House or Home?
Poverty is on the rise in the UK. Of that there is no doubt.
The Resolution Foundation warns that the proportions of parents and children living in poverty is projected to hit record highs in the coming years – an analysis shared by the Institute of Fiscal Studies. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation puts the number of children across the UK currently living in poverty at 4.1 million (a rise of 500,000 over the past 5 years), while 4 million workers are also living below the poverty line. Amid mounting uncertainty around Brexit, benefit changes and budget deficits, organisations are understandably looking to safeguard themselves against any unexpected turbulence moving forward.
As levels of poverty have increased, so too have the numbers of organisations searching for solutions to help combat and alleviate things for those falling below the poverty line. Too often these same groups can be too eager to find a silver bullet or headline-grabbing new solution, often missing effective solutions right under their noses. The issue of Furniture Poverty is no exception. Unsurprisingly, one of the best ways of helping lift people out of Furniture Poverty is to provide them with furniture. For housing associations, furnished tenancies are a cost-effective way of helping tenants access the essential furniture that they need – and, if run properly, can even make money for the organisation too!
In the private rented sector, furnished properties are commonplace, but social housing tenants are rarely offered the same. In 1971, there were as many as 760,000 furnished tenancies provided across England and Wales. Nowadays the number stands at somewhere in the region of 2% of social housing stock - despite End Furniture Poverty research showing that furnished tenancies are top of tenants' list of priorities for social landlords to tackle their financial exclusion. Furnished tenancies are not needed by everybody. End Furniture Poverty estimates that only around 5% of general needs tenants require access to a furnished tenancy. These tend to be among some of the more vulnerable tenants.
If a landlord doesn’t provide the furniture a tenant needs, where will they turn? For a lucky few, family and friends will be on hand to help share the burden of setting up a home. Not everyone will be so fortunate. Preloved furniture can be a valuable crutch to help gather some of the essentials, but it can be difficult to find all of the items needed – and even preloved can be affordable to some. People therefore face a difficult choice: do they go without? Or turn to illegal and barely legal lenders and rent-to-own stores where they face paying extortionate levels of interest just to cover the essentials?
That bears repeating. We aren’t talking about luxury items here, but the bare necessities, the essential items that people need to live at a societally acceptable standard. A bed for them and their children to sleep in. An oven to cook fresh, hearty food. Floor coverings to reduce noise, retain heat and protect their children from the hard floor underneath. If people are forced down the line of expensive borrowing, it’s worth taking a moment to think of the consequences – food taken out of children’s mouths, warmth from the heating or rent going unpaid. Housing associations therefore face a choice about whether to help people acquire the Essential Items and prevent people falling into massive debt or let the status quo persist – with repercussions further down the line when they fall into rent arrears.
A furnished tenancy is a powerful tool. For vulnerable tenants it removes a huge financial burden to find money or to access credit to make their new property into a functioning home. A 2015 survey of social tenants by EFP and the Human City Institute offered an insight into what tenants want: almost half (47 per cent) of respondents said that they want social landlords to provide furniture directly and a further 36 per cent would like them to help with furniture in a variety of ways. Younger tenants and lone parent families were most likely to set priorities around furniture.
For landlords there are multiple benefits: lower rates of tenancy failure, better tenancy sustainment and reduced void costs, as well as making it easier to find tenants for traditionally hard-to-let properties.
As well as providing a reported social return of £2.11 for every £1 invested, a furnished tenancy scheme can be a profitable enterprise for an organisation if run properly. That’s not all; the beauty of a furnished tenancy? The costs for the tenant can be deducted from their housing benefit as a service charge. Moving a tenant into a furnished property without taking any money out of their pockets, and none of the stresses and challenges that come with setting up a home? It should be a no brainer.
As the effects of austerity and welfare reform continue to be felt in communities up and down the country, the number of households living in Furniture Poverty seems sure to rise. Furnished tenancies offer social landlords a chance to help ease the burden for many vulnerable tenants most at risk of living in these interminable situations. While housing associations understandably have to protect to their own solvency, lest they be unable to help anybody, they should also be sure to remember the duty that comes with being a ‘social’ landlord. It is worth pausing for a moment of self-reflection for a moment and asking: do we want to offer our tenants a house, or a home?