The loss of a home through eviction, and subsequent consequences, can be financially and emotionally devastating. The cost-of-living crisis has placed new financial pressures on low-income households. This research identifies ways to avoid eviction proceedings through measures that improve meaningful communication between those in housing debt, housing providers, and advice services.

Key findings

Based on 139 survey responses and 53 interviews with occupiers, debt advisers, legal practitioners, and housing providers, we found:

Barriers to seeking advice and support in resolving housing debt 

• A majority of respondents (56%) did not or were unable to access debt advice from a range of providers including charities, local councils and online providers.
• Respondents were deterred from accessing support by the lack of opportunity for face-to-face discussion of their issues, the difficulty of getting through on the telephone, and their awareness that advice services are overwhelmed.
• They also felt frustrated that system solutions to complex problems, notably payment plans, do not help to resolve underlying causes of debt (for example, insufficient income to meet bills).
• Local authority housing officers reported that changes to working practices, accelerated during COVID, have led to a depersonalised approach to resolving arrears, with fewer frontline staff and more reliance on remote engagement practices. 

These changes have undermined their relationship with tenants and the level of trust and confidence that tenants have in them as sources of help and advice.

Engagement with the legal process

• Court observations by the research team indicated that where advice and representation were provided, this tended to result in better outcomes for occupiers. 
• Occupiers in England at threat of losing their home have a right to free legal advice and representation on the day of their hearing in most County Courts. This is not the case in Scotland where access to free emergency legal advice is available in only a limited number of sheriff courts. 
• Asked whether they would attend any future court hearing, nearly two thirds of respondents said they would not, some indicating that they would find attending court ‘too stressful’. This finding is of concern given the apparent association between attendance at court and avoidance of an outright possession order.
Mental health issues
• A significant number of our respondents reported that health issues, particularly mental health issues, were a contributory factor in the accumulation of debt.
• Around half of respondents (53 of 99) reported a health condition or disability and of those, 8 in 10 reported having a mental health issue (conditions most mentioned were anxiety and depression). 
• Respondents reported being worn down by the effort of trying to access help and effectively giving up, sometimes for the sake of their health. 

Broader factors contributing to arrears included: 

Service charges

• Service charges, particularly communal heating costs, impacted adversely on the ability of social tenants to afford their rent. These costs were due to factors beyond their control, and welfare benefits are simply not capable of covering those costs. 
• The inclusion of communal heating charges in the tenant’s ‘rent’ means that a failure to pay the charge can lead to a possession claim. This seems to introduce eviction for non-payment of utility bills ‘through the backdoor’.

The Universal Credit system and arrears

• The Universal Credit system emerged as a contributor to housing debt and a barrier to its effective resolution.
• The direct payment of the housing element to tenants, the wait for the first payment, advance payments, and sanctions and deductions, were signalled as major causes of sometimes inescapable debt.
• There was some indication that those in debt may not be aware of sources of additional financial support such as Discretionary Housing Payments