Thousands of vulnerable people could be living in ‘unregulated’ housing

Report exposes “accountability deficit” in use of non-commissioned exempt accommodation.

Tenement houses in an Edinburgh street.

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Pic-Adam Elder/Scottish Parliament

An estimated 11,000 vulnerable people in Birmingham are living in potentially unsafe and unsuitable conditions, new research shows.

Nationwide, that number could top tens of thousands.

The Exempt from Responsibility report – published by Spring Housing Association, the Housing and Communities Research Group at the University of Birmingham, and charity Commonweal Housing – exposes an ‘accountability deficit’ in non-commissioned exempt accommodation.

This is defined as accommodation which is not commissioned by a council but paid for using exempt provisions of Housing Benefit and Universal Credit regulations.

That means landlords can access higher rent levels.

Focussing predominantly on shared units run by lease-based Registered Providers, the report finds this accommodation has been left largely unmonitored and effectively ‘unregulated’ by the government.

The DWP requires providers to meet only a loose requirement to provide ‘care, support, or supervision’ to its clients, and much of this accommodation is outside local authority licencing controls.

“Through support for this research, Commonweal hopes to shine a light on a system that is absolutely meeting the immediate needs of some, but is causing real harm for too many others,” said Ashley Horsey, chief executive of Commonweal Housing.

“Everyone accommodated in this sector is in need of a home, but this necessity should not lead to accepting poverty of standards, poverty of management or poverty of aspirations and opportunities.

“This report is a call for better information, regulation, and scrutiny to ensure that ‘exempt’ housing is a legitimate and safe option for everyone who needs it – national and local government must heed its recommendations and address the accountability deficit in this sector once and for all,” he said.

The research is based on analysis of FoI requests, alongside interviews, focus groups, and workshops with residents and providers.

It identified a system where landlords can claim high rents with little accountability, leading to costly and unsafe environments in which residents receive support that is either too high or too low for their support needs.

A lack of alternative accommodation means many are at ‘crisis point’ when they access this accommodation, and can be forced to accept unsuitable and expensive housing, the report says.

Vulnerable groups are more likely to be housed in this accommodation, including people fleeing abusive relationships, refugees and migrants, care leavers, rough sleepers, people facing mental health problems or substance misuse, and those in contact with the criminal justice system.

Many residents face barriers to employment as the higher rent levels charged become unaffordable for many when they find low-paid, insecure work.

The report comes more than a year after MHCLG and DWP announced plans for a “sound and robust oversight regime” for supported housing.

Addressing the “accountability deficit” requires an oversight regime that strengthens criteria in the Housing Benefit and Universal Credit Regulations, and gives stronger powers to the Regulator of Social Housing.

“Whilst the issues within non-commissioned exempt accommodation are by no means limited to Birmingham, we have engaged closely with residents, providers, and practitioners in the locality to bring a ‘human face’ to a national system that is all too often leaving our most vulnerable on the margins,” said Dominic Bradley, group chief executive of Spring Housing Association. 

 “We firmly believe there is a place, and a need, for non-commissioned exempt accommodation.

“At its best, it acts as a true enabler to a safer and more independent life for our most vulnerable groups, [but] at its worst] it is where ‘hidden’ homelessness manifests itself most sharply; in precarious housing conditions without appropriate services, support or security.

“We hope that this work continues to illustrate the need for more transparency, regulation, and accountability, and we will keep working with our partners at local and national level to ensure this sector does not cause harm to those it is intended to help,” he said.