits. Benefit payments are set a bare minimum level for the basic essentials - no mother should have to see her children go short of essentials in order to pay the rent.
The Court commented that benefit levels are not designed to provide a surplus above subsistence needs for the family. It decided unanimously that benefit levels provided in respect of children were relevant to assessing what is reasonable by way of their living expenses. The Court says effectively that, in the absence of any other objective guidance on reasonable expenditure, it is difficult to see how a mother who spends the benefit income intended for her children’s needs on those needs and not on rent can have acted other than reasonably.
As the Court also observed, there is a current shortage of reliable objective guidance on reasonable levels of living expenditure to assist authorities in assessing the affordability of housing. We hope that the Government will now address that shortfall based on the principles endorsed by the Supreme Court.”
Notes to editors:
CPAG and Shelter intervened in the case, Samuels v Birmingham City Council. Community Law Partnership were the solicitors for Ms Samuels.
Permission was granted for a Supreme Court hearing after both the County Court and the Court of Appeal rejected Ms Samuels' appeal against Birmingham City Council's decision to treat her as intentionally homeless.
Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates are used to determine housing benefit entitlement for tenants renting private sector accommodation. In 2011, LHA rates were restricted by the Government to the cost of rent at the 30th percentile of a household’s local market. Since 2016 the LHA rate has been frozen entirely and has not been adjusted at all for inflation, or the rising cost of rents. This has meant that the LHA rates are no longer matched to the actual cost of renting a home at the 30th percentile. The gap between the actual cost of renting a home in the private sector in a local area and what rental costs are met on housing benefits has widened and continues to widen. This narrows the pool of available and affordable rented homes for those in receipt of housing benefits for private rentals. The combination of factors of a widening gap between LHA rates and market rental costs and a shrinking pool of rental homes capable of being met in full by housing benefit means that it is almost inevitable that a household with children will not be able to find a private rented home that is affordable on housing benefit received for the purposes of covering rent.