I have long been an advocate of making use of and working with the private rented sector to meet housing need. Partly through pragmatism (realising there was simply not enough publicly funded social housing) and partly through a strong belief in multiple options and choice.
The private rented sector in various guises has been a theme throughout my three decades in the ‘sector’. As such I have always been disappointed to say the least at the sector’s traditional ambivalence at best and disapproval at worst of the PRS and private landlords, individual buy-to-let’ers or larger companies and bulk landlords. In my early career I remember berating the course leader at one of the leading housing studies courses that their whole course was ignoring initiatives such as private sector leasing or PRS access schemes and all they were teaching was how to be a local authority housing officer (vintage c. 1980) as that was what the course leader had been (and a good one at that….) however the world had moved on already when I was saying this in c. 1994 let alone 20+ years later.
When attending the Institute of Housing conferences over many years I always wondered why it wasn’t called the Institute of Social Housing as there were precious few if any private landlords or letting agents in the delegates list. I was involved in the early establishment of the National Approved Lettings Scheme – NALS – back at the turn of the millennium – a genuine approach at bringing private sector trade bodies such as ARLA (the Association of Residential Lettings Agents) and the NAEA (National Association of Estate Agents) together with housing associations via the then Housing Corporation to try and bring in some real cross market minimum trading standards and expectations on those letting and managing private sector properties. The aim of NALS being to give greater assurance to both landlords and tenants. Interestingly enough I was leading this whilst at the Empty Homes Agency as mistrust of agents generally was perceived as one of the reasons some property owners kept homes empty. I am delighted to say that NALS is still going although I fear traditional private sector social sector schisms mean that few if any housing associations or councils are any longer involved with NALS.
I have long said that the better private sector agents and PRS managers were often streets ahead of the service and customer delivery of many housing associations and councils. There are certainly some very very poor PRS landlords and agents; letting dangerous and unsatisfactory properties – these need to be addressed. There are agents who do deploy some questionable management tactics – these need to be curbed but it is too easy (and wrong) to lump all private landlords and private agents in with these rogue traders.
However I close with another thought – way back in the 1990’s when running a social lettings agency in Oxford we were told repeatedly not to work with a certain notorious landlord (let’s call him Mr Jones – not his real name). I was told categorically we shouldn’t be leasing homes from him. Yet at the say time I was also responsible for one of the first major Rent Deposit Schemes in the country working to try and accommodate non-statutory single homeless people – some of whom had been excluded and rejected by every social hostel and night shelter. No-one in the enlightened caring social and charitable sector would provide some of these individuals with any accommodation …..other than our friend Mr Jones. Unless we are willing to help we shouldn’t be so quick to castigate those that do provide a service to some who fall through all other safety nets. My response to working with Mr Jones was to actively work with him and insert ourselves between him (and his willingness to house those others too often wouldn’t) and the tenants and thus curb his more extreme (and unacceptable) housing management techniques! But at the same time recognising that for some of these most chaotic and lost individuals, clear instructions and clear consequences were exactly what some of them needed ….along with a roof over their head which the sector was not providing.
I am delighted that in 2016 Commonweal will be working with one of today’s leading Private Rented Access Schemes, Elmbridge Rentstart in Surrey – positively engaging with good private landlords who are willing to house those which the social sector won’t (or at least can’t) in the current housing system. Commonweal is supporting ERS’s Freedom2Work: Buying the Future project helping to ease the transition from benefit to employment whilst sustaining a stable private sector tenancy. We will be publishing further details of this exciting new project over the coming weeks.
Ashley Horsey is Chief Executive of Commonweal Housing