Shrinking council housing, benefit cuts and rising private rents have made it more difficult for disadvantaged young people to find somewhere to live. Between 2008 and 2013, the proportion of 16- to 24-year-old renters in social housing managed by councils or housing associations dropped by 23% – the greatest drop of any measured age group. And the average time youths spent in homeless accommodation nearly doubled, to 16 months last year, signalling new hurdles along the path to secure housing.
Many single young people are shut out of social housing because they do not qualify as “priority homeless” so they turn to the private rented sector, where the prohibitive cost of an upfront deposit and the insecure nature of their tenancy are major obstacles. Now housing organisations from Plymouth to Gateshead are springing up across England to guide young adults into safe and affordable rooms and shared tenancies.
Nathan Taylor, 19, had left home in Hull after his foster parents discovered he was using the synthetic drug mephedrone. He moved to Sheffield early last year, where the council offered him six months in an emergency homeless hostel and his stepsister helped him kick his drug habit. When an eviction notice landed on his doorstep, his social worker linked him with Nomad, a Sheffield-based charity that helps young adults struggling to get on to the renting ladder.
For young people like Taylor, it is nearly impossible to find a room for rent in a shared house at the shared accommodation rate (SAR), the lowest level of housing benefit that is offered to single renters younger than 35 under government rules. One study found that less than 1% of advertised rooms in England were accessible to those on SAR, partly because most landlords won’t rent to homeless youths. Homes that are available are in the worst conditions, and their unvetted flatmates can pose safety risks. Nomad addresses these concerns by offering quality, short-term rooms in “preparatory flats”, providing support in early tenancy, and helping tenants move on to rent a room privately in a shared house through its network of trusted landlords.
In September, Nomad put Taylor through a rigorous interview process and matched him with his first housemate. After staff had trained him on housing basics, from budgeting to fire safety, they gave him the keys to his house-share on the city’s southern fringe and arranged a date for weekly meetings with a support worker. Taylor’s two-storey home is one of Nomad’s five preparatory flats, which the organisation leases from South Yorkshire Housing Association and then sublets to homeless tenants.
“It’s brilliant to have your own place, even if this isn’t much at the minute,” Taylor says. “Foundations like this give us a chance.” Taylor has been studying carpentry in college since moving in, and he’s been drug-free for more than a year. In a few months time, Nomad will work with local landlords to find him a safe rented room within his means.
The charity is helping about 25 tenants a year who are housed in preparatory flats to set up a credit union account for housing payments, learn their rights and responsibilities as tenants, and manage potential conflict with flatmates. And they support a further 50 or so into private renting at shared accommodation rates. “Some landlords are understandably reluctant to rent to benefit claimants,” says Francesca Ockwell, Nomad’s manager for youth renting. “But since we’re able to provide tenancy sustainment support, which minimises renting risks, we’ve found a group of landlords who are willing to work with us.”
The data, though limited, suggests early success for Nomad. Of the 16 tenants who moved from preparatory flats last year, 14 went on to stable, independent living. And for the 21 tenants who ended their private rented tenancies, most funded a move to a new tenancy or took up a social housing offer. Nomad is one of eight pilot shared-renting programmes that the homelessness charity Crisis helped fund through a government grant in 2013. Last year, a team of Sheffield Hallam academics found that every £1 of grant funding generated £5.21 of savings by breaking the cycle of homelessness. Since the grant ended in 2015, seven of the pilots have continued to grow on their own.
“Young people are being disproportionately affected by changes to policy and welfare reform,” says Chris Hancock, head of housing at Crisis. Next year, the government plans to scrap housing benefit for most under-22s and in 2018 it plans to cap housing benefit payments on social rented properties. “We need to look at how shared accommodation can be a viable option to end a young person’s homelessness,” he adds.
Like most supported housing programmes, Nomad preparatory flats can only operate because housing benefit covers the additional management costs. But this support will be slashed if the housing benefit cap is extended to supported housing providers, pending a review due next month. The Local Government Association warns that if the upcoming benefit cap on social housing is applied to properties such as Nomad’s, an estimated 156,000 units across England will be forced to close. Izzi Seccombe, the LGA’s community wellbeing spokeswoman, says: “We urge the government to listen to our call and exempt supported housing from the cap, and to work with us to look at alternative ways of managing this cost.”
Faced with a government that is retreating from social housing, the London-based charity Commonweal Housing has piloted a programme that turns to social investors for funding, thereby bypassing landlords and reliance on housing benefit subsidies.
Three investors funded the purchase of six London properties through Commonweal in 2012, entering into the charity’s first fund that delivers a 4.3% annual yield. Commonweal has invested as well, and the programme currently houses 39 tenants at the SAR. Two partner homeless charities, Catch 22 and Thames Reach, act as the landlords and provide extra support to tenants when necessary.
For Shekeisha Smith, 22, a room in a Commonweal house was the key to building her career in retail management. Smith became homeless at the age of 17 when her mother pushed her out and she started sleeping at her aunt’s studio flat, sharing one mattress with her aunt and newborn cousin. A year later, Smith landed a room in a supported housing programme for two years, and when her tenancy ran out she was accepted into a Commonweal home in north London.
“My friends have been thrown into living on their own in private rentals: living with people they can’t talk to, who have drug habits, who break into their rooms,” says Smith. “What’s sad is they have jobs that they then struggle to do.” Smith worried she might lose her part-time job when her supported housing tenancy came to an end, but since moving into her new home through Commonweal two years ago, she has got a full-time job as a manager at a clothing company.
In Commonweal’s programme, tenants with some independent living experience act as “peer landlords”, guiding newer tenants in the basics of renting. Smith helps her two housemates look for work and pay bills, among other duties, cutting down management costs for their landlord. Responsible tenants can stay as long as they want. Social investors are committed to multi-year contracts, so they provide medium-term security.
According to Julie Rugg, a senior research fellow at the University of York’s Centre for Housing Policy, mediated shared housing will increase as providers pilot and tweak different models. “We’re living in a neoliberal world where the government is withdrawing from social provision, so the long-term solutions will have to be a hybrid of social enterprise and third-sector interventions,” she says. “It’s reinventing social housing.”
Any scalable reinvention, though, would require significant take-up among private investors keen to preserve housing as a social good in Britain. In London, the newly elected mayor, Sadiq Khan, has announced he wants to persuade foreign investors to put their money into helping build affordable homes through a new agency, Homes for Londoners, which plans to build municipal housing with public and private money.
The government, for its part, has held fast to an ideology that barring youths from housing benefit incentivises young adults to “earn or learn”. But Taylor and Smith, and thousands like them, need a roof first. Work and study follow.
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