Mark Winterburn is a Researcher for the Centre for Social Justice.
A Government committed to a poverty-fighting agenda built around ‘life chances’ should not overlook the importance of a stable and secure home for the poorest. This was the theme of the CSJ’s recently published report, Home Improvements: A Social Justice Approach to Housing where we called on the Prime Minister to adopt a housing policy for the poor as part of his ‘all-out assault on poverty’.
Putting Housing at the heart of a Life Chances Strategy
There is a compelling case for putting housing at the heart of a life chances agenda. A secure home in a good condition is fundamental to ‘life chances’. The lack of a long-term base undermines a range of social outcomes, from holding down sustained employment to providing a stable family environment.
Much of the Government’s current housing policy is focused on the idea of home ownership and the Government should be commended for its ambition to build one million homes by the end of the Parliament. However, the principle of increasing home ownership is unlikely to help those with the lowest incomes. Over two million low-income households now live in the private rented sector. Back in 2004 it was 900,000. Helping these low-income families is the real challenge facing Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
Many low-income families in the private rented sector face instability and uncertainty, with the vast majority on short-term tenancies. At the same time, about half of landlords refuse to let their properties to tenants in receipt of Housing Benefit. This creates a market where the worst landlords thrive, and it can trap some families into accepting sub-standard properties. There are currently 1.3 million homes in the private rented sector that fail to meet the decent homes standard (the Government-set baseline standard). In turning its housing policy towards the poorest households the Government needs to look carefully at ways to make the private rented sector work for these families.
Social Lettings Agencies
In our report Home Improvements we argue for a new kind of social justice agenda for housing policy which targets problems associated with the private rented sector for the poorest families.
We have called on the Government to look at extending a new breed of Social Lettings Agency. These Social Lettings Agencies lease properties from landlords for an agreed period of time (e.g a five-year lease) and commit to paying the rent for this duration regardless of whether the property is occupied or the tenants maintain their rental payments.
The difference between the rent paid by the tenant to the agency and that paid by the agency to the landlord can then be used to fund some of the operating costs of running the scheme. These include additional support services for those tenants who are vulnerable and may struggle to sustain a tenancy.
Where they have been introduced Social Lettings Agencies have proved to be an excellent means of mitigating risk for landlords and for preventing tenancies from failing. Social Lettings Agencies transfer the risk of letting to a benefit claimant onto themselves. But they need help to get to size so that they can become financially self-sustaining, and for more operations to spread across the country where they are so desperately needed.
Social Lettings Agencies aren’t simply about process and administration. They go beyond the usual remit of a lettings agency to employ support staff that help vulnerable people sustain their tenancies. This fits in with a Government committed to making social policy more ‘human’ and built around the needs of the most disadvantaged.
We have called on the Government to divert £40 million of Government money which the Chancellor has given to DCLG and is currently unallocated to support the expansion of Social Lettings Agencies with credible business plans to make the scheme sustainable in the long term.
A new wave of Social Lettings Agencies would open up the private rented sector to low-income families and potentially provide new housing for homeless families.
These, and a raft of other measures we outline in our report, could provide the basis of a housing offer for low-income people. They would cost the Government little and could drastically improve the ‘life chances’ of the most disadvantaged. We await the Government’s Life Chances Strategy and hope that a big commitment to turning the Government’s housing policy to the poorest families is contained within it.