Volunteering: ‘You know your Housing Rights Project’

By Caroline Jixin Gao 

A second year UCL Law student, was one of eight students to volunteer for the pilot project, in partnership with Haringey Citizens and Hodge Jones & Allen. In this blog post, she reflects on her experience delivering public legal education on housing law in Haringey and the wider implications of the housing crisis in London.

“Know Your Housing Rights with Haringey Citizens” is a pilot Pro Bono project, which involved us delivering educational workshops. As the name suggests, these workshops focused on giving Housing-related legal advice for residents. For this initiative, we worked with Citizens UK and solicitors from Hodge Jones & Allen. One of the solicitors remarked to us that they believe that Haringey is an “untapped market” for them to offer Housing-related legal advice, given the demographics of this area. As this is a pilot initiative, the conservative workshop numbers meant that we were able to deliver tight-knit interactive sessions. We were able to keep the workshops informal, and cater to the many specific questions posed by the participants. Hopefully, next iterations of the project will see an increase in turnout numbers, but this will also mean that the structure of the workshop has to adjust accordingly.

There were 8 of us, UCL law students, involved in this project. We split into two teams of 4. My team consisted of Sanjit, Diya, Sara and myself. Our first workshop was on Tenancy Rights and Responsibilities, and our second workshop was on Homelessness, Temporary Accommodation and Allocation, both conducted at St Mary’s Priory Catholic School.

My general takeaway from the project is observing how competing objectives in law play out in real life cases. Policymakers often have to impute certain sanctions and limitations to prevent abuse of the system, whilst still ensuring that the individual cases are treated equally and fairly.

The project gave rise to as many questions as there are solutions. Where do you draw the line between a need and want, and balance competing priorities? Will you consider that a disabled person who is immobile will be unable to live in a house without stairs? Or will you simply classify it as a grave inconvenience but not amounting to inability, if that particular disabled person has a carer? What if there is no stair-less temporary accommodation available, and the only alternative is homelessness? In reality, the defining line between needs and wants is rarely clear, and many compromises have to be made.

One way the Council has addressed this dilemma is through its Allocations Policy. In Haringey, Council Housing Applicants are ranked from Band A to C, with those being of immediate and critical need being placed in Band A, and those of moderate need in Band C.  Most applicants will be placed in Band B, which caters to those of a serious need, and this includes the real life case of a disabled husband and his carer wife. It is important to note that, given the severely burdened Allocations system and the limited supply of Council housing, this means that the Council’s noble aims are rarely fulfilled to its entirety. For example, in both 2014/2015 and 2015/2016, no Haringey applicants placed in Band C succeeded in securing permanent Council Housing.

It is tough not to be emotionally stirred by some of the heart wrenching stories, but that sentiment has to be tempered with a perspective for the bigger picture. Often, there may be people out there whom are in even more severe need, and are in more critical circumstances. A Common complaint lodged by the Haringey residents during our focus group was that, no matter how much time they dedicate to bidding for their Housing, there will always be “someone who swoops in at the last-minute, who is more needy than them” (quoting a resident). Over time, this degenerates into a vicious cycle of desperation and resignation. A common sentiment is also that the bidding system is more competitive than ever before, and that a decade ago it was relatively easy to secure Council housing- a revealing sign of the growing housing crisis in London. Rent affordability problems that the City faces has placed unprecedented demands upon state institutions, to provide for the increasing numbers of Londoners that have fallen through the cracks.

Despite systemic inadequacies, I am nevertheless relieved by the fact that the UK’s welfare system seeks to help the most destitute. I am glad that Pro Bono initiatives like ours are able to offer assistance to those in desperate need of legal advice on their housing arrangements.

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