Plymouth Access to Housing (PATH) is an independent homelessness charity, set up in the early 1990s to help deal with the growing concerns about levels of homelessness in the city. They offer advice to people about accessing and maintaining housing.
Setting up a social enterprise
In 2006, the organisation started considering the issues and opportunities of setting up a social enterprise lettings in Plymouth. Challenges included operating in an area with limited available properties and high demand, especially from the student population. There were also many barriers to PATH's clients accessing private rentals, including tenancy deposits, fees and referencing.
However, PATH recognised there was a significant demand for the service. From tenants they were already responding to over 400 referrals for deposit guarantees and 100 needing tenancies through supported accommodation per year. They were also contacted by landlords who were looking for management services that they could not provide. There was also a gap in the local market for somebody to specialise in working with tenants and tenancies in receipt of Housing Benefit/Local Housing Allowance.
Running a community letting agency
The decision was made to set up an independent, community letting agency which would handle the property management on behalf of landlords and take on properties for a fee. Plymouth Homes4let was established as a letting agency, and now has two members of staff, a trainee and a board of directors.
In total they have over 100 hundred properties to let out, including to people on housing benefits. Rental rates for tenants are kept at local housing allowance levels and there are no fees for tenants. PATH is flexible regarding references and undertakes quarterly property inspections and offer different maintenance options. They also have links to housing support for tenants.
An initial consideration for PATH whilst setting up was where to get start-up funding from. They were helped by the fact that as soon as they began trading they started making an income. They also linked to local authorities, the deposit guarantee scheme and to housing-related support.
PATH recognises running a social letting agency is not always easy. Working with tenants on housing benefits puts greater demands on staff time. There are financial implications of not taking fees from tenants or subsidies, meaning they rely completely on fees from landlords. The competing demands of social focus versus business pressures are another consideration as is the need to react to upcoming changes to local housing allowance.
However, PATH believes the model does work to increase access to housing for low income and homeless households. Their next step is to expand with the opening of Devon Homes4Let which will begin to operate in Torbay and then Teignbridge, and to look at other opportunities to grow.