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When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

Pre-tenancy processes can block access to housing for those most in need

Picture of homeless person in park

In a recently published report, CIH suggests that housing allocation policies in England need to be revisited to ensure that those most in need of housing are not excluded by process driven allocations policies. In certain cases, activity undertaken by housing providers to ensure that teanncies are sustainable actually undermines efforts to house those who need homes the most.

The Rethinking Allocations report looks at allocations policies across England. These differ from the allocations system in Northern Ireland where the Housing Executive and registered housing associations adhere to a common selection scheme when determining to whom a tenancy should be allocated. In England, although Part 6 of Housing Act 1996 sets out some broad rules in relation to the allocation of housing, local authorities have a significant degree of flexibility when developing an allocation scheme and can set requirements in relation to access and priority.

Tenancy sustainment and provision of housing to those in need should not be regarded as mutually exclusive objectives

CIH found that the processes involved in allocations sometimes fail fail to account for individuals’ unique circumstances and housing histories and that this failure can create unnecessary barriers for those households most in need of homes. While acknowledging that housing providers must strike a balance between honouring their charitable objectives to provide homes to those who need them the most and ensuring that tenancies granted to applicants are sustainable, CIH found that these objectives are often in competition with each other and that thsee competing objectives can create "a perverse situation where the reasons why people may need access to social homes the most can often become barriers to accessing them". This raises serious questions about social landlords' ability to deliver on their social aims and objectives. 

Pre-tenancy assessments should be tool for improving sustainability rather than opportunity to "screen" potential tenants

Pre-tenancy assessments have become an increasingly popular tool amongst housing providers throughout the UK, and Northern Ireland is no different in this respect. These assessments can include a number of elements, such as:

  • Risk assessments, which may be informed by the applicant’s own information or engagement with other agencies or services who have entered into information sharing procedures with the housing provider
  • Financial and affordability assessments, which could include credit referencing and debt advice
  • Support and health needs assessment, which are often reliant on applicants accurately reporting their own needs, unless support services are already in place and engaged in the allocations process
  • Housing needs and suitability assessment, which can include consideration of any particular social or cultural needs.

The CIH report found that a better balance between applicants' and providers' needs could be achieved if policies and practice were people-led, rather than process-led. Many current processes fail to account for individuals’ unique circumstances and housing histories and this can create unnecessary barriers for those households most in need of homes. The report includes examples of good practice from housing providers in England who are adopting new approaches to allocations processes, such as pre-tenancy screening and choice based lettings models. 

Rent in advance

The report also looks at the practice of social housing providers asking for, and in some cases insisting on, a payment of rent in advance before a tenancy can begin. Flexibility in regards to this requirement varies between landlords, but some landlord insist that paying rent in advance instils a culture of rent payment in tenants. However, an insistence on upfront payments creates a significant barrier to accessing housing for many of the people most in need of this resource, including people who have been homeless, people fleeing violence or abuse, people leaving institutional care and any person on a low income or in receipt of benefit-only income.

Increasingly, housing providers in Northern Ireland are also requesting upfront payments of rent as part of the tenancy sign up process. We are aware of tenants who have rejected an offer on the basis that they could not afford the rent in advance demanded by the landlord and who have subsequently lost one of the three reasonable offers they are entitled to by housing legislation. We are also concerned that vulnerable tenants may end up resorting to expensive or unregulated sources of credit in order to access rent in advance.  Where a person is contemplating doing this, it's important for that person to look at alternative means of financing this expense, (e.g. by applying to Finance Support for an interest-free loan to cover rent in advance) or to challenge the association's insistence on this payment as being contrary to the agreed system of housing allocation set out in the common selection scheme whereby access to housing is governed by the applicant's needs rather than his or her resources. 

Allocations in Northern Ireland

Allocations policy was one of the areas considered by CIH's Rethinking Social Housing in Northern Ireland project, which recommended further explorying the priority that the selection scheme affords for applicants’ needs. This report also recommended the introduction of a mid-market rent to Northern Ireland, a housing option with rents that are lower than the private market and affordable rent models but higher than in social housing. 

Eileen Patterson from CIH NI will be providing an update on the CIH Rethinking Social Housing project at our upcoming joint conference. 

Tagged In

Social Tenancies, Affordability