Recognising the social responsibilities of the Private Rented Sector within local welfare systems

The Private Rented Sector (PRS) is an established and rapidly growing solution to homelessness and local housing need. However, the social responsibilities and challenges faced by private landlords and letting agents demands greater attention.

When considering local housing duties and the obligations of social landlords to meet the needs of tenants, the line between housing and social care has always been blurred. Those divisions of responsibility have become increasingly opaque over the last decade, as people with some of the most complex social support needs have transferred from social and supported housing to the PRS.

A shrinking and increasingly risk-averse social housing sector is not only unable to meet demand but excludes individuals on the basis of rent arrears, anti-social behaviour and criminal convictions, as Crisis have recently demonstrated. The removal of the ringfence around Supporting People funding and a reported 37% reduction in core council funding between 2010 and 2016 also shows how programmes of austerity have undermined the capacity of the social and supported housing sector through decommission and decline.

In response to rising levels of homelessness and increased spending on temporary accommodation, spending on supported housing services through the Supporting People programme has subsequently fallen by 59% since 2010/11.

Recent government proposals suggest that ringfenced funding for short-term supported housing such as hostels and other supported accommodation will be allocated to councils to continue housing and related support for some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people in society. However, significant questions remain about how councils will prioritise their devolved funding between issues relating to housing, homelessness and social care.

It is within the context of austerity and devolved welfare systems that private landlords and letting agents have found themselves at the centre of homelessness prevention strategies. Yet the insecurity of PRS tenancies, poor standards in the sector and widening discrimination against people in receipt of Universal Credit demonstrates how the PRS is responsible for causing homelessness, as well as being positioned as the solution.

My PhD research explored this challenging environment as part of a qualitative, city-based case study of local housing and support providers across the public, private and Third Sector. The council’s PRS access scheme mediates between the needs of people in need of housing and the interests of PRS landlords and letting agents. However, those who took part in the research had chosen to avoid engaging with the scheme due to their experiences and perceptions about the behaviours of people coming through homelessness services. This resistance was particularly exercised towards younger people.

Landlords and letting agents described individuals who presented problematic behaviours as beyond the expertise or responsibility of the PRS, and acknowledged the tightening of access requirements within the social rented sector. Social responsibility within the PRS was recognised, yet contested.

Where damage liability or deposit schemes were offered by the council, landlords described the cost of managing complex tenant issues as unacceptably high and inadequately compensated. Heavier and more costly regulations were also associated with PRS access initiatives, and highlighted the trade-off between enforcement and cooperation that councils must negotiate when including the PRS within homelessness prevention work.

The absence of support workers or other agencies involved in managing PRS tenancies, even through PRS access schemes, was an important finding. The lack of engagement between PRS and social support services is perhaps unsurprising when considering the traditional division of welfare between public, private and third sector bodies, as well as tenant rights to privacy.

Within increasingly ‘housing-led’ or choice-based systems of homelessness provision, social support is decoupled from housing and often presented to individuals as an optional extra through floating support services. Yet participants from those support services and from the PRS questioned the extent to which needs were adequately identified through the council’s assessments of housing and support needs, and emphasised the value of more assertive and supportive housing services than were offered.

In fact, PRS landlords and letting agents in this case study highlighted the importance of care and support within the process of lettings and allocation, as much as discretion and discrimination. As other research has shown, social mix in communal buildings and especially shared accommodation was a significant concern.

The risk that people using substances may undermine the progress of tenants recovering from addiction was a particular example of the responsibility taken within the lettings process. Yet information provided by the council about such complex support needs was also described as inadequate or entirely absent. Private landlords and letting agents described various situations which presented risks to the well-being and safety of other tenants living in shared buildings and flats without onsite support or staff, which would be present in hostels or supported housing. However, as the PRS is often a last resort for people who are excluded from other housing services, participants suggested that sensitive information is often hidden by prospective tenants and council officers.

Facebook and other social media were described as part of informal tenant screening activity, and highlighted the potential for subjective judgements to exclude individuals from services. Calls for data sharing technology with the council and other local agencies presents considerable issues where data protection, privacy and discrimination are concerned. Yet as the role of the PRS within local welfare systems becomes increasingly apparent, the implications of sharing sensitive information between landlords and other local services presents an important issue for consideration within local housing strategies.

The tenancy management role described by landlords in this case study also highlighted a degree of safeguarding and care that is insufficiently acknowledged within public and political debate around the PRS. Participants offered a range of examples which they understood to exceed the role of a private landlord or letting agent. This includes identifying and responding to tenancy issues which were associated with mental health as well as physical and learning disabilities. Participants described providing alternative crisis support where food banks, loans or other social support services were not available, and carrying out welfare checks for tenants they understood to be experiencing severe alcohol or substance-related illness.

It was clear from this case study that there are landlords and letting agents who are working to go beyond a purely economic-oriented business model. Private ‘ethical’ lettings agencies and social lettings agencies set up by local authorities demonstrate increasing efforts to professionalise the PRS and improve services for people renting in the housing benefit market. However, the participation of landlords within these schemes remains limited by the financial risk exerted by central government welfare reforms which affect private renters.

Furthermore, and as my research has shown, the value of ethical lettings services extends beyond the exclusion of fees and charges. The role of safeguarding is particularly ambiguous within the diverse and disparate PRS, where there is a stark absence of protocol or procedure to ensure that issues are appropriately dealt with. The importance of care and compassion within PRS lettings and tenancy management was also clear, as calls for assertive tenant support provided within the PRS draws attention to the separation of housing and support within local homelessness systems.

The form and function of housing-led solutions within homelessness prevention is important when considering diverse and complex social support needs which might challenge what private landlords consider to be their role. This is particularly apparent in shared housing. Whilst PRS access schemes and ethical lettings agencies reduce some of the barriers that individuals face in the private market, the responsibilities for supporting individuals within those tenancies are not clearly acknowledged.

By contrast, Housing First schemes which involve private as well as social rented housing provide highly intensive, assertive and unconditional support which operates to sustain tenancies. If the PRS is expected to meet statutory welfare obligations and replace accommodation-based support services, it is crucial that social responsibilities and the challenges faced by the PRS are adequately acknowledged. Indeed, local authorities must consider these complex circumstances when extending their housing duties as part of the Homelessness Reduction Act, which came into force in England in April.  

About the Author:  Emma is a Research Associate with the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence and based at the University of Sheffield. Emma has researched housing and homelessness systems as part of her PhD research, which explores public, private and third sector responses to austerity and the implications of particular housing options for people with housing and related support needs

 

EmmaBimpson, University of Sheffield

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