Where’s the good news?

Well, first reading of the DCLG’s Funding Supported Housing paper, I am struggling to see why the National Housing Federation say it is a good outcome for the sector. Maybe it is for the sheltered housing sector, but for short term supported housing providers, which includes most supported housing provision for young people, the news looks grim.

For a provider to have all its revenue funding, including rents, to be commissioned by their relevant local authority, will undermine their future viability and autonomy. Within the paper it does though suggest housing costs can be claimed through Universal Credit. Further clarity is required.

Anyone heard of 25yr+ funding agreements in the sector? How can the government expect lenders to operate in a sector where its funding is solely tied to LA strategies which tend to work on five year cycles?  Let alone the sector trust the ring fence commitment for the funding pot to remain indefinitely, given our past recent experience. Once funding is cut there will be no obvious plan B, no other credible sustainable funding steam to turn to.

The funding pot for providers will not grow for additional provision, once its been set. Nor will it keep pace with the real costs of provision,  but will instead be reduced to fund expensive local authority administration of the fund.

The proposed Local Authority supported housing strategies may understandably focus on assisting them to meet their own statutory duties, with unpopular groups, such as young people vulnerable to significant future cuts. All providers, even where they currently are not in receipt of Supporting People funding, will be at the mercy of council commissioners, local political interference and market competition.

Finally, with the focus on two years, where is the move on accommodation for young people to move onto? The HB shared room reference rate for under 35yr olds has put a stop to most provision. Plus the proposed additional capital pot for move on accommodation is pitifully small. Also, what about current supported move on provision for young people, will this be classed as supported housing in the future?

The reality is the sector will need to plan to diversify its funding and operationally model away from supported housing in order to manage this impending huge risk. Which is where the good news may come…

Why are young people omitted from plans for new housing?

The key piece of research commissioned by local authorities, to inform their local core plans and housing strategies, is the Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) often commissioned every three years.

The DCLG state the primary objective of identifying need (via the SHMA) is to:

  • identify the future quantity of housing needed, including a breakdown by type, tenure and size;
  • identify the future quantity of land or floorspace required for economic development uses including both the quantitative and qualitative needs for new development; and
  • provide a breakdown of that analysis in terms of quality and location, and to provide an indication of gaps in current land supply.

I’ve had a look at a number of SHMAs and few, if any, adequately evidence the housing needs of young people in shared housing or set out the future demand for shared accommodation, with most references of HMOs relating to student housing.

Given that single people make up the biggest demographic in London and many other conurbations; SHMAs fail to identify the numbers of single people having to stay at their parental home or live in shared housing/HMOs. Most young people, in many parts of England, on low to average earnings can only afford shared housing,  let alone groups, such as Millennials, who are choosing this model (an example being the rise of Co-Living initiatives).  I am looking to make my own contribution to this market, with purpose built, well designed HMOs charging rents that young people on low incomes can afford.

Rather than see private landlords and financial institutions lead the market with either poor quality, unsafe shared houses, expensive Co-Living schemes, or accept the demonization of all HMO’s, but let’s instead strategically plan and fund the shared housing market. It would make a significant contribution to meeting the housing need of young people and be a credible homelessness prevention solution without the need of much public subsidy. Let social finance, institutional investment and local authority funding, be utilised to meet the housing need of young people currently forgotten by the private rented sector, HCA/GLA and Registered Housing Provider sector.

Shared housing is here to stay and it needs to be planned strategically, both its growth and regulation. This starts with sound data and more intelligent SHMAs.

 

Housing for the rest of us

Unsurprisingly perhaps, reflecting on my own more recent experience of being in housing need, has prompted me to look again at meeting a significant housing need that very few housing providers are dealing with.

What are the housing options for single people in need of immediate accommodation who don’t need support?  Where do people relying on income benefits, or in low paid employment, get housing they can actually afford?  What about young people starting apprenticeships or entering the work place for the first time; where do they find somewhere to call home?

There will always be the proportion of single people looking for housing who can rely on ‘bank of mum and dad’, friends or happen to earn sufficient income to secure accommodation of their choice. At the other end of the spectrum, those deemed adequately vulnerable, can also be fairly confident of being provided for in terms of accommodation.

For the rest of us, especially those earning less that the ‘average household income’, what options are there? They seem to boil down to an uncomfortable choice between paying over half your income in rent, sharing bedrooms with friends (or even strangers), or perhaps, for those that can, simply never moving out of the parental home. Higher rents, deposits, and rent in advance mean securing a rental home of their choice becomes a distant dream for the many who only feel like they are just about getting by. This significant group, where the state has let them fend for themselves, has led them to the ‘no home, low Income, no home’ cycle.

So, what are the right responses? From my perspective, we need more socially-minded developers, entrepreneurs, investors, regulators, local authorities and housing providers to rise to the challenge and commit to work together to deliver new creative solutions, or scale up existing ones. There are some great housing models out there, such as lodgings schemes, conversion of empty sheltered properties, guardian services, shared housing, rent deposit schemes, modular deployable housing, and so on.

These, though, barely scratch the surface, but do demonstrate thoughtful innovation and the encouraging, ‘can do’ attitude that is needed. The response that I am drawn to, having already developed Y:Cube Housing for YMCA, is to look at reclaiming the HMO (Housing of Multiple Occupation) as a desirable and affordable choice for single people. Using this model, rents can be kept low but at the same time offer excellence in design to ensure that, while providing the core essentials, like safe and individual bedrooms, all the best of the shared living opportunity is realised. Think Co-Living without the expensive add-ons.

Many will be aware that shared housing, or HMOs, already operate on practically every street in the country, however the vast majority exist as a result of remodelling of existing properties. Wouldn’t it be great if we could create purpose-built HMOs that are both aspirational in design whilst charging rents that even someone on a minimum wage can afford? Challenging, yes, but not impossible. Getting creative about every element of development could lead to a much-needed injection of new housing all over the country – Co-Living for the rest of us (including me!).

I’ve been working on some models and forming a ‘coalition of support’ from like minded people and organisations but still need help. I’d be really keen to grab a coffee or a quick conversation if this resonates with you too. Do get in touch.

A personal perspective

There is nothing like personal experience to inform your thinking, especially about the issues facing single people in housing need. I have worked in the housing field since 1989, predominately in the supported housing sector, and felt I had a good grasp of the issues facing the people we accommodated.

In 2015, I was faced with the reality of being a ‘person in housing need’ – trying to secure my own accommodation, that I could move into immediately and at a rent I could afford. I was fortunate enough to find places for the first few nights (at a friend’s, the office floor, a night in a Travel Lodge), which gave me more time to find a room in a shared house. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was how challenging this would be.

To start off with, the costs of renting a room these days have gone through the roof (typical shared room rents are now approaching £650 pm in London), then you have to add in the website fees to even have a hope at seeing a vacancy before it gets snapped up. On the odd occasion I spotted a room that I could actually afford, I had to see it that very day, with others being shown around at the same time, to get a chance of showing an interest. Add in to that the concerns of landlords and other sharers about whether or not they want to live with a 40 something and having to find a weighty deposit as well as rent in advance, I really had my work cut out – a room in a shared house or flat really isn’t accessible or affordable at all.

What I found really surprising, though, was the sense of worthlessness/hopelessness this process instilled in me. There I was, a ‘housing professional’, with all my so-called knowledge and insight of these issues, now facing the very challenges thousands of people in housing need experience very day. My thoughts quickly became irrational; I was becoming emotionally unstable and finding it almost impossible to focus at work.

In the end, I was fortunately offered a temporary room in a colleague’s house and another one linked me up with a local family who took me in and gave me the space I needed to make longer-term plans.

What did I learn? Well, the shared housing market can be ruthless and very expensive, especially if you have no access to savings; it is particularly geared to young professionals. Local authorities and the housing sector cater poorly for people who need immediate, and affordable, accommodation.  And the uncertainties that being in this position can bring can quickly lead to a downward spiral of emotional instability and a sense of vulnerability.

This experience has also motivated me to look again at how the housing sector can better respond to people in need of accommodation, quickly and affordably. I’ll be sharing some more thoughts, and perhaps an idea or two, in future posts –  please keep reading.

Don’t put new wine into old wineskins

Changing times, such as these, often require new words, definitions or narrative. For many the term supported housing has almost become toxic -perceived as either a welfare benefit hungry machine, which has single handed driven the nations deficit, or an unviable drain upon an organisation’s resources. Over the last few years, intensive housing management has become the buzz phrase, but we have now seen this become associated with high rent regimes; it’s not particularly liked by local authorities and can be seen as a way around cuts in grant funding -some truth there.

All too often when we read, or speak, about supported housing; it conjures up thoughts of high rents, reliance on grants, resource-hungry models. The danger is we’ve made too closer association between the term supported housing and the financial models that support it.  This is evidenced by the withdrawal of many providers from the sector following cuts in supporting people funding and providers no longer planning new services as they await the government review of funding for the supported housing sector. As an alternative, providers have turned to intensive housing management rent increases, but this can fundamentally undermine the sector’s core purposes of helping people prepare for independent living.

Last year, when I was assisting in negotiations between a provider and a local authority to take on some empty care homes for young people’s accommodation, I was trying to convey to both parties that the new use (single person accommodation for people moving on from supported housing) was neither general needs nor supported housing. Traditional definitions couldn’t adequately convey the intended role of the scheme. I ended up using the term ‘transitional accommodation’ to convey the message that the project was to provide a ‘light-touch nurturing’ environment.

I believe transitional accommodation has the potential to invoke an image of a place where people are already on that journey to living independent and sustainable lives. Such projects don’t require lots of staffing, night cover, intensive housing management or one-to-one support but more flexible, person-centred interventions and use of peer support, group work and volunteers. Crucially, such models have much reduced running costs, so can then charge lower rents; with the higher levels of affordability aiding and encouraging the transition into paid employment. ‘Transitional accommodation’, ‘general needs plus or, ‘supported housing light – whatever it’s called -should not be dependent on high rents or Supporting People funding. Yes, there will likely always be a place for traditional supported housing, accommodation for the most vulnerable in our society, but I think the majority of current supported housing clients maybe better served by transitional accommodation schemes that can act as good stepping stones to fulfilling, independent, sustainable lives.

Let’s start using a new narrative, attitude and approach in our sector, and make a positive response to the challenges our sector, clients and government face.

 

re:visioning supported housing

There is an ancient saying:

‘mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers; mountains are once again mountains and rivers again rivers.’

I can see the truth in this for the supported housing sector; as we see a seismic shift in welfare and supported housing policy, we struggle to see a future for supported housing. The old ways no longer fit. To be honest, many in the sector have been grappling with the reality of bloated costs and ‘sophisticated support systems’ leading to unsustainable rents and questionable outcomes. For many providers, they have exited the sector completely and I can see this tide continuing. However, for others, they are seeking to redefine supported housing in a way that hopes to avoid it being a monster that requires feeding, but allows for innovation, risk, creativity, and voluntary spirit.

We have an opportunity to redefine the sector, by embracing the reality, and return to values that we held as true in the past – freeing ourselves to do what we do best. Perhaps this way we can look forward to a better tomorrow for both providers and the people we serve.