A woman’s life has been turned upside down since her housing association demolished her home and put up her rent to unaffordable levels. She believes she could now be facing eviction and driven out of her community. And her case is a microcosm of what is wrong with housing policy in Britain.
Betiel Mehari, known as Beti, lived on the Loughborough Estate in Brixton, South London with her two boys. She spoke to The Canary about her experiences.
Mehari had her own business, managing the Art Nouveau restaurant in Brixton. But in 2015, Guinness Trust, now called the Guinness Partnership, demolished the estate after a decade-long redevelopment plan. It demolished the block of 390 social rented flats because it said they did not meet the government’s Decent Homes Standard. Instead of refurbishing them, Guinness decided to build 487 new housing units.
When Guinness took on the redevelopment, it did not offer any new secure tenancy agreements, despite its social housing status. Instead, it gave any new tenants assured shorthold tenancies (ASTs). This meant it was under no obligation to rehouse them.
But following tenant protests, Guinness rehoused 11 out of 100 of those on ASTs to Southwark. It also rehoused Mehari, who had been on an AST for 10 years. And it moved the rest to outer London boroughs, a lot further away.
A shocking increase
But when Guinness rehoused Mehari, she remained on an AST. And instead of ‘social rent’ (50% of market rent), it put her on ‘affordable rent’. This is up to 80% of market rent and took her rent from £109 to £265 per week. A 240% increase.
When Guinness evicted Mehari from Loughborough, she lost her business. She “hated” relying on the welfare system so she found a job as a waitress on a part-time zero hours contract. This prompted the Department for Work and Pensions to reassess her claim, suspending her current benefits for three months. It led Mehari into arrears on her rent. She says she has now worked out a payment plan with Guinness. But it has set a court hearing for 7 March, which she believes is to evict her.
If they evict Mehari, she says she may have to move outside of London, which would be “devastating” for her. If she refuses to move outside London, she will be classed as ‘intentionally homeless’. This means under the Localism Act 2011 the council has no obligation to house her. But according to Simon Elmer, an activist with Architects for Social Housing (ASH):
The Guinness Partnership, however, would still have a duty to re-house her children, and they have already threatened Beti that under such circumstances, Social Services will take her children from her.
What’s fair and right
Mehari’s story is turning into a living nightmare when all she wants is a home in a place she knows:
They won’t give me social rent, they won’t give me secure tenancy, now they want me to pay £265 a week in rent. I told them I have no more money.
They appointed a person who works with vulnerable people like me. But they act as a sort of debt collector. They go around finding any benefit that you can apply for, to pay the overpriced rent. And when my benefit failed to pay them on time, they decided to take me to court and evict me from my home.
They decided to wait until I’m at my most vulnerable to strike, just because I stand up for my rights. And it is my right to have a home.
She is not alone in thinking that this is a violation of rights. On Saturday 25 February, Mehari was campaigning to raise awareness of her situation in Brixton. And by chance, she found out that others had grievances with Guinness:
— Steve Topple (@MrTopple) February 25, 2017
And according to Elmer, a precedent case shows Mehari’s treatment is against the basic human right of respect for family life and home.
He also believes that it is infringing a ‘Public Sector Equality Duty‘. Discriminating against Mehari by forcing her children to move to new schools. And separating her as a black and ethnic minority person from her community.
From charity to a corporation’s bottom line
But a spokesperson from the Guinness Partnership told The Canary:
In line with Government policy a number of our homes are let at affordable rather than social rent. We do not change customers from social to affordable rent during a tenancy. However, if they start a new tenancy with us they may need to pay affordable rather than social rent. This would always be explained and agreed at the time.
We take arrears cases to court when the amount of arrears merits it and when customers are not engaging with us to agree a payment plan. This type of court action does not seek an eviction. Instead it formalises a payment agreement reached with a customer and protects them from eviction provided they stick to the terms of the payment plan agreed in court.
Guinness Partnership is a ‘registered provider of social housing‘ which has charitable status. But it has benefited greatly from converting social housing into affordable housing. Its own annual review [pdf] says:
Maximising rents within the rent framework, and by converting homes to Affordable Rent – we increased our income from Affordable Rents from £14.6m to £21.1m, through 559 conversions from Social Rent and through the letting of new homes at Affordable Rent.
And all of Mehari’s housing benefit – £1,149 per month – goes to Guinness, funded by central government. So, it’s the taxpayer lining Guinness’ pockets.
Where’s the morality?
As Mehari explains it, Guinness is maximising the amount it can get because she has recourse to public funds. Guinness has asked her neighbours for lesser amounts because they do not have the same recourse to funds. So, if the housing association wanted to reduce the rent it could.
Mehari’s case is a microcosm of what is wrong with housing policy in Britain. Rent increases do not only affect social tenants. People with money are willing to move into the area, so landlords can push rents up. This is gentrification and social cleansing personified. And the profiteering and tax exploitation of housing associations could target virtually anyone.
– Find out more about the issues by reading and following Architects for Social Housing.
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