What speaking to recently homeless families made me realise about allocating homes

Bekah Ryder, 22 April 2022

We’ve published new research on how local authorities and housing associations work together to rehouse homeless families.

Through interviews with housing associations, the local authorities they work with, and homeless families they’ve rehoused, the research has sought to understand more about experiences of allocating social housing. Crucially, we wanted to find out what helps families transition successfully to life in their new home.

We know that social housing is a scarce resource. In the last ten years, changes to the Affordable Homes Programme grant have meant that building new homes that are the most affordable social homes (social rent) has dropped to an all-time low. Meanwhile, the number of families in temporary accommodation has risen to an historic high. Our own research shows there are currently 8.5 million people in housing need in England, with just over 300,000 social homes available for let each year. Alongside this, welfare reform has restricted benefit levels for recipients.

Some of the challenges of allocating a scarce resource like housing are played out in the legislation, policy and practice that govern it. These restrict access to social housing to ensure fairness. Perhaps understandably, there is no single allocations system across the country (or even necessarily within a local authority area). The allocations system responds to local needs, but also to housing associations’ regulatory requirement to create sustainable communities. It will also apply differently if a person is found statutorily homeless.

What did our research find?

Homeless families we spoke to wanted choice in a home, but this didn’t always happen. As set out in legislation, they often have only one offer of suitable accommodation before the local authority’s housing duty ends. The crisis in housing supply and affordability means that families, local authorities and housing associations might not always agree on what a suitable offer is.

The split between the homelessness duties (for local authorities) and the management of homes (by housing associations) also means that housing associations might not be aware that a household is homeless. They might only find out when the household makes it to the top of the waiting list and they ring to arrange a property viewing. Likewise, a local authority might not always know why a household they nominate has not been offered a home. Information sharing and partnership working is key to successfully allocating homes, but a challenge when funding is constrained.

Interviewees talked about how complicated the homelessness landscape is. I would have to agree. These complications are felt by people at a time of immense pressure, when they are homeless and trying to navigate a system they are often not familiar with. Families spoke about being confused and stressed, of having to find policies themselves and fight to be treated fairly. Families navigating these systems are taking on an extraordinary task with incredible effectiveness. Their work and ability should not be underestimated, but neither should their potential need for support to navigate such a complex system. The more government funding there is for support, the more the capability of families and available homes can be realised.

Our recommendations

When we strip it back, allocating homes, like welfare, is about what help is needed and how best to provide it. We need to focus on listening to what is right for the person. We need to focus on support that helps people get what they need, including overcoming any issues that stop them accessing social housing or managing a tenancy.

If allocating homes already looks at applicants on a case-by-case basis then perhaps it is less about bandings and points and more about what is best for the individual, using all the tools that local authorities and housing associations have. Our research shows that the more housing associations are involved in allocating homes at a local level, the better they can help local authorities with their homelessness duties.

We think closer partnership working between housing associations and local authorities would maximise the opportunity social housing provides to prevent and address homelessness. But the policy constraints within which they operate are extremely limiting.

Demand for social housing far outstrips supply. With rising levels of homelessness predicted, pressures within the system will only become more acute. So we can support as many homeless people as possible to successfully transition into new homes, the government needs to urgently invest in more social rented housing and review the impact of welfare reform on the affordability of social housing, as well as increase government funding for local authorities for homelessness support.