Calls mount for urgent housing reform from housing sector

Property Reporter
22nd February 2022
Gov 777

More than 40 leading housing charities, frontline organisations, and local authorities have united in a call to the Government to clean up exempt accommodation, an underregulated form of supported housing that has fallen victim to exploitation, corruption and profiteering.

Social justice charity Commonweal Housing and the Local Government Association have penned a joint open letter urging the Government to tackle the causes of exploitation of the exempt system and work towards the provision of secure, appropriate, and good quality housing and support for vulnerable adults and young people.

Exempt accommodation is a type of supported housing where landlords that provide “more than minimal care, support or supervision” get significantly higher levels of rent covered by Housing Benefit than under the normal rules.

The loopholes in the system have enabled housing providers to charge upwards of £250 per week, per room, which is funded by the Department for Work and Pensions. A recent report by the now-closed exempt accommodation provider Prospect Housing showed that nearly £1bn of public money was being spent on exempt accommodation.

The open letter has been sent to the Secretaries of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and for Work and Pensions, and has been signed by leading organisations and national membership bodies.

These include the National Housing Federation, the Chartered Institute for Housing, Crisis, St Mungo’s, Women’s Aid and Housing Justice. Leaders at the five local authorities that have been part of the Government’s exempt accommodation pilot scheme have also signed the letter, as well as Mayors and leaders of councils at the Core Cities, Police Commissioners and local councillors.

There has been a significant concern among these organisations and individuals that whilst many providers are trying to do a good job and meet vital housing needs, some providers are failing to deliver the necessary quality in provision or services to protect vulnerable people and further steps are needed to root them out.

The exempt accommodation sector provides a home to hundreds of thousands of often high-need individuals, which include among others: domestic abuse survivors, those recovering from alcohol and drug addiction, former rough sleepers, care leavers, and asylum seekers and refugees.

Too many of these people are living in cramped and often dangerous housing without the necessary support that should be expected, and often to which they were promised. Individuals from these groups are often housed together inappropriately, further endangering their recovery and in some instances has led to violence and crime ensuing. This is further marred by a lack of transparency and regulation which has enabled some exploitative providers to profiteer.

The ongoing rise and spread in the number of exempt accommodation schemes across the country have been described by experts as a “gold rush”, as providers and agents seek to capitalise on the loopholes whilst they can.

Last year, the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee launched an inquiry in exempt accommodation following mounting research into the issues surrounding the sector and increasing pressure from leading organisations including Commonweal Housing, which commissioned the groundbreaking report Exempt from Responsibility? with Spring Housing Association and the University of Birmingham in 2019.

In the three years since the report was published, the number of exempt accommodation units nationally has increased significantly, with the number in Birmingham alone doubling from 11,000 to 22,000.

The government has made positive signals of its intentions to reform and regulate the exempt accommodation sector, including the launch of five pilot programmes across Birmingham, Bristol, Blackpool, Blackburn and Hull.

However, the housing sector and local government do not feel the pace of action has met the urgency, and hope that this letter will encourage the government to legislate.

The letter calls on the Government to:

Introduce measures to ensure that care, support and supervision meets the necessary and expected quality and that Government provides local authorities with sustained funding to support services that meet local needs, ending the injustice of exempt claimants having to pay for the costs of support services that are ineligible for Housing Benefit;

The closure of loopholes that grant the opportunity to exploit the system;
Further strengthening the powers of the Regulator of Social Housing to proactively act in this area where Registered Providers are involved;

Support, enable and fund councils to review their local situation, including where necessary, empowering councils to assess the need for housing-related support and carry out the development of an Exempt Accommodation Strategy so that local authorities can be actively engaged in oversight of this sector.

Ashley Horsey, Chief Executive at Commonweal Housing, said: “For too long, exempt accommodation has operated below the Government’s radar, slowly creating a quiet crisis. Insufficient regulation has enabled some landlords to financially game the system, often at the expense of the vulnerable individuals that it was designed to support.

“Exempt accommodation needs a top-to-bottom review and Government must enact comprehensive reforms to ensure a safe and sustainable future for the sector. I thank colleagues across the sector and in local government for their support of our message and know that together, we can deliver good quality housing and support services that put vulnerable people above profits.”

Cllr James Jamieson, Local Government Association Chairman, said: “Councils are determined to see that people living in exempt accommodation are in decent homes where they receive high quality, personalised support that meets their needs.

“However, we have become increasingly concerned over the minority of unscrupulous providers that are exploiting the increased demand for this type of housing by taking advantage of the higher rents that can be charged for the financial gain of private investors, while not providing an adequate level of care.

“Not only does this have a detrimental impact on the vulnerable people living in exempt accommodation and their communities, but it also places a significant burden on the public purse.

“This is why councils need to have oversight of exempt accommodation, with the powers and resources to crack down on poor providers and ensure this kind of housing and support is of a consistently high standard that meets people’s needs.”

Cllr Sharon Thompson, Cabinet Member for Vulnerable Children and Families at Birmingham City Council, said: “Poorly-managed exempt accommodation is a growing crisis in the United Kingdom, especially in big cities like Birmingham. I alongside others have used our collective voice to call on the Government to adopt an overarching strategy that will change the law to crack down on rogue landlords, protect vulnerable tenants, and safeguard communities across the country. I hope that the Government listens, and works with charities, housing experts and local government colleagues to bring about the change that we all want to see.”

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