Category Archives: Housing

Are we losing the care in our communities?

Bill Mumford, chairman, Voluntary Organisations Disability Group
When the revolution of care in the community took place, the decision to close long stay institutions resulted in a new, big idea; normal lifestyles, in normal houses, in normal streets.

People found themselves discharged from hospitals into small group homes in virtually every town in the UK. These were shared houses registered as care homes operating effectively as shared supported housing in the days before the supported living drive but without the important security of a tenancy. For many it felt like not only a new life, but a better one.

But now, just as people are looking forward to enjoying this life, due to bureaucratic, regulatory and financial reasons, people are trapped in unwanted small registered care homes. These homes are now closing because of running costs or the need to meet national minimum standards and changes in commissioning practice which prefer supported housing over ‘care homes’.

The problem is these closures are not happening in a strategic or orderly way, so the people living there face the prospect of another move into the unknown.

Take John, for example. He has a complex disability and moved from a long stay institution in 1986 to live in the community. His funding came from the council (let’s call it council A) where his parents lived although his new home was based in a different local authority area (council B).

In 1990 John moved to a smaller house, still registered as a care home (as it was before the supported living options became available), but less rural and with more to do in the community. The new house was still based in council B’s area and the funding arrangements continued.

Over the last 15 years John and his housemates have enjoyed a settled and fairly contented life building up their local support networks. Recently, two of the other people living there have moved on, leaving behind John and a fellow housemate, Mary (she is funded by council C).

The problem is that the charity that runs the home cannot find new people to move in to fill the vacancies – it has continued to run the service at a loss for the past two years.

The inability to find people to join John and Mary has been largely due to the understandable reluctance of authorities to make referrals to registered care placements.

As a solution, the charity could de-register the accommodation so it is no longer classed as a care home, but if it does so, it will come up against two bureaucratic barriers. Firstly, local government ‘ordinary residence’ rules mean council B would have to take on the support costs for John and Mary (while councils A and C would relinquish all funding). Secondly, council B is reluctant to open up its procurement arrangements to recognise the charity as a preferred contractor so will not place people there under contract for supported living!

Unknown to John and Mary, the home is likely to close and they will be faced with a move back to authorities A and C, a part of the country they haven’t lived in for over 20 years where not many family members remain. The costs to authorities A and C are very likely to increase while authority B will lose a good resource that could meet local needs.

The Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG) researched the issues affecting people with disabilities because of the Ordinary Residence rules in 1997.

Our 2007 report titled No Place Like Home recommended three actions: firstly to agree the principle of a person-centred approach to funding and placement, secondly for the government to issue guidance and thirdly to put in place a framework for funding to transfer between authorities.

In October the VODG published Not in My Backyard as a follow up and found that despite the fact that new guidance had been issued there was little evidence of good practice. VODG demands the government include the concept of portability of social care entitlement in the white paper on social care due to be published next year.

We must do right by people like John and Mary; they represent a particularly wronged generation of people. Regardless of promises for future reform we need a kind of national amnesty, one that ensures funding is in the right place, providers and commissioners are working in partnership and individuals are given a proper voice. Because putting people first is not just a one off action, it is an enduring commitment.

Housing’s X factor is tenancy support

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.

Caught in a trap: why the disabled can’t leave their care homes

From my Society Guardian feature this morning:
Anna McNaughton fell in love with the West Sussex seaside town of Worthing when she moved there two years ago. It’s a stone’s throw from Brighton, around an hour by train from London, and its bars, cafes and restaurants are edged by a tree-lined promenade. Having had a room in a shared house since moving, the 23-year-old wants her own space.

Some interesting comments posted about this article by Guardian readers are here.

What about some real incentives if you want mobility in social housing?

Housing minister Grant Shapps has ignited a huge row this week after criticising some housing association bosses for their “morally wrong” salaries; some pay packets certainly sit uncomfortably alongside figures showing high unemployment among housing association tenants. But, asks Chloe Stothart, can plans for more social mobility schemes in the affordable housing sector really lead tenants into work?

Freelance journalist Chloe Stothart
Seaside towns can be a fun, bustling place for a summer break. But after the tourists head home, job opportunities can disappear too. Rosalyn McCrohon, who used to live in Cromer, Norfolk, thought she had little chance of finding work there after being made redundant from her job as a school administrator in October 2009. She decided to move. She choose Norwich, an hour and a half away, where she hoped the job prospects were better and where her children went to school.

It can take a long time for housing association tenants like Rosalyn to find a suitable home to move into. Existing tenants wait for transfers at the back of the queue behind new applicants who are in greater housing need. Falls in housebuilding, sales of social homes and growing waiting lists mean demand for housing is high. People who want to move may wait for a long time, in the meantime they could be living in deprived areas of high unemployment.

However, Rosalyn’s landlord, housing association Peddars Way, is a member of a national home swapping website which is intended to make it easier for tenants to move. The House Exchange scheme has 89,000 tenants registered and is run by housing association Circle Anglia, which has 61,500 homes in the east, south, Midlands and London. On House Exchange, a tenant enters their preferred area and type of home, and several matches come up. A survey of 600 users found 79% moved within six months while 8% waited between one and three years.

Rosalyn moved to Norwich in April six months after advertising her home on the site. Her children now have a much shorter journey to school and she has been offered a job editing a local magazine.

Poor mobility can not only make it harder for tenants to move for work, but it can also stop them moving to care for relatives or to escape overcrowded accommodation. A report commissioned by Circle Anglia from think tank the Human City Institute estimated poor mobility in social housing costs £542m a year. This includes the loss of free care that tenants would provide to sick and elderly relatives if they lived nearby, the increase in earnings tenants would forgo if they could not move for work and – for those who want to transfer to larger properties – the impact of overcrowding on health and educational performance.

Last month the government announced plans for a single national home-swap scheme. Its interest is closely tied to its drive to get more people off benefits and into work. Unemployed social tenants are firmly in its sights because of relatively high rates of worklessness in the sector: of the 9.1 million people who are without work, according to the 2007 government-commissioned Hills report into social housing, nearly a third live in social housing.

But can mobility schemes really reduce tenant unemployment? One look at the evidence, and it seems that Rosalyn’s story is the exception rather than the rule.

In national surveys mentioned in the Human City report, just 2% of tenants want to move for work; 26% want a larger home and 15% want to be nearer to family and friends.

A 2008 study by Sheffield Hallam University also found that few tenants believed moving home would increase their chance of finding employment. Many tenants interviewed had fairly low skills and were looking for low wage manual work, which has little job security. They did not believe there would be more secure or plentiful jobs elsewhere so there was little point in moving. They feared they might be underpaid benefits after getting a new job and might not be able to claim benefits again if they lost the job.

Social housing is not the only type of housing with an unemployment problem.

A Cabinet Office paper found 43% of working-age homeowners were unemployed and 55% were economically inactive in 2000/1 compared with 40% and 32% in social housing.

Perhaps the high rates of unemployment amongst home owners as well as social tenants suggest that there is no clear link between tenure and unemployment?

While an easy to use national mobility scheme will certainly help tenants to move to a home they like – and could help those with skills to move to get work – it is unlikely to have a big impact on unemployment or overcrowding on its own. The root causes of unemployment and overcrowding – such as the lack of appropriate skills, lack of stable jobs locally – are needed to make a real difference to those problems.
A version of this post appeared in the Society Guardian social housing pullout, Building Solutions, earlier this week.

Today’s new Society Guardian housing pullout

If you want a bite-sized glimpse of social housing setting out its stall ahead of the spending review, scroll down to the end of this post to see the Society Guardian pullout that I commissioned and which is published today. It echoes many of the issues being aired at the National Housing Federation annual conference that started in Birmingham today.

By a marvellous quirk of publishing fate, it can even be read by social housing’s alleged fat cats without fear of criticism as it had to go to press well before housing minister Grant Shapps officially put them in the austerity spotlight. Even more quaintly, not only is it a Shapps-free zone, but it’s also not yet online – hence the old school PDF format I’ve resorted to here.

Click on page 1 for a description by ex-Inside Housing editor Kate Murray of how the rising demand for homes, predicted budget, reduction in housebuilding and a plethora of other regime changes has left the affordable housing sector facing an unprecedented challenges.

Check p2-3 for a feature by housing specialist Chloe Stothart on how social landlords are making it easier for their tenants to find employment. There are also features by Mark Gould and Anita Pati on how associations are working in partnership on training their tenants and how other organisations have launched neighbourhood contracts to improve their areas or schemes to boost the inclusion of marginalised tenants.

The last page is worth a read, given the announcement today of the expansion in personal budgets – the scheme that allows patients more control over their care. The feature focuses on the work of landlord Look Ahead on the personalisation agenda, boosting choice for vulnerable tenants so they’re regarded as “customers” with real choice.

So even if you’re rattled by the telephone number pay cheques of social housing’s highest earners, there’s still much to be admired in the sector, not least, as I’ve stated in the pullout’s intro, its far-reaching social and economic impact.

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