The word on the Street

After 6 months of community engagement it’s come to the time of feeding back the word on the Street, what the people are feeling, and hopefully to try and give as many answers to questions I’ve heard repeatedly from concerned residents whilst out and about. The 3 areas I will cover from the collated information is firstly how we arrived to this situation, what will the council do to help people rented from private landlords and lastly what is going to be done in regards to fuel poverty. I’m no expert in housing, my role is to talk to the people and facilitate action to try to change community issues by supporting changes that they need to come together to make, we’ve all heard the expression ‘divided we fall united we stand’ and this has never been so true as it is today! Please take the time to read this article, and also show your support by joining us! http://liverpool.generationrent.org/

Background – Why are we in this mess?

Sales of houses in Wirral have been reducing by 54%, reflecting the trend nationally as a result of the economic downturn. It is important to recognise that the housing market has still not fully recovered and demand for flexible affordable housing is still strong. Generally, the majority of homes sold in Wirral still tend to be in and around the regeneration priority areas in Birkenhead, Seacombe, Liscard and parts of Tranmere and Rock Ferry, indicating their affordability compared to areas to the West of the borough which tend to be less affordable, with less availability. The Wirral housing stratergy states - the changing economic climate and the uncertainty in the longer term of the availability of resources means we will need to increasingly concentrate on the homes we already have in Wirral focusing on:

  • Maximising the use of existing homes and buildings through regeneration of areas.
  • Improving poorer quality homes to make properties and areas more attractive, where some 10.9% of residents living in private sector homes are fuel poor.
  • tackling and bringing back into use those homes which are empty, particularly as the number of private sector homes which have been empty for more than six months has increased by 4.4% between 2009 and 2010.
  • Providing technology and services to vulnerable households who need support to help them to remain in their own homes for as long as possible.
  • Helping those who can’t remain in their current home through providing specialist accommodation to meet their long term needs.

 

Future help for People with issues residing in Privately Rented Properties

Although the responsibility for maintaining privately owned and privately rented housing rests first and foremost with the homeowner, the Council has a key role to play in supporting people to maintain their homes and neighbourhoods. They state they recognise that intervention and assistance is necessary particularly in those priority neighbourhoods where they are trying to stabilise and reverse housing market decline. These are often areas where people are living in financial hardship, where landlords refuse to undertake essential repairs or improvements, alongside other neighbourhood issues impacting on the attractiveness of the area as a place to live. An essential aspect of this is the provision of financial assistance where possible to home owners through products such as equity release and home repair assistance in extreme cases they will also offer support to more vulnerable residents to help them maintain their homes and gardens through the Wirral Home Improvement Agency. This offers home owners and private tenants who are elderly or disabled, access to advice and practical assistance on home repairs, improvements and adaptations and is therefore a key priority for the future. This is really encouraging news, many councils nationally are still not seeing the Private Rented Sector as one of their priorities for assistance, however, having spent the last 6 months engaging with communities this couldn’t be further from the truth. I have witnessed people in situations where dire need of intervention is urgently required. Here are a couple of examples –

Case study 1

Generation Rent was recently in contact with a lady who had to move from her flat because of a mould issue which destroyed some of her property and clothes and even worse, made her very poorly. She tried on multiple occasions to get her landlord to do something about it as she couldn't afford a deposit and 1st month rent to move out quickly. Instead she ended up having to not eat properly for weeks to save money out of her food shopping budget to get out of there.

Case study 2

A young lady who was privately renting in a house which was very low rent. she had reported the problems to her landlord, but only major things as she says she ultimately ignores things like fixing broken door handles and the toilet flush not working properly (but still functioning) because she doesn’t want to provide any reason to raise the rent or for the landlord to evict her.

As is the case both regionally and nationally, the private rented sector continues to slowly increase due to a number of factors including the lack of affordable homes to buy, which has not been made easier by the economic downturn, an increased demand for a flexible tenure that is easy to access and a previously thriving ‘buy to let’ market which had arisen as a result of the ‘housing boom’ over recent years. Although the private rented sector has many advantages such as flexibility and ease of access, evidence has highlighted that it contains many vulnerable households, has the least security of tenure and housing conditions on average are around three times worse than owner occupied homes. The Wirral Strategy plan states by 2026 Wirral wants to see a healthy private rented sector with good quality properties and management standards supported through Wirral’s accreditation scheme, a view which is supported by local communities. In order to meet the challenge of increased housing choice, Wirral recognises that the private rented sector in particular will need to be considered as a key partner in this process. Pressure on the availability of social rented sector homes and the impact of the economic downturn means that supporting people to consider all available housing options is essential.

The term ‘affordable housing’ can mean different things to different people depending on their circumstances. Some people may chose and be able to pay more than others for their home either in relation to a mortgage or a rental amount and therefore their perceptions of homes which are ‘affordable’ may be very different.

Affordable housing includes social rented and intermediate housing, provided to specific eligible households whose needs are not met by the market. Affordable housing should:

• Meet the needs of eligible households including availability at a cost low enough for them to afford, determined with regard to local incomes and local house prices.

• Include provision for the home to remain at an affordable price for future eligible households, or if these restrictions are lifted, for the subsidy to be recycled for alternative housing provision.

Government has proposed a revision to Planning Policy Statement 3, clarifying that the new affordable rent model is considered to fall under the definition of affordable housing for planning purposes. This strategy therefore, in terms of affordable housing, also relates to the affordable rented housing model, which has the same characteristics as social rented housing. It is outside the national rent regime but subject to other rent controls that require it to be offered to eligible households at a rent of up to 80% of local market rents. Housing, irrespective of tenure, can be an important contributor to key outcomes for residents in Wirral, such as health, the economy, and reducing inequalities and as such is a key driver of change in the borough.

The private rented sector is an increasingly important provider of easily accessible, flexible accommodation and more households are recognising the advantages of the sector as a tenure that provides choice. This ease of access, coupled with supporting tenants to sustain existing tenancies, is something Wirral continues to use as both an aid for homelessness prevention and in meeting housing need. This is being achieved and will continue to be delivered through linking services ranging from housing advice and information, tenancy support and assistance with bonds, alongside increased access to accredited private rented homes through a social lettings agency or property shop. We will work closely with the private rented sector to promote access to, and ensure homes offered meet high property and management standards. We will achieve this through working with landlords to meet accredited status for their properties. The same approach will be carried out in relation to Homes in Multiple Occupation where a licence will be granted by Wirral Council where appropriate to operate. This type of accommodation offers a low cost housing option. Where the Council is unable to successfully work alongside the private rented sector and where appropriate we will use enforcement powers to improve the quality and management of privately rented housing. This includes addressing issues around housing disrepair, harassment and illegal eviction. Whilst there are opportunities within the private rented sector, a challenge for the future which will impact on people’s ability to afford a private rented home, are the Government’s changes to welfare benefits, including Housing Benefit/ Local Housing Allowance (LHA), that was introduced in 2011/12 and 2012/13. It is estimated that in the North West, 49% of people claiming assistance with housing costs have had their allowance reduced, with the average loss being £1112 per week. This is coupled with the planned reductions to other income, such as Job Seekers Allowance which will be reduced by 10%, once claimed for 12 months or longer. This may leave some households having to choose between reducing their housing costs, making up the shortfall from other income (and lowering their general standard of living) or falling into rent arrears if they are unable to secure employment. This highlights the immediate problems faced in this housing crisis, which is very real and needs action act.

 

Fuel Poverty

As 17.1% of Wirral households are estimated to be in fuel poverty, which is above the average for England (15.6%) it is a key priority of the Council to address this for the future. The majority of fuel poor households tend to be living in areas where income is low and property standards are poor. As with other inequalities across Wirral, there are marked differences in the rates of fuel poverty between areas, with Wallasey and Birkenhead having the highest levels. There is also an overlap with health inequalities in particular where homes are cold and damp. This can exacerbate or be one of the causes of respiratory and cardio-vascular diseases, impacting significantly on people’s health. 

Where a home has poor heating, poor insulation, damp or mould, there is an increased risk of illness amongst the occupants. Low temperatures within a home can lead to a decreased resistance to respiratory diseases, increase in blood pressure and increased cardio-vascular disease. At its most extreme it can lead to hypothermia. It is during the winter that most people die (known as “Excess Winter Deaths”) and in part this can be attributed to the cold temperatures people experience in their homes. By improving insulation and heating, “affordable warmth” can:

• increase life expectancy and reduce inequalities in health

• improve householders’ mental health and well being

• improve children’s educational achievements and school attendance, and reduce the incidence of childhood asthma

• promote social well-being and independent living, with older people able to use the whole house following central heating installation. This potentially reduces/delays admission to hospitals and care homes.

One of the ways the council is trying to get a handle on households in fuel poverty is by adopting a ‘Joined-up approach’ They address income, energy efficiency and fuel costs together under the “Warmer Wirral” banner. Warmer Wirral, as well as delivering grants for energy efficiency, is designed to increase awareness of fuel poverty and assistance available to households, by networking with charities, Council staff and local organisations they are dedicated to reaching as many communities as possible. A key aspect to this is the area-based approach to tackling fuel poverty with a team of assessors speaking to households on the doorstep and signposting to the assistance available and at the same time engaging the public through events, advice surgeries and talks and training on fuel poverty for front-line workers. 

So, there it is. There is so much room for improvement, but it can't be done without your support. If this article motivates you, please take 2 minutes out of your day and show your support of our campaigns by signing up to our web page today! http://liverpool.generationrent.org/

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