The Government wants people on housing benefit to share accommodation to bring down costs. But, Sue Heath warns, voluntary arrangements usually work better than compulsion.
The Government’s welfare reform programme is penalising under-occupation of social rented accommodation that is paid for by housing benefit. One approach favoured by the Government is more sharing of accommodation – but the evidence is that shared accommodation works best when it is a voluntarily chosen option, not when it is forced upon people.
Shared accommodation is no longer a matter of free choice, especially for many younger adults for whom it is often the only option for at least part of their lives. Two years ago, government changes to the Shared Accommodation Rate came into effect. Now, if you are single, without dependents, in private rented housing and aged under 35, you are only entitled to housing benefit at the same rate as you would receive for renting a single room in a shared house. That has introduced a strong element of financial compulsion and has forced many more people into shared accommodation.
Explaining in 2010 the reasons for extending the Shared Accommodation Rate, Chancellor George Osborne said: “We will increase the age threshold for the shared room rate in housing benefit from 25 to 35, so that housing benefit rules reflect the housing expectations of people of a similar age not on benefits.”
This approach was rejected by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, who responded: “The Government like to present the shared room rate proposal as an extension of the idea of a group of young friends living together as their children might after university. That is a seductive argument, but only because it is so simplistic.”
At the time of the last Census 15% of men and 9% of women aged 20 to 34 were living in shared accommodation in the UK. While sharing by choice is potentially positive for all involved, sharing by compulsion carries significant challenges – not least through participants’ reluctance and the stress this places on relationships with those with whom they are sharing. The Government’s welfare reform ignores the difficulties and realities of accommodation sharing, relying instead on financial penalties – such as the ‘bedroom tax’ and the Shared Accommodation Rate – for those who do not share.
Sharing can be a positive option for people, where it is voluntarily chosen and where the housing provider prioritises the needs of tenants. But where the needs of the provider organisation are the priority – along with government cost cutting – the results are likely to be damaging to the interests of the tenant. Experience has shown that shared accommodation schemes that offer young adults good housing in attractive areas provide positive outcomes, while schemes that are trying to find a use for otherwise redundant stock provide a negative experience for tenants.
However, there is also a lack of capacity to meet the enforced increased demand. This is a factor, says homelessness charity Crisis, in the doubling of rough sleepers in London in the last four years. As well as a lack of properties suitable for sharing, many properties are of poor quality, whilst many landlords are reluctant to offer accommodation to housing benefit recipients.
Crisis is adopting several models to increase the supply of shared accommodation for those without other options. These include the use of supported ‘training flats’ to give people experience in how to share, finding suitable lodgers for those affected by the bedroom tax who are willing to share, support for landlords to improve properties suitable for sharing, the use of ‘lead tenants’ in shared accommodation and finding ways to accommodate parents with non-resident children in shared accommodation.
The key lessons from this modelling are the need to match sharers appropriately, to obtain support from local authorities and to address concerns regarding safety and liability for damage. Crisis is to collate best practice and has already begun to produce a series of good practice guides.
The University of Manchester’s Under the Same Roof research project is looking at how shared housing of various kinds works in practice. This includes which factors lead towards positive outcomes and which provide negative experiences. But it is clear that shared living arrangements are only as good as the relationships that exist within them.
Early findings of the Under the Same Roof research point to a wide diversity of arrangements and motivations for engagement with shared housing. Often sharing begins from a financial incentive, but develops into a social connection. Good sharing has to be worked at. Hierarchies often emerge within shared housing, for example, longer established tenants may have more influence in shared homes. Many sharing arrangements become long-term, even if this was never intended.
The physical environment, in particular, can have a big effect on the success of a sharing arrangement. It is more likely to be successful if there is a shared living room as well as a shared kitchen. Children present both challenges and opportunities. Parents may be challenged by other tenants about how they bring up their children, but sharing can lead to support with childcare.
The essential focus of the research is on the quality of relationships within shared accommodation. Unfortunately while this is the thing that determines whether sharing is successful or not, it is a factor ignored by the welfare reform agenda.
The research is not saying that people should share, but rather it points out the potential advantages available from sharing arrangements that work well, including financial and social sustainability, and it emphasises that the most successful arrangements are based on voluntary sharing. But there are strong financial pressures through the welfare reform process that mean that sharing is in effect forced on many people. Despite this, there is little awareness of which factors enable shared housing to work and how this should be achieved.