For many enmeshed in the fight against nationwide homelessness and rough sleeping, the private rental sector offers the potential for relief. The number of independent landlords and listings has skyrocketed in the past decade, providing ever-more chances for the housing-insecure to find four walls to call their own. The relationship between the private sector and decreased rates of homelessness seems clear; in theory, growth in the private residential sector should alleviate pressure on local councils and housing associations.
In practise, however, the private sector and the social housing sector rarely work so well together. While England’s private rental market encompasses more than four million homes and houses over eleven million people, access to non-social housing is far less than it should be for those struggling with homelessness. According to one Crisis study on housing access in the private sector, only 20% of surveyed landlords expressed willingness to rent to homeless candidates. The same investigation found that of homeless participants applying for residency, 72% of respondents were unable to secure tenancy as a result of their housing-insecure status.
For those already sleeping rough and facing housing insecurity, this is difficult enough; however, even those who have privately-rented lodgings aren’t always living securely. Data collected by the advocacy group Generation Rent suggests that approximately 216 households face eviction and potential homelessness every week in England. Roughly four in five of those evictions occur under Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants after their initial rental period without providing a reason, regardless of whether the tenant has done anything wrong. Uncomfortably, the same study also found that 39% of private renters are unaware of their landlord’s right to evict them without reason.
For a tenant facing eviction from a private residence, the descent into housing insecurity happens quickly — often in the span of a few short months. Unable to find housing at an affordable price point, the former tenants find themselves sleeping rough. The stigma of being homeless follows them as they apply for housing; the search soon begins to feel fruitless.
The above scenario is hypothetical, but similar instances play out all too often in the real world. A full 41,000 repossessions occurred in England in 2015; 19,000 in the social housing sector, and a shocking 22,000 in the private rented sector. However, while tenants in social housing typically only face eviction after breaching tenancy rules or falling behind on rent, private landlords don’t need any evidence of wrongdoing to initiate removal proceedings — just the desire to do so. According to an English Housing Survey conducted in 2016, 63% of landlords evicted tenants because they wanted to sell or use the rental property.
All that said, I firmly believe that despite its current contributions to the homelessness epidemic, the private sector can contribute to the fight for secure housing if we can reassure landlords that signing a lease with a formerly homeless candidate is a good investment.
Right now, private landlords lack confidence. According to a recent study from the housing advocacy group Shelter, about 68% of landlords are hesitant to rent to homeless candidates because the housing benefits that would pay the lion’s share of rent would flow through the would-be renter, rather than coming directly into the landlord’s hands. In other words, they felt insecure about the tenant’s ability to pay. To make matters worse, a longstanding freeze on housing benefit allotments has allowed rent prices to surpass the amount programme recipients would receive to cover their rent and thereby lifted the chances of arrears.
These factors pose more than a little risk to landlords and real estate investors; from their perspective, it may seem safer to lease their properties to someone who hasn’t yet struggled with housing insecurity. Left unchecked, the private sector’s unwillingness to reach out of its comfort zone only stands to worsen the homelessness problem overall.
If we want to convince the private sector to join the fight against housing insecurity, rather than exacerbate it, we have to set landlords at ease. These overtures could take a number of forms: local housing authorities might develop relationships with private landlords and serve as facilitators between private landlords and homeless households, or help craft lease agreements that promise longer-term tenancies and cut down on turnover costs. Today, many authorities offer to set up a guarantee scheme or put down a rent deposit to convince private landlords to take a chance on a homeless applicant. In any case, the goal remains the same: to reassure that they won’t risk their investment by providing a rough sleeper with a place to call home.
The private rental section can be part of the solution rather than an exacerbating force in the homelessness dilemma; we need only convince the private sector to align its interests with the social sector’s priorities.