What Works – Tackling rent arrears

Kick them out or help them pay the rent? A number of social landlords find nagging more effective than threatening eviction if they want to get their rent. Report by Melanie Delargy

Since 1994 social landlords have combated increasing rent arrears with a zero tolerance approach. It’s been a case of ‘no more Mr Nice Guy’. Tenants in arrears swiftly find themselves in court defending a possession action. Possession action, which was once a last resort remedy for the very worst payers, has become the usual course of action.

This is reflected in the court figures for possession actions. Between 1994 and 2001, the number of possession orders granted to social landlords doubled from 13,944 to a peak of 30,350 in 2001. The most recent figures show a slight fall in outright orders granted. In 2003 there were 29,825.

At the same time rent arrears add up to a significant amount of money. At 31 March 2002, local authorities in England and Wales were owed £647 million in rent by current and former tenants, an average of over £2 million for each authority.

But there are signs that the mood has changed. Increased possession action is expensive and does not have much of an impact on arrears. And campaigns by ROOF, Shelter and Citizens Advice calling for the number of households evicted from social housing to be monitored has brought the issue to the attention of the social housing sector.

As of this year, the Housing Corporation will monitor eviction action by housing associations. The ODPM will follow suit following the announcement of new performance indicators in July.

But some social landlords have already taken it upon themselves to find alternative ways of chasing rent arrears. And they are finding that the nice guy approach is working.