Welcome Minister – will you prevent 50% of DV refuges closing?

Mark Prisk? Who?  Yes that took us all by surprise didnt it!  I am sure he will get many ‘open letters’ on the next few daysfrom the great and the good (and the not so great and good in housing) welcoming him to his new post with suggestions on what he should do.  Yet I doubt he will get many about supported housing, that complex Cinderella bit of housing.  So how about this then: –

50% per cent of refuges will close in the UK in the next two to three years if your coalition welfare reforms go ahead unchecked Mr Prisk!  Yet you can stop that very easily.

A bold statement and I trust has your attention as I predict it will be the case and below I outline why.

1.  The rent at domestic violence and abuse (DVA) refuges as well as other emergency access temporary accommodation services (hostels, homeless families units, etc) are typically, and necessarily higher than private rent levels.  The housing sector knows the impact the overall benefit cap will have on high PR rent levels yet seems oblivious though I suspect ignorant of the higher rent levels necessary in refuge and hostel provision.

2.   Rents are necessarily higher as refuges need to be fully furnished from beds, mattresses, wardrobes, white goods, soft and hard furnishings right down to cutlery and crockery.  Those fleeing DVA don’t do so with the proverbial kitchen sink strapped to their backs.  Housing Benefit through its ‘exempt accommodation’ provisions meet these costs, at least currently.  The coalition is however planning to reduce these HB-eligible ‘service charges’ dramatically with the consequences that refuges and other emergency temporary accommodation cannot be funded adequately.

3.   In April 2013, the overall benefit cap comes into force with caps at £350 / £500 per week for single persons / families and lone parents.  Refuges are NOT exempt from the overall benefit caps and therefore residents there have a much higher chance of having their rent capped or cut and even more than tenants in private rented housing given that refuge gross rents are often higher than PRS general needs rents.

4.   Refuges like all emergency temporary supported housing services have increasingly had to turn to the PRS to move residents on post refuge due to the reducing supply of social housing as move-on.  The bedroom tax that will affect social housing shortly reduces the availability of social housing even further and especially as the 17 refuges I have direct knowledge of typically see 30% of residents being single and without children.

5.   Refuge residents aged 25-34 are exempt from the shared accommodation rate (SAR) if they receive 3 months support at a refuge.  Yet the exemption does NOT apply to those aged under 25 (see here when it says the exemptions “only apply to the extended age group…” ) Again about 30% of refuge residents are under 25 and will not get any exemption so need to move on to social housing not private rented housing.

The above point is critical as many providers of refuge and hostel provision I speak with believe the exemption of 3 months of support in hostel and refuge apply across the ages yet they do not – it is only to the extended age group ie 25 – 34.

Let me state for the record that I don’t believe this was the intention of the Coalition government for this to happen; rather it is an unintended (though foreseeable) consequence.  As an (alleged) supported housing expert I am not surprised that supported housing consequences were not discussed or even mentioned in any of the Coalition equality impact assessments on any of the above reforms. This is all too common with all governments who repeatedly have shown they know next to nothing about supported housing.

However, a plea to the reader and most of you will be in the housing sector.  Mark Prisk’s appointment was a surprise and doubtless many CEOs and Directors will shortly meet him.  Please ask him to take the simple step of exempting supported housing from the overall benefit cap and to keep the existing HB regulations for ‘exempt accommodation’ which pertain to refuges and other emergency accommodation. Both are practical and easy for him to do, else closure in huge numbers out of a lack of financial sustainability will happen.

Further, if the current policy proposals to reduce service charge eligibility and include ‘exempt accommodation’ rent in the OBC, then a number of other consequences will happen.

(A)  Given that refuges will not be able to move on single women aged 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23 and 24 from the refuge into more independent accommodation, then will they accommodate them in the first place?

If a refuge does admit a single 18 year old then the options that exist are; (a) keep her at the refuge for 7 years or (b) move her on to shared accommodation in the PRS.  Unless of course (c) social landlords are willing to increase the number of 1 bed properties they make available to single women moving-on from refuges.   Yet as David Orr from NHF said last year 180,000 2 bed properties accommodate single persons in general needs housing and only 68,000 1 bed lets are created each year.  So under-25 single refuge residents will be competing with at least 2 existing tenants for every 1 bed that become available there!

Bear in mind option (c) will not be an option if the shared accommodation rate or SAR applies to social housing in the future as many expect it will and of course the bedroom tax will see many other single existing tenants wanting to downsize from ‘under-occupied’ properties further increasing reliance for move-on on the PRS.

The answer has to be no and however regrettable and offensive that is refuges will have to amend their admission policies and change the way they operate directly due to the OBC. Unless refuges can get increased nomination right from SRS landlords then it may have to be a case of sorry Miss Jones go back to abusive relationship and come back when you are 25!!

(B)  Furthermore (A) above assumes that refuges will be exempted from the proposed reduction in ‘service charges’ down to just three HB-eligible ones or that policy is not implemented.  If refuge are not exempted they will close anyway as often the HB-eligible service charges that pay for furnished accommodation can account for a much if not more than the net rent figure.  Moreover, even that assumes SP funding is not reduced which it has been significantly reduced.

(Note it was reported in March 2012 ” …funding from local authorities to organisations working with domestic-violence and victims of sexual abuse fell from £7.8m in 2010-11 to £5.4m in the current financial year.”)

If figures help it is not untypical to see a refuge have a cost of say £300pw of which £100 is net rent; £100 of HB-eligible services, and £100pw of SP money.  The £100pw of net rent will still be paid, yet the £100pw of HB eligible funding may reduce to £15 or £20pw due to the 3 ‘service charges only proposal’ and cuts of 30%+ are not untypical in SP.   A 30% or £30pw cut in SP to £70pw may be manageable if the other £200 per week remains.  That is a 10% overall cut and services may be salvaged albeit reduced ones.

Yet a cut of 80% to HB-eligible rent of £80pw in that scenario alone is a 27% cut and means inevitable closure which is hastened with an additional cut in SP funding – No service can survive such level of cuts.

Finally some demand context. A few months back WAFE (Womens Aid Federation England) revealed figures which how 231 women are refused accommodation to refuges daily.  Note well that means not being able to access ANY refuge and not approaching refuge A and being referred to refuge B or refuge C.  It means no refuge place was available for 231 women on an average day.

231 daily is 1,617 women per week refused access to refuges.  There are roughly 300 refuges for women and so every refuge, including your local refuge wherever you are reading this from, on average has to turn away more than 5 women (and accompanying children) every single week.

So fellow housing professionals, and 95%+ of you will work in general needs housing and not supported housing, when you do get the opportunity to meet or speak with Mark Prisk and his new CLG staff or an e-petition or some other lobby asks for your support and signature on the above you know what to do.

Note – I first blogged about this in August 2011 (and here, here and here with overall cuts of between 24 and 65%) and refuge lobbies finally picked up part of this in August 2012.  In the huge and long debates on the Welfare Reform Bill the issue of the inevitability of refuge and hostels closures were not even discussed!

Of course all the above applies to homeless hostels too and not just to DVA refuges.  But that raises the old cliché of the ‘deserving’ (refuge residents) and ‘undeserving’ (nasty single homeless) client groups.  It is also very easy to look at the overall benefit cap in just its £500pw limit, yet with so many single and childless women accessing refuges the £350pw limit is very much in play and especially as many refuge and single homeless hostel rents can be in excess of £300 per week.

To many readers of this how many of you knew or even thought that so many single women enter DVA refuges?  Not many I suspect as I was of the same ignorance level 12 years or so ago when I first started working with them.

Social landlords that work in partnership through managing agent agreements with refuge services do you know what percentage of residents there are single and childless?  Probably not, and do you have funding for 231 more sanctuary schemes per day?  No thought not?

While the housing sector focuses almost exclusively on the bedroom tax and a large part of the supported housing sector focuses on the very worthy Spartacus report and the ‘disability agenda’  – both very deserving of attention – it is also missing that traditional emergency accommodation provisions such as refuge and hostel WILL close en masse due to colaition welfare reforms.

So when you do get the chance to speak with or lobby the new housing minister….!

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