An uphill struggle
Thousands of people with disabilities are locked out of the private rented sector due to a severe shortage of accessible homes. Richard Shrubb reports
In age where the government wants housing to give people a ‘hand up’, the story of Hannah-Lou Blackall - who has congenital myopathy, a muscle-wasting disease, and uses a wheelchair - shows that in all too many cases it is doing precisely the opposite.
In January 2010, Ms Blackall, started working at Hull Council’s social services department as a social worker shortly after completing her degree in the subject. By 2012, she felt she had no option but to quit the job - she had spent 12 months living in a hotel, at a cost of £1,000 a month, and was struggling to find suitable accommodation due to accessibility issues. It became too much of a struggle. ‘Social work is a really high pressure job,’ she says. ‘My domestic conditions were too stressful so I had to quit work and move back in with my parents [in Norfolk].’
This is not an unusual set of circumstances, according to the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign. Its new report, Locked out, which was published last week, reveals how hard it can be for people with accessibility issues to find private rented accommodation. In 2007, for example, more than 600,000 families - 240 people per local authority area - were in housing need due to accessibility issues.
In 2003, the privately run Accessible Property Register was launched, with the aim of creating a one-stop shop for disabled people looking to buy or rent properties, on which estate agents and letting agents could list for a small fee. The report found that just 24 properties nationwide were on this register at the time of the investigation - enough to meet one tenth of demand in an average single local authority area.
The report also found estate agents were not always disability-aware. ‘Many said that agents have a poor grasp of the accessibility of the properties they are advertising, meaning people with reduced mobility have to make visits to properties that are entirely inappropriate to meet their basic needs,’ it states. ‘Eighty-five per cent of the young disabled people surveyed did not feel confident that access advice given by estate agents, local authorities and other housing providers is accurate.’
Ms Blackall describes a typical situation she encountered. ‘I asked very specific questions about every property I was about to visit. One time, the estate agent told me that the bathroom was accessible, but when we visited I found it was upstairs and there was no means for me to get upstairs,’ she recalls.
Ian Potter, operations manager at the Association of Residential Letting Agents, suggests that demand for accessible housing is small. ‘Two hundred and forty people per local authority is a tiny part of the private rental tenant demand in a region,’ he says.
Mr Potter also suggests that for most estate agents, ‘training doesn’t go beyond basic Disability Discrimination Act awareness’. This is a situation that ARLA is working to change with its own courses that ‘constantly remind people of sexual, disability, religious and age equality’, he adds.
He defends estate agents, however, saying: ‘The landlord is in business - the agent takes instruction. The agent can’t alter a property.’
Supply and demand
David d’Orton-Gibson, managing director of private lettings expert Training for Professionals, suggests such issues are down to supply and demand. ‘At the moment there is a real shortage of properties on the rental market. Competition is between tenants. If there was more competition between landlords then you would find a greater amount of accessible properties on the market,’ he explains. ‘If 2 million private rentals were put on the market tomorrow then this would make things easier for tenants.’
The high demand for local authority housing makes it almost impossible for employable young professionals who have accessibility issues to look outside of the private rental market. The report suggests that ‘most local authorities have no formal register of public accessible housing stock and are unable to give an accurate summary of the percentage of accessible homes in their authority’.
Ms Blackall, 26, who is not originally from Hull, states that the council gives precedence to people with a local connection on its housing list. Most professionals of her age would rent, as few have the resources to pay a deposit for a mortgage.
Mr d’Orton-Gibson feels estate agents are in a difficult position. ‘They are guilty of discrimination under the Disability Discrimination Act if they refuse to show someone a property point blank because they think it is inaccessible,’ he states. ‘Some wheelchair users are very mobile even if they can’t use their legs, so you can’t make assumptions. Accessibility varies between individuals.’
A missed opportunity
Searching for a new place to live has become much easier for many through property websites such as Zoopla, Right Move and Findaproperty.com, but not for people with accessibility issues, it appears.
The Locked out report finds that ‘94 per cent say that more information about access on websites would improve the experiences of disabled people looking for accommodation’.
Bobby Ancil, project manager of Trailblazers, a national network of more than 400 young disabled people set up by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, is clear on his views of these websites in light of the report’s findings. ‘Property websites provide a poor service for disabled people. None are particularly helpful,’ he says.
‘I looked at so many properties through [property websites]. You can specify accessibility as part of your search criteria on only one of the property websites [that she looked at],’ recalls Ms Blackall of her experience searching for accommodation online.
Primelocation.com is the one website for which the report has positive words. It states the ‘website does allow keywords searches, which is a good starting point’.
It adds: ‘The detail on the access features of the properties is not in depth, but it is really up to the estate agent advertising the property to give that information.’
Inside Housing contacted Zoopla, Prime Location and Right Move with the latter the only company to respond. Its statement says: ‘The property listings information on our site is largely driven by the advertising information they [estate agents] choose to provide us with. If a property has features that will attract particular buying or renting audiences then the agents have free text ability to promote it, and highlighted advert options. However, unless the information they provide is fed to us in a prescribed manner by their own input and their data-feed provider we cannot build a specific search for a particular feature.’
All too often, when questioned about this situation, those in the chain - websites, estate agents and landlords - seem to pass the problem back up the line.
Property websites say it is the estate agents, and estate agents parry, saying it is down to the landlords. Landlords blame it on the market and the shortage of local authority housing and also on the fact it is a landlords’ market, not a tenants’ market.
Yet the overriding problem remains unresolved - accessible housing is extremely difficult to find for disabled people.
Ms Blackall sums up her frustration from her parents’ home. ‘The whole point is, coming home solves nothing. I have to search for a job, which in the climate is difficult, but this becomes so much harder when I am aware that even if I did get a job, there is no guarantee I would find a home in the entire area and could end up having to give up work again.’