Jane Forster is a realist. ‘Homeless people with chaotic lifestyles aren’t the most attractive tenants to private landlords,’ she says.
It’s a realism that sometimes seems to be lacking among the policy-makers planning a bigger role for the private rented sector in providing homes for those most in need. The government plans to allow councils to discharge their duty under homelessness legislation with the offer of a home in the private sector in its consultation on the reform of social housing – whether or not the applicants agree.
The move, ministers say, will prevent applicants insisting on being offered social housing and will mean would-be tenants spend far less time in temporary accommodation waiting for the offer of a home. But are we really ready for a big expansion in the use of the private sector to house homeless people?
Can tenants, who are often vulnerable, simply be placed in the private sector and left to go on with it?
The experience of people like Jane Forster suggests that we will need to see a concerted effort to make the homeless tenant/private sector match-up work.
Forster is income generation officer at Mansfield District Council. Mansfield has been running an impressive scheme which offers dedicated support to both tenants and private sector landlords and which has just been a finalist in the Guardian’s public services awards.
The Multi Agency Rented Solution scheme – or MARS – is, despite its name, a down-to-earth solution to the problem of tenancy breakdown. Applicants from the council’s waiting list are offered help in getting money from a credit union for advance rent payments and then given ongoing support to help them stay in their new home. Landlords too have access to liaison officers who help them
The results are impressive. Since it was launched, it has helped some 120 people into a new private sector home, brought 48 empty properties back into use and cut repeat homelessness by 63 per cent. The scheme has been such a success, it is now being rolled out as a social enterprise.
But it’s not an easy fix: making an initiative like this work demands commitment. As Forster puts it: ‘The X factor is tenancy support. That’s what makes it work, when people are vulnerable and don’t have all the skills to live their life, they need ongoing support.’ Mansfield is not the only housing provider doing valuable work in this area.
Look Ahead Housing and Care, for example, has been a strong advocate of the need to make good use of the private sector in housing the ex-residents of homelessness hostels in the capital. Its approach has involved preparing residents for a move into the private rented sector and offering ongoing support as they settle in.
Landlords benefit too, getting the reassurance of proper assessments of their new tenants plus ongoing help, like mediation should the landlord/tenant relationship start to break down.
When it launched its plans for councils to make greater use of the private sector to house those on their waiting lists, the government said only 7 per cent of homeless applicants currently accepted a home in the private sector, compared with 70 per cent of cases which ended with an offer of social housing. We could see a big shift in these proportions once the new rules come in.
The element of compulsion in the government’s proposals doesn’t appeal. But it’s true that with a dire shortage of social housing, the private sector can and should be seen as offering a viable option for many people who would otherwise struggle to get a home. But the approach needs to be backed by proper, ongoing support. Otherwise we risk pushing some of the most vulnerable in our society into homes they will struggle to sustain.