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Chris Norris @nationalandlord Head of Policy, Public Affairs and Research at the National Landlords Association

No easy answers but a shared objective: creating homes

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at one of a series of events hosted by Crisis, which focussed on improving access for homeless individuals and households to the private rented sector (PRS).

It was a pleasure not because of the topic, frankly the issue is one of the most challenging we face, but because it brought together a group of people with a shared objective.

That is not to say that we all agreed on everything, but across the board all those present wanted to find a way to match landlords, properties and tenants and ultimately create sustainable relationships and safe, secure homes.

And that is the key point. It is very easy to fall into the trap of dehumanising the processes and people essential to the functioning of the PRS. We talk constantly about tenants, agreements, landlords and (most annoyingly to me personally) ‘properties’. We rarely, it would seem, talk about the essential relationships which sustain tenancies, or the homes which are their valuable output.

As demonised as private-landlords often are the overwhelming majority want to provide homes. Not necessarily out of some social duty, or philanthropic urge – we are after all trying to make a profit – but because people treat their homes with respect, they value them and they want above almost everything-else to remain there. Regardless of our respective motivations, this is surely a win-win situation.

Now, before anyone accuses me of being insincere or hypocritical, I should add that landlords will make decisions about the type of risk they are prepared to take on in terms of new tenants, which can throw up barriers to working with potential tenants with unconventional or chaotic lifestyles – including those presenting as homeless.

However, the reason for doing this is that they want tenancies to work out. They don’t want to find themselves forced to end tenancies because they have failed.

Regaining possession of a property and re-letting is expensive, time-consuming and risky. It also deprives a household of their home and can allow the cycle of repeated homelessness to persist.

Therefore it is in everybody’s interest to minimise failure, and that process begins before the parties in question have even met, let-alone entered into a tenancy agreement.

It is this fear of tenancy failure that forms a barrier to letting, and thereby exactly central to any work undertaken to reduce barriers to access.

There are numerous reasons why a landlord might be reticent to let to a previously homeless household, but In the National Landlords Association’s (NLA) experience they can generally be summarised as ‘risk’.

  • Risk that the rent won’t be paid
  • Risk that the tenant won’t take care of the property
  • Risk that the tenancy will fail and they have to start all over again; and
  • Risk of the unknown

Access schemes, and the campaigning work that Crisis undertakes, can go some way to off-setting this risk. In very practical terms there are a few steps which could mitigate risk:

  • Provide a security deposit or bond. This can help to assure landlords that they will have some recourse against damages or loss of income – although only to a limited degree and work will be required to convince landlords that they are protected by bond schemes as experience has tended to vary.
  • Provide assurance that rents will be paid. Although not always possible, some approaches by private-sector leasing schemes and third party agencies have had success in negotiating longer tenancies and lower rents (not to mention access) with landlords in return for a guarantee of rent payments. At an even more basic level, make sure that you can reference prospective tenants to give landlords an insight into their likely risk.
  • Provide (and demonstrate) on-going support. Private landlords are rarely qualified to provide ongoing tenancy support, providing a visible and consistent point of contact able to support tenancies beyond inception can assuage fears of failure.
  • Be professional. This is not meant to be patronising in any way, but landlords all too often perceive local authority contacts or those from the third sector as well-meaning but naïve. Simply presenting schemes as professional packages, with a plan linked to objectives, will elicit far more confidence and a greater likelihood of acceptance.

That being said there remains an elephant in the room, which goes by the name of welfare reform. So long as Local Housing Allowance (LHA) (and in the future Universal Credit) rates continue to restrict access to the very bottom of the market , and fail to at least reflect market rents, only a minority of landlords will be willing or able to engage with vulnerable groups.

Already NLA members tell us that they have become less likely to accept LHA recipients. The percentage of landlords working with households in receipt of support has reduced from 36 per cent in 2012 to only 20 per cent at the end of 2014 – and this is unlikely to improve any time soon.

There is enormous competition for housing in many parts of the UK and if those in need of support in the form of LHA or Universal Credit are unable to compete financially for the accommodation they need, then it will be increasingly difficult to establish a home. Let alone sustain it.

The NLA is backing Crisis’ ‘Home. No less will do.’ campaign’ and we call on the government to take action to ensure that risks to landlords are removed, homeless people get the support they need and together, we create sustainable relationships and safe, secure homes.