Casting the net for a home
A website aimed solely at local housing allowance claimants is helping people find homes. Lydia Stockdale logs on
‘I phoned every estate agent in the phonebook in the Hillingdon area, but the minute you mention DSS they just didn’t want to know,’ says Kevin Connelly, a local housing allowance claimant who was homeless for three months before he found a home in June via a website called Re-House.
This property site currently features 31 available rooms, studios, flats and houses, all of which are only available to LHA recipients. ‘It’s exclusively for people on housing benefit and landlords wanting to rent in that sector,’ explains Jana Clements, managing director of Re-House UK, the private sector company which runs the site of the same name.
Although homeseekers and landlords from anywhere in the UK can use the site, its current geographical scope is limited - most of the properties available via Re-House today are in the Hillingdon area of west London. This is because since the site launched in June last year, Hillingdon Council has been referring people who need help securing a home to it. Mr Connelly is one of them.
From this autumn, though, the site’s scope is due to expand. Re-House is in talks with the housing departments of two other London councils which it hopes to encourage to use the site. This won’t come for free - councils have to pay a licence fee of £10,000 per year.
This lets them use the site as an ‘administrative and self-service tool’, states Ms Clements. For example, they can download the details of all of the homeseekers they have referred to the site in a single document. But is it worth the money for cash-strapped councils? And what do private landlords and their potential tenants need to know before signing up?
Reaping the benefits
Around 300 homes have been successfully let through the website over the past year. In the same period, more than 4,000 homeseekers have registered their details and around 400 landlords have signed up to advertise their properties. Since April this year, Hillingdon Council alone has directed 438 households to Re-House.
Many of these residents visited the local authority’s offices in Uxbridge looking for help finding a home and were directed to six self-serve computers where they can log on to the Re-House site and enter their details. ‘We are trying to promote the customers resolving their own housing needs where possible,’ says Emma Humphrey, housing needs manager at Hillingdon Council. ‘As long as we know they are eligible for benefits, but are not vulnerable to the extent they would be owed a housing duty by the council, and if for one reason or another they can’t find a property for themselves, we direct them to the Re-House website,’ she adds.
As a result, 73 homeseekers found a property over the past five months. Of these, 34 were single people who did not have priority needs and were therefore unlikely to be successful in securing social housing via the local authority’s 7,991-strong housing waiting list. One hundred and sixty households are registered on both Re-House and the local authority’s list.
Research conducted after Hillingdon Council’s first three months using the site showed that the local authority’s housing advisors saw 90 fewer housing applicants per month. This means they saved approximately 90 hours that would have been spent interviewing these individuals and filing their details - ‘equivalent to one part-time member of staff per month’, says Ms Clements - saving an annual salary of roughly £11,500.
Hillingdon Council also uses Re-House to monitor people who report they’ve been unable to secure a property. ‘We can check the website to see if they’ve been in contact with landlords,’ she explains. ‘It also helps us to refute the claim that it’s impossible to find properties if you are on benefits.’
So what do landlords get out of it? The local authority advertises the incentives it offers to private landlords through the site. For example it offers a one-off payment to those who house tenants classed as ‘difficult’ and also a bond scheme, through which the council can put down a deposit on behalf of certain homeseekers.
Generally, though, the site means that property owners no longer have to rely on the council to put forward LHA claimants for them to rent to.
For private landlords basic membership is free, but packages can cost up to £39.95 per month. Re-House offers property owners several safeguards, says Ms Clements. This is particularly important given the caps on LHA rates that were introduced for new claimants in April, and for existing claimants from January, which could force some landlords to reduce their rents to accommodate tenants. ‘If you can have a system that gives them added value and added benefits, you might be able to maintain some of [the landlords] in this sector,’ suggests Ms Clements.
The site also restricts would-be tenants from expressing an interest in properties outside their LHA entitlement, and void times are kept to a minimum, she says. ‘[Rooms in houses in multiple occupation] tend to have a higher turnover, so this is a great way for landlords to find someone quickly.’
For their part, landlords advertising properties on the site have to set their rents within LHA levels. They must also upload the gas and energy performance certificates for the property.
It sounds like Re-House offers a win-win situation, but it’s important to note the company does not inspect properties unless ‘two homeseekers go on a viewing and reject a property on condition’. So there’s no guarantee the homes featured are of a certain standard.
Vincenzo Rampulla, policy officer at the National Landlords’ Association, sounds another note of caution. He says it’s important that using Re-House does not replace the relationship between councils and private sector landlords. ‘Local authorities need to ensure that they are doing more than just pointing [people] in the right direction. Councils should be building relationships with their local private rented sector,’ he says.
Still, the site has enabled those, like Mr Connelly, who believed their search was hopeless, to realise they can log on and find a place to call home.
How Kevin was Re-Housed
Hillingdon resident and local housing allowance claimant Kevin Connelly was moving from one cousin’s house to the next, ‘cashing in every little favour’ after he became homeless in March.
In June, after a couple of months of looking for somewhere to live, he found a one-bedroom flat through the Re-House site. ‘So it was pretty quick, but it didn’t feel that way at that time,’ he reflects.
After calling around local estate agents to no avail, Mr Connelly decided to visit Hillingdon Council. ‘I went down and said, “I need help”,’ he recalls.
It was here he was told about Re-House. ‘I have always been a labourer. I’ve never needed computers. Someone had to show me how to use it,’ recalls Mr Connelly. But he soon picked it up, ‘It’s just tap this tap that and there you go’.
He checked Re-House every couple of days, and when he saw a property he was interested in, he would send a message to the landlord via the site. His new home was the first one he viewed.
Mr Connelly’s housing problem meant he hadn’t been able to see his 10-year-old son since Christmas, but he’s just been to stay with him for two weeks during the school holidays. ‘Thank God this flat came up,’ he says.