Supreme Court judgment on affordability and homelessness

On 12 Jun 2019 the Supreme Court handed down its judgment in Samuels v Birmingham City Council [2019] UKSC 28. This landmark decision will fundamentally affect the way that housing authorities assess affordability in homelessness cases. This is relevant to whether somebody is homeless, or intentionally homeless and whether accommodation is suitable.   

Under the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) Order 1996 SI 1996/3204 the authority must consider whether accommodation is affordable and a key ingredient in this is the applicant’s “reasonable living expenses”. The Court heard that authorities applied widely varying approaches but Lord Carnwath, giving a judgment with which all other members of the court agreed, considered this to be an objective question that could not depend on the subjective view of case officers. Benefit levels were at least a good starting point for assessing reasonable living expenses and since the living costs identified by Ms Samuels were lower than this “in the absence of any other source of objective guidance on this issue, it is difficult to see by what standard that level of expenses could be regarded as other than reasonable” [35-6].

The Council’s decision was quashed with the observation it was hard to see on what basis the finding of intentional homelessness could be properly upheld [37].

The use of subsistence benefit levels as a benchmark for reasonable living expenses will potentially affect a huge number of tenants. As the court noted [20] shortfalls between contractual rent and maximum housing benefit have become common and so many occupiers are in the same position as Ms Samuels. This will not only affect people who are dependent on benefits because what matters is the level of residual income after rent and not its source.

Martin Westgate QC (leading Shu Shin Luh and Connor Johnston) acted for the interveners, Shelter and Child Poverty Action Group.

A copy of the judgment can be found here.