Last week Digs were contacted by Nadia, a private tenant living on Defoe Road in Stoke Newington. Nadia and her son Jad have been fighting eviction from their home since July 2016. Having exhausted all of their other options, they reached out to Digs as a final resort to see if we could help them win a little more time. Unfortunately, just two days later, at 7 a.m. on Friday 25 August, a High Court bailiff drilled through their front door and evicted them, while their landlord stood around in the road outside drinking coffee.
Their story displays all of the usual traits of a system in which the needs of tenants are ignored. It is a compact demonstration of the combined effects of profiteering, resource-starved local authorities, a housing benefits system constructed almost entirely out of potholes, and basic failures in human sympathy. It is also, more importantly, a live case involving two people who need immediate care and support.
Problems with Housing Benefit and Section 21s
Like many private tenants in Hackney, Nadia has been experiencing the effects of housing profiteering for years. After she lost her job as an ESOL teacher in 2010, she moved from Islington to Hackney with her two children (the eldes t has since moved out). The three-bedroom home on Defoe Road was the cheapest suitable accommodation she could find, at £2,600 a month. For anyone in Hackney on low income, it’s a common story.
In 2015, a combination of depression and problems with housing benefit led to Nadia falling into arrears. A few months later her landlord served her with a Section 21 notice (no-fault eviction), which landlords usually prefer to a Section 8 (Fault-Based Possession), for the simple reason that it allows them to kick their tenants out faster.
With no way of claiming her benefits back, Nadia went to the Council, who advised her that she should stay in her home until she received a possession order, since otherwise she would be considered ‘intentionally homeless’ and thus ineligible for local authority support. With Jad’s GCSEs coming up, and facing homelessness if she tried to move, Nadia had no choice but to attempt to delay the eviction.
Uphill battles in the courts
Because the government has placed severe restrictions on access to legal support, Nadia was forced to represent herself in court. In her own words:
“The landlord tried ultrahard to evict us right in the midst of my son’s GCSEs. Basically the district judge at the first hearing was more humane than the landlord although not so much. The landlord specifically asked for high court judge ‘to make it quicker’. The district judge agreed.
I launched an appeal myself, which prevented the March 20th eviction (my birthday!) which was then scheduled for October allowing time to prepare for appeal and my son to finish GCSE’S. Of course the landlord baulked and got it put forward to 11th Aug and less sympathetic judge.”
Right from the start, ‘making things quicker’ was obviously high on the landlord’s list of priorities. At the first district court hearing on 24 February, he applied to have the case transferred to High Court bailiffs (HCEOs). These High Court bailiffs process evictions faster than County Court bailiffs and have the privilege of calling in the police to do their dirty work for them. They are also relieved of the obligation to provide the tenant with a specific time at which the eviction is to take place – an obligation that is inconvenient for bailiffs and a small but significant source of security for harassed and frightened tenants.
On Friday 25 August the High Court bailiff arrived at 7 a.m. and left in his ostentatious new Mercedes a little after 10 a.m. The police arrived at 9 a.m. and proved eventually to be more cooperative, agreeing to help Nadia and Jad move some of their essentials to the Council office on Hillman Street. However, even this wasn’t assured at the outset. Without the presence of friends of Nadia’s who could provide support and help her to press her case, things could have turned out quite differently.
The great majority of Nadia and Jad’s possessions – and also their pet cat – were left in the house from which they had just been evicted.
And the hostility from the landlord and the High Court officers didn’t end there. Nadia and Jad were initially told that their belongings would be left untouched in the house for seven days, and that they would be given a choice as to how the removal would take place. Either they would remove everything themselves, under the supervision of security guards for whose presence they themselves would have to pay, or the landlord would pay his own removals people to place everything in temporary storage.
Not much of a choice. But then the next day Nadia received notice from the landlord that her and Jad’s possessions had been taken into storage and crammed – and sometimes damaged in the process – into plastic boxes, in no particular order and without any regard to Nadia’s wishes.
Back at Hillman Street on the late afternoon of the 25th, Nadia and Jad were forced to wait in the Council offices for the whole day, before eventually an offer was made of temporary accommodation in a B&B near to Finsbury Park. This is where they are now. Jad, who has completed his exams under the shadow of impending eviction, and who was forced to miss an interview at his preferred sixth-form college because he was waiting in the Council offices, is due to start school again in a few weeks’ time.
Nadia has fought a long and difficult battle to remain in place for the sake of her son and has been constantly pressed between the landlord and the courts, on the one side, and the unwillingness of the Council to intervene, on the other. Now that she and Jad have been evicted from their home, there are three issues that Digs think need to be acted on urgently:
1) No one deserves to be thrown out of their home by police or to be lied to about how their belongings will be treated. We hope that Hackney Council will take an interest in the circumstances under which Nadia’s case was fast-tracked to the High Court to ensure that the relevant legal requirements were observed. We would also be keen to know what (if anything) can be done if landlords and their representatives fail to consult a tenant before they clear out their belongings.
2) Nadia and Jad need to be housed in the borough. So far they have been offered a one-bed private rental in Edmonton. This is inadequate for two people who both have strong connections to Hackney and very immediate and pressing reasons (to do with support networks, health and schooling) to continue to be housed here.
3) Tenants’ rights need to be prioritized. Nadia’s ex-landlord and his wife (who works for a documentary company that often produces films about vulnerable children) live in a five-story home around the corner from their second property, which they rent out for a total of more than £30,000 a year. A legal system that prioritises their rights over those of the unemployed mother who rents from them is abhorrent. A housing system that exposes tenants to their greed and their whims is unacceptable. Both need to be changed fundamentally.