The housing market is among the sectors most affected by the recession, in which a shortage of new houses and reduced access to mortgages have put significant pressures on councils.
In the case of Havering LBC, the numbers on the council’s housing register have soared from 2,500 three years ago to 9,500 today. And the number facing homelessness has risen from 550 two years ago to 1,000.
“We have had such a marked increase in the number of applications to us that we have to tackle emergency needs that are not usually there,” says Jonathan Geall, the council’s acting head of housing.
Three types of clients are coming for help, he says: “Some owner-occupiers are having problems, and defaulting on their mortgage, and young people are staying at home longer, because of reduced access to mortgages.
“Some people are new to coming to a council for housing help. That can be very stressful, but we have trained staff.”
One of the council’s first responses to the increase in clients was to introduce a triage system in its housing advice service in January.
Now, when people arrive, their level of priority is assessed: to see if they are homeless, at risk of becoming homeless, or if they are looking for information and advice and need to be directed to the right person. As a result of the new system — and despite the increase in clients — the average waiting time has been reduced from over an hour to just 10 minutes.
Havering has introduced further practical measures. Like other councils, it procures private rented accommodation and offers it to the most overcrowded households under a ‘living space’ scheme that helped 100 families in 2008. Beneficiaries are offered a five-year tenancy, but can stay on the housing register and, if it is their first time living independently, receive four weeks’ housing support.
“Don’t overlook the private rented sector as part of the solution,” is Mr Geall’s advice to other councils. “We have put a lot of effort into forging relations with them.”
The council also runs a ‘downsizing initiative’, to encourage people to move into smaller accommodation, for example if family members have left home. Havering believes it is unique in supplementing its £2,000 cash inducement with a £3,000 grant for improvement of the new home. Under the scheme, 40 tenants have been assisted so far this year.
Havering has also successfully lobbied the Department for Communities & Local Government on the need for changes to the national mortgage scheme.
The overly restrictive conditions meant that only a few clients had benefited nationally, but now that the conditions have been relaxed to include those in negative equity, six local households have been offered assistance.
Helping people with mortgage and other debts as a result of the recession is one of the services developed by Erewash BC.
It all started when Sara Dinsdale, the council’s housing options team leader, noticed a significant rise in demand - not for her services, but for those at the local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB).
“We had concerns that the recession was impacting in other areas and would eventually impact on us,” she says. Ms Dinsdale undertook a risk assessment of the possible effects on the council, and as a result of the report’s conclusions the council decided to fund a full-time debt advice worker, based at the local CAB office. During the first six months the caseworker saw 69 clients and helped them reschedule £690,000 of debt.
Other services that the council promotes through the CAB include help for people to take up their entitlements to benefits, and an expanded repossession prevention fund, which offers loans and grants for those at risk of becoming homeless.
These and other forms of financial help available were recently promoted at a carnival and at a ‘financial healthcheck’ day. Now the council plans more promotions, some at workplaces where redundancies have been announced.
However, Ms Dinsdale says it is not easy to get people to come for help. “Stigma is a big issue. Their attitude is: ‘I am not airing my dirty linen in there’.”
“Even though we send people reminders for appointments, they do not always do turn up,” she adds. “People bury their heads — some turn up at the council on the day of their eviction, and don’t tell their partner.”
Debt is not the only problem within families. Today’s reduced access to housing and first-time mortgages can create added pressure around the house, as arguments develop, for example between siblings or between step-parents and second families.
In response, Mendip DC is one of a growing number of councils to fund a family mediation service. The service is delivered by the local YMCA and seeks to get young people aged 16-24, who account for 40% of those presenting themselves as homeless, to move back in with their families —
either so that a planned move can be arranged later, or to stay there permanently.
“Some people have the idea that they can get council housing very easily — they do not realise that they could be fixed up in emergency accommodation that may not be in the same town,” says Jai Vick, the council’s senior housing officer.
“It is about re-educating young people and their parents. We do a lot of work in schools, to tell people the reality.”
According to Ms Vick, the scheme delivers 35% of the council’s homeless prevention work — 44 cases out of 124 in 2008-09 — and is achieving a 91% success rate.
A value-for-money exercise has also revealed that the scheme saves the council three times what it costs. The scheme’s annual budget was £30,000 in 2007-08, but if the 49 young people helped that year had been placed in emergency accommodation (for an average of 12 weeks) this would have cost the council £95,700.
There are several reasons why the scheme works, says Ms Vick. “It is face-to-face — the adviser may see them in their own homes if need be. It is independent from the council, and the YMCA specialises in young people’s services — they have a specialist officer who has a good rapport with the young people.”
The scheme is complemented by other council-funded initiatives, including a bond scheme to help people arrange a deposit, and a resettlement officer who can help with all aspects of moving. An emergency accommodation group gives young people seven nights’ temporary accommodation while they decide what to do.
With uncertainty about how long the recession will last, councils are trying to predict what local housing needs will be in the near future. “Client groups and their needs are rapidly changing — it is a challenge to stay one step ahead,” says Havering’s Mr Geall.