Working with the PRS and why councils don’t have to re-invent the wheel

Ask any housing advice or homelessness officer what the most common question is that they get asked, apart from “Can I have a council house please?” and you will usually find it is “Do you know any landlords or agents who take DSS?”

In London at the moment there are between 5 and 9 people chasing every rental property. Although figures vary, depending on who you read what isn’t in dispute is the fact that landlords don’t have any problems finding tenants and can rent properties perfectly happily without councils, and yet councils need landlords to meet the massive demand for housing.

Since the Con-Dem government got in, homelessness applications have risen 38%. This year alone families in bed and breakfast accommodation has risen 50%, the regulation prohibiting councils from placing families in B&B for longer than 6 weeks has long been ignored by many councils, simply because it is unworkable given the deluge of applications. People can’t get mortgages for 1st time buyer properties without having around £40,000 lying around, so much is being asked of the Private Rented Sector.

At the moment we have been told that the qualifying offer is being abolished in November. For those of you who don’t know,  when a person makes a successful homeless application they get a choice of being placed in an insecure, expensive private rented property or hanging on in temporary accommodation for a couple of years until a council or housing association property turns up. That’s what is called the Qualifying offer. When that has gone people will apply as homeless. The council will say they have a private let down the road which will do. If the applicants says they don’t want to go private, the homelessness unit will say “Duty discharged then”.

How radical is that? The tabloids have yet to cotton on.

So councils will be needing more private landlords than ever but how will they get them when so many PRS landlords mistrust or even hate councils? Just spend 10 minutes googling around landlord forums and feel the vitriol. Landlords, almost to a man and woman think councils only view landlords as cash cows to be milked through a variety of licensing schemes whilst being stonewalled in any attempts they make to strike up a working relationship with housing benefit or other council teams.

The other night I met Aki Ellahi from Dssmove, an online property portal aimed at matching up DSS tenants with willing landlords and he said something that really struck a chord with me. I mentioned PRS landlords moving away from benefit tenants but he corrected me, saying that in his not inconsiderable experience, it wasn’t the tenants that landlords shied away from, but the prospect that in taking them on they would have to deal with councils and all the procedural nonsense and general non-cooperation that this entailed. That is the big turn off, not any particular tenant prejudice as such.

I think he is right. That’s the main fly in the ointment.

Regular readers will know I am passionate about the notion of social lettings agencies. Councils operating differently and providing services in partnership with the PRS but unless councils can approach the challenge with a PRS mind-set they will only reproduce the same-old, same-old, effectively saying, “This is what the council does, like it or lump it”.

Aki’s website Dssmove works well outside of London where rents are lower and it isn’t so much of a stretch to get landlords to lower the rent to a more benefit friendly level. In London we would need some massive inducements to persuade PRS landlords to do this. The sad thing is, we actually have those inducements but don’t use them because of an entrenched cultural mind-set that says “public and private are different animals”.

Some councils can pay a finder’s fee of say £1,500 to let through them but in my, also not inconsiderable experience, landlords aren’t that swayed by a one-off payment. What they would really like is a council that actually works with them. Providing advice, support, services, hell…..even mentoring and financial investment advice.

Councils have so much to contribute. They have services, experience, dedicated teams that would be invaluable to the PRS. The Localism Act even allows councils to charge for these services but few seem to have grasped this so far.

Landlords don’t need councils but councils have so much of value that could be brought to the table that it is frustrating to see go wasted, when for want of this partnership approach many of the procedural problems could be resolved.

We keep reading about social lettings agencies as the way forward but in practice it hasn’t been understood fully. The Aki’s of this world are out there ready to do business and help council’s deal with the housing crisis.

Councils don’t have to invest loads of money or resources in inventing the wheel. The solution is already out there, they just have to connect up with existing projects. The only barrier is in thinking “It isn’t what we normally do”.

Ben Reeve-Lewis