People supported by Dimensions have told us that it is important for them to have opportunities for greater independence.
Key to this is individuals having a say in where they live, and who they live with. People with a learning disability must have access to appropriate housing, with a range of occupancy, tenancy and ownership options.
In 2010 the coalition government committed to the priorities set out in Valuing People Now, which includes the following policy objective:
“All people with a learning disability and their families have the opportunity to make an informed choice about where, and with whom, they live.”
Dimensions housing offer covers supported living, group living, registered care homes and tenancies. We have over 1000 tenants living in houses, flats and registered care homes.
We are concerned that many of the current government’s welfare reforms will affect the rights of the people we support to live in a home they choose, where they choose, with people they choose
Reductions in social rents
The July 2015 budget announced a 1% annual reduction in social rents in England for the next four years.
Given that previous policy was to raise rents, this means that social rents are expected to be 12% lower than they would otherwise have been by 2019-20.
The reduction in social rents will be of little or no direct benefit to most of the 3.9 million households in England living in social housing, as most have low incomes. This means they receive housing benefit to cover all or part of their rent.
Entitlement to housing benefit will typically be reduced pound-for-pound as their rent falls.
Social landlords (housing associations and local authorities) will lose money. By reducing the annual rental income of social landlords by £2.3 billion, the cut in social rents could reduce the amount of new housing supply.
The Office for Budget Responsibility assumes that 14,000 fewer social sector properties will be built between now and 2020-21 as a result. This lack of new homes being built means there will be a shortage of housing for people with a learning disability and autism, leading to less choice.
In February 2016 the government clarified its position with the announcement that supported housing would not be subject to the 1% rent cut in 2016/17, while a review is carried out.
Dimensions welcomes this delay and the opportunity for government to engage fully with the issues.
Cap on Local Housing Allowance
Planned changes to housing benefit could leave vast numbers of the country’s most vulnerable people unable to afford rent on their homes, forcing the closure of many schemes.
The plans announced in November 2015 are to cap the amount of rent that Housing Benefit will cover. The maximum will be set at the level of the relevant Local Housing Allowance. This is the rate paid to private renters on housing benefit for new lettings.
Many tenants live in housing schemes that provide extra care and support, with the higher rents and service charges often covered by housing benefit. If this cap applies to specialist housing, tens of thousands of vulnerable people won’t be able to afford the cost of their home.
In some cases, people may be able to apply for Discretionary Housing Payments. These enable top-ups between the Local Housing Allowance rate and their actual rent and service charge, and what Housing Benefit are agreeing to pay.
But, these payments are not a long-term solution and are already significantly under-funded due to the increase in applications following the ‘bedroom tax’.
Figures from the National Housing Federation show that more than 50,000 households could be affected in just one year, each losing on average £68 per week.
In March 2016, following considerable pressure, the Government confirmed that people living in supported and sheltered housing will be exempted from the Local Housing Allowance cap for one year, while they carry out a strategic review of how supported housing is funded.
The cap will still apply from April 2018, but the review will give the government an opportunity to have a new funding mechanism in place before then.
We welcome this, but it does nothing to reduce uncertainty – and investment in supported housing cannot take place in an uncertain environment.
Many schemes are on hold with organisations calling on the government to confirm that this new cap will apply only to people that don’t need extra support.
A large number of people we support live in supported accommodation. Supported housing promotes health, independence, choice and control, preventing the escalation of need.
The outcomes achieved and the benefits to the individual, their families and society are well documented. Many are in Registered Provider accommodation, but more are having to turn to the private rented sector.
Unfortunately, if three or more people wish to share, as is the case with many people we support, Houses In Multiple Occupation regulations are enforceable and private landlords are reluctant to fund or fit fire alarms and fire doors in their homes. The alternative for people with a learning disability may end up being a considerably more expensive residential home or Assessment and Treatment Unit.
Private landlords already charge rents in excess of the Local Housing Allowance for reasonable accommodation. This makes renting from a private landlord, for disabled people, an unaffordable option and limits the choice they have when choosing a new home.
There is already evidence to show that private landlords don’t consider people on benefits as viable tenants.
Social landlords have a good track record in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. However, insufficient grants mean waiting lists are long, and growing.
People with learning disabilities and autism compete with growing demand from the rest of the population for the scarce resource of housing. This makes securing a home for this vulnerable group even more difficult.
Review of exempt rents
Where a landlord is willing to house people with a learning disability or autism, support providers may be able to lease the home and sublet, claiming exempt rents.
An organisation can claim exempt rents when it is both landlord and support provider, if it is a Registered Provider or not for profit organisation. This increases the housing benefit payable. The advantage is that the individual is able to live in a home of their choice.
Discussing proposals to claim an exempt rent with local authority staff can be difficult as the regulations aren’t well understood. Long discussions with Housing Benefit Officers often result in lost homes because landlords understandably won’t delay letting their home. This denies people the opportunity to live in their own home and with the people they choose.
A review of exempt rents is due at the end of April 2016. We hope that the situation will be clarified and there will be statutory guidance for local authorities to allow this to happen, and happen quickly.
The demand for homes for people with learning disabilities and autism is increasing at the same time as grants are falling, costs are rising and long-stay institutions are closing in favour of supported living.
With little suitable housing being provided or made available to meet this need, it is unclear how the government will meet its own targets published in Transforming Care.
New developments include accommodation under the Transforming Care programme, a governmental commitment to provide personalised housing and support solutions to people with complex needs currently living in hospitals, will not be able to be delivered.
In relation to Transforming Care especially, the current lack of adequate capital input will mean that housing costs will need to be met from rental revenue, and at a rate that will need to exceed Local Housing Allowance rates, in most instances.
As for the Transforming Care agenda, commissioners consistently cite lack of suitable accommodation as the main reason for the failure of initiatives to get people out of long stay hospitals.
This is because many people usually need much bespoke housing. There are few grants or other capital input. Therefore all housing costs, including capital works, need to be met from rents.
Housing providers thus need high rents, rent guarantees and minimum lease periods due to the cost of homes and works.
Housing Benefit payments
Another issue facing people we support is the ability of tenants to choose if they wish to have rents paid directly to landlords.
Whilst we make every effort to support individuals, there are a number who may receive their rent and not pay it to their landlord. Due to the nature of their disability, they may not understand the serious consequences of their behaviour.
This creates hardship at a later date and the tenant will need to pay their arrears in addition to rent and/or end up in court, possibly losing their tenancy and having court costs to pay as well.
We acknowledge that a landlord can request payments to be made direct, but an application can only be made once arrears have accrued to eight weeks.
According to a report from the National Housing Federation in October 2012, 21% of households where someone had a learning disability felt, “that they would have difficulty in prioritising rent within their budgets, while half are not confident they could keep up rental payments” if they received their benefits directly.
If the government’s planned 2016-17 review of supported housing funding maintains the 1% social rent cut, includes supported accommodation within the scope of planned cuts to Local Housing Allowance, and removes exempt rents it will put people with learning disabilities on the streets or confined to living in registered care, institutions and with their families.
It will drive a stake through the heart of all attempts to close institutions like Winterbourne View, keeping people locked up unnecessarily.
Direct cost savings to government will be massively outweighed by significant additional costs to local authorities in keeping secure hospitals open, and in looking after new rough sleepers.
As a policy, it would be very damaging. We are hopeful that exempt rents, Local Housing Allowance cap and social rent reductions will be considered together as part of a single review.
- Ensure people they support have choice over where they live, the type of home they live in and who they live with, through person centred support planning and deep understanding of the options available in the market.
- Work with private landlords to encourage them to rent to people with a learning disability and autism who are in receipt of housing benefit.
Local authorities must
- Provide incentives for private landlords to take on multiple occupation properties, which will create more choice for people with a learning disability or autism.
- Ensure Housing Benefit Officers are trained, and understand, exempt rents, their purpose and can provide fast, simple guidance.
- Consider increasing the use of exempt rents for people with a learning disability or autism.
- Look into developing housing brokerage models such as Dimensions Essex Housing Brokerage Service, run in partnership with Essex County Council.
The government must
- Not subject supported housing to the 1% rent cut. We want to see a permanent exemption for supported housing.
- Provide a strategy for new homes, specifically for people with a learning disability and autism. The sector needs a long-term secure funding model for the supported housing sector with a timetable.
- Provide increased funding through the Transforming Care programme to ensure that people moving from Assessment and Treatment Units have a home, in a place they choose to live and with people they choose to live with.
- Ensure that the cap to Local Housing Allowance rate does not apply to people living in specialist housing where extra care and support is provided.
- Make a decision on Local Housing Allowance by the end of 2016, to allow investment in supported housing to continue.
- Find a permanent solution to Discretionary Housing Payments.
- Provide clear guidance for local authorities to increase the use of exempt rents.
- Allow tenants in receipt of housing benefit, who have a learning disability or autism, to have their payments paid directly to their landlord straight away, not once arrears have been accrued.