Does private renting offer stability for homeless families?

As Research Manager for the Sustain study – a project exploring the use of the private rented sector to accommodate homeless people and those in housing need – I’ve found myself reflecting on how rare it is to see a large scale, explorative research project addressing a pressing social policy issue.

Sadly research budgets have been cut back across both government and charitable sectors at a time when evidence on the impact of huge policy changes is badly needed.

Sustain aims to fill a key evidence gap at a crucial time. Run by Shelter and Crisis, and funded by the Big Lottery Fund, it releases interim findings today. The research explores the experiences of people who have been homeless or in housing need and who have been helped or resettled into the private rented sector (PRS).

The context for the study is well-rehearsed in recent blogs on this site. With rising rents and falling benefit levels, housing will become less and less affordable for people on low incomes.

At the same time changes under the Localism Act mean that from this summer local authorities will increasingly use private landlords to satisfy their legal obligations to homeless people. This means that people with limited, and often negative, experiences of renting, will be housed at the bottom end of what remains a largely unregulated market.

What we don’t know is whether private renting will be sustainable for people who have been helped into it after being homeless.  While the interim report draws on just a third of the total data to be collected, emerging findings point to a number of issues.

Immediate practical challenges people faced included availability of basic furniture and white goods, such as fridges and freezers, and a means of heating food.

One mother of two said:

‘I am in a house with two children when I don’t even have a fridge freezer, a washer, I don’t really have anything. I have one bed, one single bed that we are all sleeping in, it’s not really good.’

The challenge of achieving stability was a longer term issue that emerged as pivotal to our participants’ view of their housing situations, wellbeing and to their sense of ‘home’. In the words of one participant:

‘Just really being stable and establishing community ties… feeling that I don’t have to move around again… it’s important that I’m not uprooting myself or the children again, everything changes when you uproot, you have to change schools, you have to change phone numbers…. It is horrid.’

Many people we spoke with were worried that landlords would raise rents or evict them. They didn’t want to be seen as a ‘bad tenant’ by making complaints about pressing issues. As affordability pressures and the ending of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy are key reasons for the loss of accommodation, stability is likely to be increasingly hard to achieve in the current housing market.

How to address barriers to stability and identification of the advice and support needs of people who are resettled into private renting will be a key focus of the research’s recommendations in 2013.

The study will also contribute to the evidence base on outcomes in the sector and the links between housing and wellbeing. We hope it will make key reading for anyone interested in the future of private renting.