Back to the Future: private renting to help the homeless

I am feeling very Marty McFly at present – for the last year I feel as though I have been living through the nightmarish world of Back to the Future II overseen by the narcissistic, thin skinned rather idiotic bully Biff Tannan – presiding over a community going to the dogs. Specifically, in this last week I have wandered seemingly in to Back to The Future III – the one no one really remembers that well; the one where they go right back in history. I refer of course to the Government’s announcement this week of £20M of funding to help homeless people access private rented sector accommodation.

Let me be clear, this is of course welcome news and anything seeking to address the homelessness crisis in this country is helpful. The announcement however simply reminded me that there is no such thing as a new idea; seeking to soak up rough sleepers in the private rented sector is the easiest and quickest politically expedient solution.

As Head of the Bed and Breakfast Unit in the early noughties, we did the same at what was then called the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, we enabled a rise in the private sector leasing by local authorities and housing associations – providing additional funding to help feed the commercial desires of private landlords. And it worked – over two years we reduced the use of long-term B&B accommodation for homeless families by 99.6%, an undoubtably positive result.

A few years on however, the cost became much more visible in private sector HB totals as opposed to being to some extent hidden in a fog of local authority homelessness costs. A figure that caused the DWP and Treasury alarm and subsequent curbs were put on reducing its attractiveness. However it worked for a while. The other down side of using the private rented sector is of course whilst it can (and does) deliver the short-term benefit it is not permanent and landlords can and will want their properties back. At best it delays (or parks) a problem.

The ultimate solution is to increase up front subsidy and capital grants to enable an explosion in new social house building. This sort of investment would ensure an adequate supply for those most in need and where if there is to be ongoing public subsidy in the form of Housing Benefit or its successor funding it is at a much lower level and rents are not a barrier to tenants gaining employment. The real win-win end solution.

As I say £20M is great – it can and will be used by councils and their partners to rise to this challenge I have no doubt, I genuinely hope the short term targets are met but let no one be under any illusion that this will ever be a long-term solution. Without a radical uptick in new social housing provision I predict there will be a further cash boost within the next 10-15 years to help get homeless people homes in the private rented sector again, unless lessons from the past are really learnt this time.

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