4.3. Providing Housing
Housing First service users are able to exercise choice in using treatment (see Chapter 2 and Chapter 3) and should also be able to exercise choice about where and how they will live. Obviously, housing options will be subject to what is available and what can be afforded by Housing First service users((In some cases, Housing First services will pay rents for service users, in others, rental subsidies are provided via welfare systems.)), but generally speaking,
Housing First service users should expect:
- To be able to see housing before they agree to move into it.
- To be offered more than once choice of housing, i.e. they should be able to refuse offered housing if they wish without there being any negative consequence for them. In practice, a Housing First service may face challenges in finding ideal housing. This will need to be made clear to each Housing First service user, but there should be no expectation that being offered only one or two choices is sufficient. Housing First should never withdraw an offer of housing and support on the basis that someone has refused one or more offers of housing.
- To have the financial consequences of having their own home clearly explained to them and to have the opportunity to discuss this. Before moving into their home, Housing First service users should understand what their financial obligations will be and how much money they will have. In some European countries, which pay a basic income to anyone who is unemployed, someone may have less disposable income when housed than when living in emergency or temporary accommodation for homeless people (because they have additional living costs).
- To have some choice with respect to the location of the housing that they are offered.
- To be offered some flexibility around how they choose to live, i.e. someone may wish to live with a partner, friends or with other people, rather than on their own in an apartment. Some Italian Housing First services, for example, will support families and some English services will support couples (see Appendix).
There are three main mechanisms by which a Housing First service can deliver housing:
- Use of the private rented sector
- Use of the social rented sector (where social rented housing exists)
- Direct provision of housing, by buying housing, developing new housing or using existing housing stock.
The challenges faced by a Housing First service may include:
- Finding enough affordable, adequate housing in acceptable locations in high-pressure housing markets (where housing demand is very high). Any area with high economic growth is likely to be a challenging place to find sufficient housing of the right sort. The type of housing available in some rural areas (a relative absence of smaller apartments) may also present a challenge.
- Where social housing is available, it may be targeted on groups other than people who are homeless, or it may be subject to high demand.
- There may be problems with the availability, affordability and quality of housing in the private rented sector.
- Both social and private sector landlords may be reluctant to house formerly homeless people with high support needs. There are concerns that people who have been homeless will present management problems, such as getting into disputes with neighbours, or failing to pay their rent.
- Housing First service users sometimes cannot access sufficient welfare benefits to pay the rent. This is more of an issue in European countries that have limited welfare systems than in those with extensive welfare systems, where various forms of housing benefit or minimum income benefit pay all or most of the rent for very low income/vulnerable groups. In countries with more limited welfare systems, Housing First services may need to find income streams to help pay the rent for their service users.
- It is possible to create new housing specifically for Housing First but the costs of development (building new housing) or renovating/converting existing housing are considerable. Buying housing is also an option, but while this may be cheaper than building or renovating, again, the costs may be too high for this to be a realistic option.
- NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitudes linked to the stigmatisation of homeless people which may lead neighbourhoods to try to stop Housing First services from operating in their area. Housing First services may need to work with neighbouring households, providing information, reassurance and if necessary intervening if a Housing First service user has caused a problem (also intervening if a neighbour is behaving unreasonably towards a Housing First service user).
- Housing First can work flexibly and imaginatively, but it cannot fix underlying problems with affordable and adequate housing supply and may encounter operational difficulties in any context where there is just not enough affordable or adequate housing for the entire population.
Housing First is meant for homeless people with high support needs. The need that Housing First services have in terms of numbers of housing units will often be relatively small. Although data on European homelessness are incomplete, it appears that, even in a major city, a Housing First service would probably not require hundreds of homes((Busch-Geertsema, V., Benjaminsen, L., Filipovič Hrast, M. and Pleace, N. European Observatory of Homelessness. FEANTSA Brussels (2014) http://housingfirstguide.eu/website/extent-and-profile-of-homelessness-in-europeanmember-states-a-statistical-update/)).
4.3.1. Working with the Private Rented Sector
There are various ways in which Housing First can employ the private rented sector as a source of homes. A successful use of the private rented sector includes:
- Careful inspection and checking of apartments/flats to ensure that the standards and location are suitable.
- Checking that tenancy arrangements are correct and that a Housing First service user has the full protection of the laws that cover security of tenure. In some countries, tenancies in the private rented sector will be longer and more secure than in others.
- Affordability checks, centring on current and likely future rent levels being at a level that will allow other essential costs to be met. Where a Housing First service requires a financial contribution from a service user, the affordability of this contribution must be subject to regular review. Any expected financial contributions also need to be clearly explained to a service user before they agree to accept a home. Some Housing First services require a 30% contribution of income towards rent. In some countries, this is not practical, as the Housing First service user may have a very low income and the Housing First service itself will need to pay or subsidise the rent. In other countries, the welfare system will pay all, or most of, the rent for a Housing First service user, meaning that the Housing First service either only has to make a small contribution to housing costs, or has no direct housing costs at all.
- Negotiation and discussion with and education of private rented sector landlords and/or agents representing one or more private sector landlords. It should not be presumed that all or most private rented sector landlords will be unsympathetic or unwilling to work with a Housing First service. Experience from some Housing First services shows that at least some private sector landlords will be prepared to work with Housing First services out of a sense of civic responsibility((http://www.shp.org.uk/story/housing-first-provides-stability-chronically-homeless-people)).
- Offering a housing management service to private landlords. This can be a powerful incentive. A Housing First service can offer to guarantee that rent will be paid and that any management issues, such as neighbour disputes, will be dealt with and perhaps also to undertake the maintenance, repair or renovation of housing. If a private landlord effectively has to do no more than collect a guaranteed rent, potential worries about making their housing available to homeless people can often be overcome. Some Housing First services offer to be directly responsible for a tenancy, subletting to a Housing First service user, so the service, rather than the Housing First service user, is legally responsible for any problems with the tenancy.
- Offering a financial incentive to private rented sector landlords. This is a possible strategy, but experience in some countries, for example Finland and the UK, has shown that private rented markets tend to react to financial incentives for housing homeless people by increasing rents((Wilson, W. (2015) Households in Temporary Accommodation (England) House of Commons Briefing Paper Number 02110 www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn02110.pdf)).
In Portugal, use of the private rented sector by Casas Primeiro in Lisbon has been reported as delivering very good results, with almost every Housing First service user reporting((Ornelas, J., Martins, P., Zilhão, M.T. and Duarte, T. (2014) Housing First: An Ecological Approach to Promoting Community Integration European Journal of Homelessness (8.1), 29-56 – http://housingfirstguide.eu/website/wp-content/ uploads/2016/03/Housing-First-An-Ecological-Approach.pdf)):
- A sense of control over their living space.
- That they had privacy in their home.
- That their home was a tranquil place, somewhere they could find peace and quiet.
- That their home had all the facilities they needed.
Casas Primeiro also reports that many, though not all, Housing First service users living in private rented apartments also felt at home in their neighbourhood.
In London and elsewhere in the UK, experience of using the private rented sector for Housing First is much more mixed, for the following reasons:
- Insecurity of tenure. Most private rented housing is let on short-term (six or 12 month) tenancies. These tenancies provide some protection from eviction, but once the period covered by the tenancy ends, there is no legal protection. This means that someone with a 12-month tenancy in the private rented sector has no legal protection if they are asked to leave after 12 months.
- High rents in some places in the UK, which make all but the cheapest private rented housing inaccessible to someone claiming welfare benefits. Better standard housing in more attractive locations was unaffordable for Housing First service users.
4.3.2. Working with the Social Rented Sector
Social housing does not exist in one single form in Europe and is not universally available((Whitehead, C. and Scanlon, K. (eds) Social Housing in Europe London: LSE. – http://www.lse.ac.uk/ geographyAndEnvironment/research/London/pdf/SocialHousingInEurope.pdf)). In this Guide to Housing First, social housing is defined as housing which is built with a subsidy, from government and/or from charities/NGOs, that offers security of tenure and adequate housing at an affordable rent.
There are various ways in which Housing First can employ the social rented sector as a source of homes:
- Realising that while the social rented sector can play an important role in housing homeless people, this is not necessarily the only concern of social landlords((Pleace, N., Teller, N. and Quilgars, D. (2011) Social Housing Allocation and Homelessness Brussels: FEANTSA – http://housingfirstguide.eu/website/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/feantsa_eoh-studies_v1_12-2011.pdf)). Social housing can have a wider remit than ending homelessness, including regeneration and strategic management of housing markets. It may be necessary for Housing First services to carry out negotiation and advocacy, and the case management of an application to a social landlord.
- Accepting that social landlords may have the same reluctance to house formerly homeless people with high support needs that exists among some private sector landlords. Social landlords may be worried that housing management problems may arise from Housing First service users, ranging from neighbour disputes through to rent not being paid.
- Being prepared to offer housing management services to social landlords, e.g. guarantees that rent will be paid and that any issues such as neighbour disputes will be handled by the Housing First service. This might be particularly important when someone using Housing First has previously been evicted by a social landlord.
- Engaging with allocation systems covering multiple social landlords, where these exist. All the social landlords in a city or region may be part of a shared system where eligible people make a single application for housing which is simultaneously received by all landlords. Housing First service users may need support in using these kinds of systems, which may be online.
- Establishing a working protocol, or agreement, that makes a minimum number of suitable homes available each year. For example, a social landlord might agree to supply 5% of all vacancies to Housing First service users over a three-year period. With large social landlords, for example a municipality or NGO providing all or most of the social housing in a city, the percentage required might be lower.
- Reaching a formal agreement that Housing First service users get additional points or weighting in social housing allocation systems. This could be the allocation system for a single social landlord or it could be additional points in a choice-based lettings system covering multiple social landlords.