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When everyone has a home

Housing advice for Northern Ireland

Falling behind on your rent

You could lose your home if you don’t pay your rent.  Your landlord, whether it’s the Housing Executive or a housing association will have to follow the proper procedure before this happens. Part of this procedure is to work with you to try to sort out the problem.

Your landlord can take you to court to evict you if you owe rent.  Before the landlord can take you to court, it must try to sort out the debt in other ways.  There is a Pre Action Protocol for rent arrears.  This means that the court won’t hear the case unless your landlord has followed certain steps.

Dealing with the problem

Your housing officer should contact you once you’ve fallen behind on your rent.  Explain why you missed your rent payment.  If you’re having financial problems at the moment, be honest about this.  Your landlord may be able to make an appointment for you with an independent advice agency to help you sort out your money problems.

Working out a repayment plan

You can clear your rent debt in one lump sum but most people end up paying the debt off in instalments.  To work out how much you can afford to pay each week, you need to prepare a financial statement.

Before going to court

The Housing Executive or housing association must follow a number of steps before it can take legal action to evict you because you haven’t paid your rent.  It must

  • contact you as soon as possible after you’ve fallen into arrears to discuss the problem
  • encourage you to apply for benefits and get money advice from an independent agency
  • explain that you could lose your home if you don’t take action to sort this problem out
  • try to work out an affordable repayment plan that will allow you to pay off your debt over time
  • arrange for a weekly deduction to be made from your benefits to cover your debt

If you don’t respond to letters your landlord should try to contact you by phone or visit your home to try to discuss your arrears. The Housing Executive or housing association should not take you to court if

  • you owe less than £300 in rent
  • you are waiting for a housing benefit claim to be calculated or you’re appealing a housing benefit decision
  • you’ve agreed to a repayment plan and you’re keeping up with the payments.

Going to court for rent arrears

The Housing Executive or housing association can evict tenants who don’t pay their rent.  If you’ve been given a date for a court hearing it’s really important that you go to this, even if your landlord says you don’t have to.

Go to an advice agency before your court appointment.  The advice agency might

  • help you prepare a financial statement that you can take to court
  • send an adviser with you to the court hearing
  • ask the court for an adjournment to give you time to sort out your finances.

At court the judge will listen to you and to your housing officer.  The judge can make an order requiring that you pay a certain amount of extra money each week to cover the rent you owe.  If you don’t keep up with this payment your landlord can take you back to court and may be able to possess your home.

The judge can also make an immediate order for possession which means you could have to leave your home within 28 days.  You may be able to stay in your home, even if the judge makes an immediate order for possession, but you’ll need to speak to an adviser urgently.

The Housing Executive or housing association should only ask for an immediate order for possession if there is no way that you can repay your debt or you are continually falling behind on your rent and make no attempt to sort out the problem.  Read more about the possible outcomes when you go to court in our section on eviction. 

Housing benefit problems

You shouldn’t be taken to court if you have fallen behind on your rent because you’ve applied for housing benefit and this hasn’t been paid yet.  Housing benefit claims can be delayed if

  • the Housing Executive doesn’t have all the information it needs to make a decision or
  • there is a backlog of claims waiting to be processed.

If more than 14 days have passed since you’ve given the Housing Executive all the information it needs to make a decision you can ask for an interim payment of housing benefit. Housing Rights and other advice agencies can help if you need to appeal a housing benefit decision

Writing off arrears

On rare occasions, the Housing Executive or housing association may agree to write off rent money that is owed.  This can only happen if

  • the Housing Executive hasn't been able to prove to a court that you owe the money,
  • the person who ran up the rent arrears has died and noone else has taken on responsibility for the debt,
  • the person who owes the money cannot be traced,
  • it won't be cost effective to recover the arrears,
  • the arrears are less than £100 and previous voluntary attempts have failed,
  • the person who owes the money has been sentenced to over 5 years in prison.