Child poverty and housing…We need to talk

Tony Cain of ALACHO (Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers) highlights eight questions you might want to ask local housing providers, including: 

1) Do we really understand how affordable our rents are for families?
2) Are we prioritizing rehousing for overcrowded and larger families?
3) How do we respond to families facing domestic abuse?
4) How does our new housing supply programme help?

5) Are we doing enough for children with disabilities?
6) Could we do more to reduce the impact of homelessness on children?
7) How hard do we work to avoid evicting families?
8) How well do we understand and respond to the needs of Gypsy/Traveller families?

The Scottish Government’s Child poverty strategy “every child every chance” published in 2018 identifies housing cost as one of the areas for action if the plans targets are to be met.

In particular the plan talks about the need to keep rents affordable and to reduce energy costs by tackling fuel poverty. 

Though there is much to discuss in relation to fuel costs (see below), my focus here is the conversations you may want to have with social landlords about how they are responding to child poverty as landlords and what “every child every chance” should mean to them.

As a starter for ten it’s also useful to keep in mind those families most at risk of child poverty, that is:

  • Lone parent families, the large majority of which are headed by women.
  • Families which include a disabled adult or child.
  • Larger families.
  • Minority ethnic families.
  • Families with a child under one year old.
  • Families where the mother is under 25 years of age.

Given that all these groups exist in the tenant population and some are over represented (lone parent families in particular) social landlords should be actively thinking about their role in reducing child poverty.   But there are a lot of calls on social housing providers to support work to reduce disadvantage including: fuel poverty, the attainment gap, re-offending, improving public health and supporting older people to stay in their own homes.

As a result, you probably can’t assume that every social landlord will be actively reviewing its policies to assess their impact on child poverty.  

You may, in fact, want to think about some specific conversations that will help you understand how social landlords can make a difference and social landlords locally to understand what they should be thinking and doing to reduce child poverty. Before I get to the questions there are a couple of things worth keeping in mind before you speak to housing providers. 

  • The first is, there is always more help and support that a landlord can provide to vulnerable tenants, but it all comes at a cost, and in the world of social housing that cost is always paid by existing tenants through their rents.  So, if you want more of a service you also need to be aware that raising rents to pay for it will be a double-edged sword.
  • The second relates to access to housing.  Within board statutory limits all social landlords set their own rules for allocating homes.  But other than the new build programme (which provides not much more than 10% of lets in any one year), landlords can only allocate what becomes empty.  So there will always be winners and losers. Landlords face a constant battle to balance the requirements of households in need of housing.

If you want to spend a little more time understanding this you could do worse that start by looking at the recently reviewed guidance from the Scottish Government:

With these comments in mind you may want to think about the following questions:

  1. Do we really understand how affordable our rents are for families?

There is no universally accepted definition of “affordability” as a bench mark for rent setting.  In the past the general expectation for housing associations was that “rents should be affordable to those likely look to the sector for housing and in work but not dependent on benefits”.

This is pretty unhelpful stuff since about 40% of working families are in receipt of tax credits/universal credit.

The Scottish Government does have bench mark rents for new housing association developments that have to be met as a condition of grant funding, but these aren’t applied in the local authority sector.

The Scottish Housing Regulator has a role in overseeing the financial decisions of Housing Associations (though not councils) but in 30 years of rents rising ahead of inflation the regulator has never take any action against an association as a result of a concern about rent levels.

In the end housing associations and councils set their own rents.  The Scottish Government doesn’t have a policy on rents and it doesn’t have any way of requiring landlords to set rents at any particular level.  What the law does say is that social landlords must consult tenants on any proposed rent rise and must take account of tenant’s views. 

To add to the confusion most landlords tend to talk about “average” rents.  The extent to which the average reflects the rents actually paid by families, and larger families in particular, will depend on things like how the “average” is calculated and how the landlord’s “rent structure” works. 

Not surprisingly larger homes carry higher rents than smaller ones and houses more than flats, but some landlords may also charge more for different locations, for newer homes or for those that are more energy efficient.

The Scottish Housing Regulator publishes details of each landlord’s stock and average rents by size of house each year[1].

Understanding the rents being charged for larger properties is one half of the equation, the other is how much is known about what families living in their homes and on their housing lists actually earn. 

The absence of a generally accepted definition of “affordable” isn’t an excuse for not being aware of affordability issues locally.

As a general rule anyone paying more than 30% of their net income on rent is likely to be facing some level of hardship, and we know that as of 2016 around 32% of social housing tenants were paying more than 30% of their net income on rents[2].  It’s probably reasonable to assume that a good proportion of these will be families in larger houses but that is an assumption.

So, it’s not unreasonable to ask social landlords to be clear about:

  • the size and types of homes that families at risk of child poverty are living in;
  • the incomes of families in their homes and on the waiting list;
  • the extent to which their rent structure increases the risk of child poverty;
  • the extent to which tenancy sustainment services are available to or targeted at families; and
  • how any proposed rent rise will impact on families and supports action to reduce child poverty.

2. Are we prioritising rehousing for overcrowded or larger families?
As I’ve already suggested, the allocation of homes isn’t an area where there are easy options to improve outcomes.  And it’s a contested issue, one where perceptions of “fairness” will vary from person to person and community to community.

As with rents, social landlords have a lot of discretion within the law when deciding how to allocate their homes and which “needs” they priorities. 

But larger homes will always be let to larger households though that can include parents living alone to ensure that they have room for their children to stay overnight.

Families that qualify for assistance under the homeless persons legislation should always be the highest priority.  But not everyone that qualifies for assistance as homeless will apply and there are any number of unsuitable housing circumstances that could be taken account of or given priority.  These include:

  • Living in otherwise suitable but expensive private rented housing that is pushing a family into poverty;
  • Living in a home that doesn’t meet the “tolerable standard” or in the private rented sector that doesn’t meet the “repairing standard”;
  • Overcrowding in their own home;
  • Living in overcrowded conditions in someone else’s home;
  • Living “care of” with no security of tenure;
  • Living in a property that is too small for your children to visit and stay over;
  • Living away from family and other support networks, particularly after a relationship breakdown or coping with illness when support can be critical to sustaining a tenancy;
  • Living in an otherwise suitable house that is expensive or difficult to heat to a reasonable level.

Your view on which of the problems I’ve listed is worse, which housing circumstances should get most priority for a social rented home, is a value judgement.  It would be difficult to say there is a right or wrong answer.

The critical questions will be around how well does the landlord understand the housing needs of families in their area and how these are balanced and prioritised within the allocations rules.

But as I’ve already suggested, if you think that more families living in expensive private rented homes should be rehoused then fewer families living in overcrowded conditions or sharing with others will get the chance of a move. 

3. How well do we respond to families facing domestic abuse?
Hopefully I don’t need to make the links between domestic abuse, childhood trauma and poverty.  But for all the understanding of these links the social housing sector hasn’t yet developed a response that properly focuses on the needs of those trying to escape abusive relationships.

The typical response when presented with a tenant dealing with an abusive partner is to refer them to the local homelessness service.  This is as true of councils as it is of housing associations and it is in every way an unhelpful and often damaging approach.  To add homelessness to an already traumatic situation is to heap trauma on trauma.  Adding disruption at school and to social networks to disruption at home can have lifelong consequences.

But there are examples of better practice and whilst moving on from an abusive relationship is never going to be easy, it doesn’t have to include homelessness.

As things stand the best guide to improving practice is set out in “Change, Justice, Fairness”[3]. [It should be noted that since this blog was publsihed CIH, SFHA and ALACHO have jointly published a new set of guidance on responding to domestic abuse or Social Landlords - available here.]  

The question to ask social landlords is simple, how does their response to domestic violence stand up to the evidence and good practice set out in this report.

4. How does our new housing supply programme help?

New homes make up only a small part of the supply of lets each year and not all social landlords are actively adding to their stock.  For those that are it’s important to ask questions about how they understand housing needs locally and what needs they are seeking to meet through their new supply programme.

Most of those on housing waiting lists are single people needing smaller homes.  In addition, flats are more economical to build and the grant system favours the construction of two bedroom properties.

Many social landlords are wary of building larger family homes, fearing that they may not be a larger family on the list to let it to or a need for the home in the longer term.  Building for very large families, those with five children or more, or multi-generational families brings particular challenges.

So, there is likely to be a natural tendency to avoid building larger homes unless there is a specific family known to need one.

The questions you may want to ask could include:

  • Are they aware of the housing needs of families and larger families in particular (including those with children with disabilities) and is this reflected in the homes they are building?
  • Are they aware of any larger families whose specific needs can’t be met from their existing stock, what action are they taking to address this?
  • Have they considered buying properties second hand to meet specific known needs?
  • In the case of very large families have they looked at combining two homes to meet their needs?
  • If they apply a premium to the rent of new homes are they clear on how this impacts on the affordability of larger homes?
  • Have they thought about the storage needs of families and larger families in particular including outside storage?
  • Have they checked that internal layouts work for the size of family likely to occupy the property?  A two bed, four person flat needs a room that will take two single beds and leave space for play and study.
  • Do they install broad band (fibre to home or FTTP as I think it’s called) in new homes?   Access to the internet is pretty much essential in education these days.
  • Do they survey tenants of new homes and learn from what they say?

 

5. Are we doing enough for children with disabilities?

The funding for adaptations, that is physical changes to a house (widened doors, accessible showers and WCs or a ground floor bedroom) depends on who owns the house.  There are grants from the Council for owners and private tenants (if they have the agreement of the landlord) who may also be asked to pay some of the cost themselves) and for council tenants they are paid for by the Council from the rental income.

For those living in housing association homes funding may come from a government grant alone (a “stage 3” adaptations” grant) or it may be funded in part or in full by the landlord from rents.  Not all housing associations have a budget for this sort of work and the Stage 3 grant allocation is cash limited on an annual basis.  Some RSLs may delay adaptations if the grant pot is spent.

This is, however, a choice they are making, but if you want an RSL to spend more on adaptations, as with Councils, you are asking for rents to rise.

Integration Joint Boards are responsible for the delivery of adaptations in their area (though they have no control over the government’s stage 3 grant budget).  There has been some progress in improving the process of late but evidence from the EHRC[1] suggests that families often feel that they have limited choice or control over the works.

Questions you may want to ask a landlord include:

  • do they know about children with disabilities currently in their homes and on the waiting list?
  • What about those not on the waiting list?
  • How long does it take to complete an adaptation once the needs are known about?
  • How satisfied are tenants with the work once complete and how are they involved in the process?
  • Are they thinking about the way the child’s needs will change as they get older?
  • If a house can’t be adapted to meet a need, what alternatives do they look at? (extending, buying or building are all options)

Questions you may want to ask of your IJB include:

  • How well is the service locally working, what do service users think of it?
  • Have they reviewed the adaptations process, do they have an improvement plan in place?
  • How well is the work to carry out physical adaptations linked to other home based services and those provided by OTS and physiotherapy?
  • How do they know that the resources available locally are sufficient?
  • What sort of independent advice is available locally?

And more generally what conversations are social landlords and the IJB having with families with disabled children about their current home and their likely future needs including the transition to adult services and independent living?

6. Could we do more to reduce the impact of homelessness on children?

There have been quite a few studies or reports that deal directly with the impact of homelessness on children though none that I’m aware of that report what the children of homeless parents feel or have to say about the experience of being homeless[2].

One report from as far back as 1999 starts with the following statement:

     “homeless children are not simply at risk; most suffer specific physical, psychological and emotional damage”[3]

Despite this there has been very little focus at an operational level in housing, social care or education on what can or should be done to support children dealing with homelessness.  For the most part homelessness services are designed to respond to and focus on the issues impact on the adults involved.

But as we know, the experience of the homelessness system can be traumatic and is likely to have long term impacts on a child’s education life chances.

Children that experience homelessness and any length of stay in temporary accommodation will have to deal with the almost total destruction of their home life; the loss of possessions; significant disruption to their school life and education; the loss of social networks and connections, particularly if they have to move school; and are more likely to be homeless themselves in later life. 

Bullying at school and in the street is also a significant risk.

Repeat homelessness for children is likely to heap trauma on trauma.

Preventing homelessness, ensuring that homeless families can maintain their social and family connections and networks and moving families on from homelessness to settled accommodation as quickly as possible are all central to any attempt to address child poverty.  Preventing repeat homelessness for families should be a key objective.

But families do become homeless, where it can’t be avoided there is a real need for a specific focus on the needs of any children involved.

Questions that you may want to ask of those running the homelessness service include:

  • What do they know about the children of homeless applicants?
  • When assessing the support needs of a homeless applicant (a statutory requirement) how do they assess and take account of the support needs of children?
  • How do they take account of the needs of children when allocating temporary and permanent accommodation?
  • What if any conversations do they have with parents about how best to minimise the impact of homelessness on children?
  • How well do they work with schools to ensure that teachers and others are aware that a particular child or family is experiencing homelessness?
  • What specific services or support are provided to families to help them cope with homelessness?
  • What support do they offer to help families moving on from homelessness and how are the children’s needs included in this?

You may also want to think about asking similar questions to colleagues in education and social care.  Keeping in mind the evidence quoted above, this isn’t about assessing a risk, something that may happen, it’s about responding to and minimising trauma that exists throughout a period of homelessness and can continue for years afterwards.

7. How hard do we work to avoid evicting families?

Eviction is an act of violence. 

If you’ve never been involved in an eviction that statement may seem a little extreme but trust me, it’s not.  Most tenants are gone before the Sheriff’s Officers arrive, they simply leave once they know that there is no avoiding it.  But anyone who has walked in through a newly forced door to be faced with the whole contents of a family’s home; toys; papers; furniture; even pets, left abandoned can have no doubt about the level of trauma and loss that must be involved.

People get evicted from social housing for breaking the terms of their tenancy agreement.  Mostly they do this by not paying all the rent all the time and accruing significant rent arears.  Problems with the benefit system are almost invariable involved.  But it could also be for damaging the house, not living in it, harassing or harming the neighbours or using the house for illegal activity. 

All evictions require a court order, the courts must take a view on how “reasonable” it is to evict a tenant from social housing (though not from private housing) and, where the eviction is for non-payment of rent, social landlords are obliged to demonstrate that they have gone though a list of actions (the pre action requirements) intended to ensure that tenants:

  • get independent advice;
  • understand and are capable of acting on that advice;
  • are clear about the risk of eviction;
  • have been fully counselled and supported in dealing with benefit applications and debt problems;
  • have access to any specialist services or support they may need; and
  • have been given a reasonable opportunity to pay back any rent arears.

In short, the law requires social landlords to work hard to avoid evictions and give tenants every reasonable opportunity to keep their home.

Despite all this, tenants, including tenants with children, get evicted from social housing every week.  In recent years the number of evictions has been increasing. 

Shelter have published a useful summary of trends and drivers of evictions[4], an updated version of this report will be published in June 2019.

Which does rather beg the question why do we evict anyone?  And the short answer is because it works.  Mostly.

But landlords don’t always get it right, some situations, particularly for vulnerable tenants accused of antisocial behaviour, are not all that they may seem, tenants can’t always explain clearly what it is that is causing them to behave in a particular way and every now and then a tenant just can’t pay their rent because, through no clear fault of their own, they just do not have any means of doing so.

The questions that you may want to ask landlords include:

  • Do they always know if there are dependent children in a house before they start eviction proceedings?
  • Where children are involved do they always make a referral to an appropriate support agency, and does that agency respond?
  • Do they track how effective all referrals to support and advice agencies are?
  • Where a tenant leaves behind papers and possessions what action is taken to ensure that these are protected and, if possible returned to the tenant?
  • When making arears repayment arrangements do they consider child care costs?
  • When a family with children is evicted what effort do they make to ensure that they know that the children are safe?
  • Do they consider the option of offering a Short Scottish Secure Tenancy as an alternative to eviction?
  • Do they always talk through the options for assisting families with colleagues in social care? and
  • When they do contact social care, do they get a response?
  • How often does the Council act to avoid destitution for children by assisting directly with rent arears?

8. How well do we understand and respond to the needs of Gypsy/Traveller families?

Scotland’s Gypsy/Traveller community is probably the least well understood of our minority ethnic communities.  By that I mean from a housing policy perspective we don’t understand:

  • How many gypsy/travellers live in Scotland;
  • Where they live including how many actively pursue their traditional lifestyle and how many are prevented from doing so for whatever reason;
  • How traditional routes, stopping places and employment are used and experienced;
  • What the housing needs of the community are; and
  • What sort of housing Gypsy/Travellers aspire to including how this varies between generations.

Most of what we do know is derived from a limited engagement often with those living on Council run sites.  Public sector policy makers have very little contact or knowledge of that part of the Gypsy/Traveller community that lives in “settled” housing and we have only partial information on the number of private owner occupied or rented sites across Scotland.

What we do know is that there are likely to be Gypsy/Travellers living in every local authority area in Scotland.  But only 19 out of 32 council areas currently have one or more site specifically for Gypsy/Travellers.  The design and layout of these sites is often poor and certainly not what the community would provide for itself if it had the chance and even those that meet the minimum site standards are often poorly located, poorly designed and provide only very basic standards of amenity.

We also know that those Gypsy/Travellers that choose to pursue their traditional lifestyle face obstruction, discrimination and exclusion on a daily basis.  Road side encampments are often met with hostility, there are no identified temporary road side stopping sites anywhere in Scotland and, as a consequence every Gypsy/Traveller family exercising their right to travel is faced with problems every time they stop.

More generally Gypsy/Travellers face discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives, as a result many are reluctant to self-identify outside their own community.

The common experience of Gypsy/Traveller children in school and elsewhere often involves bullying and abuse and not just from other children.But, there is a significant body of specialists in the housing world with regular and direct contact with the Gypsy/Traveller community, all be it largely based around existing council sites.  There has been a lot of focus on improving sites in recent years and there is a very active debate with the Scottish Government, COSLA and the community about how services need to change. [It should be noted that since the publication of this blog  COSLA and the Scottish Government have published their joint action plan on Gypsy/Travellers - available here]

The questions you may want to ask colleagues in housing will include:

  • What confidence do they have in the quality of the information they have about the Gypsy/Traveller community locally?
  • What arrangements are in place to respond to road side encampments and how do these take account of the needs of families with children?
  • How do they know that the public sector provision locally is adequate?
  • What is known about private provision and how confident is the council about quality of accommodation that is on offer?
  • How do they consult with the community about its housing needs, including the needs of families and those not living traditionally, and what plans do they have for future provision?
  • Where the council does have a site how are pitch rents set and how do they compare with rents for council homes?
  • How well does the housing service work with other services to ensure that Gypsy/Traveller children are safeguarded in the same way and to the same extent as other children?
  • Do advice services, including money and benefits advice services have a strategy to ensure that Gypsy/Travellers have access to services in the same way as other residents?

 

A Note on Warmer Homes and Reducing Fuel Poverty 

Both Councils and to a lesser extent Housing Associations have an interest in the Warmer Homes Scotland Programme and should be promoting it when they can.  But it provides support for owners and private tenants to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.  More details can be found: http://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/scotland/grants-loans/heeps/heeps-warmer-homes-scotland-scheme.


 

[6]https://www.scottishhousingregulator.gov.uk/find-and-compare-landlords but it’s not the easiest data to find, you will need to go to “read your landlord’s full charter return” and scroll through to indicator C17, probably at or around page 13 though this can vary.

[8] http://womensaid.scot/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Change-Justice-Fairness.pdf

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