Are young people to be locked out of social housing altogether?
Last week the Chancellor announced that from April 2016 all new social housing tenancies will have their rents capped at the equivalent Local Housing Allowance rates, which has until now only been used to set housing benefit levels in private rented accommodation. One impact of this cut we are concerned about it that it will particularly affect single adults under 35 who will only be eligible for the Shared Accommodation Rate of Housing Benefit; this rate will be enough to cover the rent for a room in a shared house.
We await further information on this change, and hope to see appropriate exemptions put in place, but a probable consequence is that social housing providers will have to make a choice between abandoning any aim they had to house single people under 35 or to create and support shared housing in their existing stock.
Coincidentally, the day before the Chancellor made this announcement we launched our toolkit for Local Authorities and Housing Associations to set up shared tenancies in their stock. The evaluation of our Sharing Solutions Programme (through which Crisis funded and supported eight private rented sector access schemes to source and manage tenancies in shared private rented accommodation) demonstrated that for many, sharing can be a viable and positive housing option, both in terms of improving tenants’ wellbeing and also their financial situation. What underpins this success however is good pre-tenancy training and, vitally, ongoing support for tenants (and landlords) once tenants are in their tenancies. I have held a number of focus groups with sharers over the last couple of weeks and they have reinforced this point and attributed their positive experiences sharing to the support they received in and when preparing to start their tenancies. For many of those who shared their stories with us, without the help of their support workers, their homelessness would have long continued and some indicated they would have abandoned their tenancies without the help of the scheme supporting them.
Sharing can be difficult for many, and arguably more so for those who have had a chaotic housing history, or those with extensive support needs. Considering the current difficulties facing single people in accessing housing support from their Local Authority (which we explored in our Turned Away mystery shopping report) and the high vulnerability threshold needed to be passed to be classed in ‘priority need’ we are worried that many vulnerable single homeless people the local authority had previously deemed vulnerable enough to receive social housing accommodation of their own, will now be forced to share, potentially without support, and potentially with others with similar support needs and vulnerabilities. Without appropriate support there is a danger that shared social housing will end up as temporary accommodation where vulnerable people will not be able to get the stability that settled accommodation brings and which is vital to help people leave homelessness behind.
Support of shared tenancies needs to be properly staffed and resourced and it is our concern that without appropriate funding to pay for support staff, social housing providers will be unable to provide this ongoing sustainment support. Alternatively some providers may find that the only way of funding this support will be to permanently claim the intensive housing management subsidy of housing benefit (at a much higher rate than local housing allowance) making it difficult for many tenants to begin working due to the high level of rents these subsidies create. This may potentially force those who may have otherwise moved into full time but low paid work and moved onto more long term independent accommodation to stay sharing for long periods of time. Whilst we believe that there are some real positives to sharing it is often best seen as a stepping stone and it should be possible for people to move on from this accommodation set up.
Some social housing providers are already offering shared accommodation to applicants, and there are some fantastic examples of good practice in our toolkit. There are also different and innovative models of sharing and managing shared tenancies as explored through the Sharing Solutions Programme, for example the idea of lead tenants, peer mentors and support and training flats, that can make the experience more positive for tenants (and less risky and costly for landlords). However, the simple fact remains that for many people sharing will not be a suitable option, and we are concerned that this may lead to more people abandoning their tenancies and potentially an increase in single homelessness.
This is very much an emerging area of practice and one which is only being trialed on a small scale, however, with the changes announced last week it may well be the case that soon enough sharing in social housing is no longer considered a niche housing option and social housing providers will need to decide whether they are prepared to offer anything at all to young people.