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HIGHLAND HOUSING CRISIS: £3.3m owed in rent arrears due to cost of living

By Scott Maclennan

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Inverness at cloudy weather in summer, Scotland, uk
Inverness at cloudy weather in summer, Scotland, uk

New figures from Highland Council have shone a light the region’s housing crisis offering further evidence of how it is fuelled by the cost-of-living crisis as rent arrears have increased by 28 per cent in the last two years.

It comes as the leader of a group advising struggling residents across the area revealed some people have up to three jobs to make ends meet but fears things will get worse this winter.

That rent arrears number has fallen since the final quarter of the last financial year but only by just over £76,000 meanwhile just under 9000 are on waiting lists with greatest demand seen in Inverness and Ross-shire.

Councillors on the housing and property committee will consider the position Highland Council is in on Thursday, though it will not be asked to take any decisions on the issues despite the dire state of affairs.

Several areas stood out in the report by Brian Cameron, the council’s interim head of housing and building maintenance, he said: “This is related to the cost-of-living crisis which has increased the number of tenants in arrears.”

In all, 5520 tenants were in arrears for the January to March period but that fell to 4912 in April to June. The debt owed is £3.3 million but he pointed out that 1105 of those owed less than the average week’s rent of £85 and 335 owed less than £20.

The Cost of Living (Scotland) Act passed by the Scottish Government in October 2022 temporarily suspended most evictions but landlords like the council are able to evict due to ongoing antisocial behaviour and or tenants amassing arrears of over £2250.

However, that higher level of arrears has also risen sharply both in the number of cases where people have exceeded the £2250 total and the total volume of arrears in pounds.

Mr Cameron said: “All high-level arrears cases are under regular review. It should be noted that at the end of quarter one 2023/24, there were 350 arrears cases over £2250 with a combined arrears total of £1,282,861.

“This compares with 235 cases over £2250 in quarter one 2022/23 with a combined arrears total of £807,034” but he added: “Most of our tenants remain willing to responsibly manage their rent accounts.”

There were a total of 8951 people who made applications and sit on the housing and transfer list on the housing register at the end of 2022/23 down from 9416 in the previous year.

Mr Cameron said: “In 2019/20 before Covid-19, the total number stood at 7785. Of all applications held at the end of last year, 71.5 per cent are not currently a tenant of a Highland Housing Register landlord.

“Just over half of these applicants are privately renting or living with family. Around one in 10 households are living in temporary ‘homeless’ accommodation or are ‘homeless at home’.”

This has illustrated, he said, the “continuing need for smaller-sized properties” as half of all applicants are single people and 10 per cent are couples, although these figures vary in different areas.

Inverness has by far the highest number of housing applications, followed by Ross and Cromarty, then Lochaber.

While that expresses the volume of demand, in fact the number of applications per property tells a different story.

Badenoch and Strathspey had eight applicants per property whereas Inverness had 5.6, Nairn had 7.8, Mid Ross had 4.1 but Wester Ross received 10.6 applications for each property that was let.

Alsadair Christie.
Alsadair Christie.

Alasdair Christie, the general manager of Inverness, Badenoch and Strathspey Citizens Advice Bureau, said: “At Citizens Advice we are seeing an increasing number of folk approaching us in severe difficulty in being able to pay their rent when it falls due.

“This includes tenants in council houses, housing associations as well as private tenancies. We are helping folk that are in essence one paycheck away from being in serious financial difficulty that could put their housing in jeopardy.

“Those tenants on full housing benefit whilst struggling with the continuing cost-of-living crisis have an allocated amount for rent.

“Those that are working just above the benefit level are those that appear to be struggling; they have no help available from benefits. Anecdotally we are seeing clients holding down two or three jobs in order to cover energy, rent and food costs.

“Our advice remains to encourage folk to make early contact with Citizens Advice in order that our experienced staff can help and explain options and negotiate with creditors.”

He concluded with a warning: “As we move towards Christmas, we are expecting to see the situation worsening.”

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