Scotland as a model for social housing legislation
Robert Aldridge is the executive director of Homeless Action Scotland, an umbrella organization bringing together service providers involved in the problem of homelessness. He has also been a member of the City of Edinburgh Council for 22 years.
As a member of Scotland's Homelessness Task Force, Aldridge participated at the turn of the millennium in an extensive transformation of the legislation on social housing there. The process for designing Scotland's current legislation on this issue is described as one of the most successful in Europe.
The transformation began with the lessons learned from the previous social housing legislation, which divided those in need of social housing into various target groups and assigned them priorities. The new legislation abandoned the approach of defining target groups, instead defining a universal right to social housing for people who found themselves without housing against their will (not to be confused with those who lost housing due to their own actions).
This interview was conducted by Jan Milota and Štěpán Ripka of the Platform for Social Housing on the occasion of Mr Aldridge presenting at a workshop entitled "Experiences from the Social Housing Concept in England and Scotland", held in Prague on 14 May 2014. News sever Romea.cz brings it to you in full translation.
Q: What is the basis for success when creating a social housing system?
A: First it must be clear why social housing is created, for whom, and who should receive priority. That is the basis, and other elements then follow. Second, it is important to focus on the win-win aspect. I think every stakeholder can find certain advantages from which to gain in a system. It is therefore important to include everything in the solution in order for it to succeed. That isn't easy, and very often it may seem that the interests of various participants conflict with one another, but you can always endeavor to bridge those various interests and ensure at least a limited consensus. The third principle is patience, it is just not possible to presume that a big social housing sector can be created overnight out of nothing, rather, it is important to provide good information to the public at large and to demonstrate the advantages of the system through various examples.
Q: Can we be inspired somehow by the Scottish example of designing a social housing system? Many people object that the Scottish system is very costly and that the Czech Republic cannot afford it. What would you say to them?
A: I'd say that it is ultimately not costly. If you perform a precise cost-benefit analysis and look at all of the public expenditures intended to address the results of homelessness, you will find that the Scottish system is ultimately one that saves money. The system integrates people back into housing, and society profits from their inclusion, from their ability to pay taxes, and from greater security. The costs of addressing crime are smaller, the courts have less work, and health care and other state expenditures will only increase if we don't do our best to escape the vicious circle of prison-homelessness-other institutional care.
Q: Who, and under what circumstances, can enter the social housing system in Scotland?
A: Anyone can apply for social housing. We have a national framework for assigning social housing that says local municipalities or housing associations must give priority to homeless people, to large families, to people living in substandard conditions, and to people who are ill. In addition, however, every town can develop its own housing policy. Social housing is primarily, at its core, for people who have nowhere to live. Everything, therefore, is evaluated on the basis of the principle of housing need, it's not about other needs. I would also add that in Scotland (unlike other parts of Great Britain) everyone has the right to request social housing starting at age 16. The operators of social housing are not permitted to discriminate on the basis of age.
Q: What is the standard for social housing - how are the living spaces equipped?
A: We have new legislation concerning standards of housing quality that will take effect next year. This represents a rather big shift compared to the previous framework. Until now the standards essentially concerned whether the housing could withstand water and wind, whether there was hot and cold running water, and whether a bathroom with a toilet was included. From 2015 the standards will essentially be stricter, they will also follow the energy cost of the building or apartment (i.e., the question of whether people will be able to afford to heat the apartment). We have also established how many rooms a family of a certain size should have available to it and we have legislation addressing overcrowding. That states that normally a couple should have one room available, and if they have two children under 12, it is expected that the children will share a room, and if they are of different sexes, each should have his or her own room after the age of 12.
Q: In Scotland it is first necessary for a landlord to undergo a registration process to become a social housing lessor, what are the criteria for that?
A: All lessors (with the exception of towns, to which different measures apply) must be registered as social lessors. That means they must register with the Scottish Housing Regulator. That authority audits the lessors from time to time, it performs inspections. The frequency of those inspections is determined by the level of risk that a lessor is not meeting the requirements. However, every social lessor undergoes an inspection every five years. They also monitory whether they are complying with the Social Housing Charter, a set of principles according to which social housing is supposed to be provided.
Q: What are those principles?
A: Those principles are the following: Transparency, responsibility toward tenants and applicants, the speed with which a lessor responds to reported defects, and how well the lessor maintains the building in good condition. There are many expectations.
Q: Do these lessors make housing available only to people who are entitled to a housing benefit?
A: Not exactly. A registered lessor of social housing has access to support for construction of new housing stock, to capital support, so it is expected that the social lessor will keep the rents below market level, but in our system (which is very complicated, by the way), whoever does not have enough money to rent an apartment or house is entitled to state support facilitating the lease of either privately-owned or social housing, which is naturally capped.
Q: What is the usual rent in Edinburgh for a 70-square-meter apartment?
A: Scotland is in a completely unique position in Europe - we do not calculate rents based on apartment size (square meters), but on where the apartment is located. In a good locality the prices are higher and in a worse one they are lower. The price also depends on the quality of the apartment, its fixtures. An individual sharing a two-room apartment with another person pays roughly GBP 450 per month, but that is also tied to the amount of housing benefit.
Q: If a lessor does not meet the social housing criteria, what can a town do about it?
A: If the lessor is registered as providing social housing, the town can report him to the regulator, which performs an inspection. If deficiencies are discovered, the regulator produces a report and tasks the lessor with correcting the errors and shortcomings by a certain date. After three months a new audit is performed to see whether the corrections were made. Social housing lessors usually fix everything. In extreme cases, if the lessor refuses to correct what is wrong, or is somehow incompetent, the regulator has the right to take over administration of the apartment unit or building. We assume administration of the apartments and take care of fixing them so they can then be managed by the lessor again.
Q: What does that mean in practice? Do towns have departments for administering the apartments of problematic lessors?
A: No, in the social housing sector there really are not many such cases. On the contrary, everyone does their best to provide the best services possible. I understand that usually it is expected that we will focus on the worst cases, that there will be a lot of them. However, if you are a registered social housing lessor, in most cases the non-profit organizations who do this meet these principles as conscientiously as possible, which means the likelihood of encountering a bad lessor is rather low. Lessors of poor quality turn up in the private rental sector, which is a much more complicated issue.
Q: Can you also intervene in the private rental sector?
A: Yes, but through other rules and tools. However, it's very complicated. As you certainly know, every country has a very complicated legislative framework. If a private lessor leases an apartment or a house to a family, he must be registered with the local authority, and one of the conditions of registration is that he must have a clean criminal record, particularly in areas such as illegal evictions, violence, organized crime or sex crimes. It is illegal to collect rent if you are unregistered. If you have an apartment being shared by many people who are not members of the same family, there is another regulatory framework through which such lessors must have a license (a House for Multiple Occupation License). To get that license you must meet a very long list of qualitative standards, like the safety of electricity and gas fixtures, how often the heaters are maintained, and special fire safety rules. Another important aspect of this issue investigates whether the lessor is a "fit and proper person" for this kind of business. There are many questions as to whether a person who has been convicted of a felony sex crime, etc., can be a proper lessor. Such a person will not receive a license. The lessor must have a clean criminal record.
Q: Can you describe the most common trajectory followed by people who need social housing, from their first applying for aid through their eventual accommodation?
A: Certainly - when people find themselves without housing, which can mean, for example, that a relationship has broken down or that they must move out of their housing under other circumstances, we urge them to contact the authorities as quickly as possible. The afflicted household undergoes a housing options interview, which is an interview where a staffer reviews their options with them. Social housing can very often be a solution, but it can take rather a lot of time to acquire. Other options are also reviewed that might better fit the given situation. The options of a private lease or of moving to another locality are reviewed (taking into account the opportunity to see one's children if what this is a case of a family with children falling apart) or other options as well. The task of the local authority staffer is to review the entire range of options with the applicant and figure out which one is best.
Q: How do you find people at risk of homelessness?
A: In Scotland there is a well-established system of local authorities providing housing for roughly 100 years (the first cases of social housing were for soldiers returning from the First World War). People are very well aware that when they are in need they are supposed to turn to the local authorities for aid. Any advice bureau will first recommend the person visit the authority, have his or her situation verified, and proceed according to what is recommended.
Q: Are there any priority households that are offered aid to a different or a greater extent than others (such as families with children or single-parent households)?
A: Essentially that question concerns various legal frameworks. As far as the homelessness framework goes, any such prioritization is illegal. The legislation clearly states that if you are homeless, if you did not voluntarily cause your own homelessness, you are entitled to housing. If someone requests social housing who is not homeless, most of the time the rules apply that have been created by the social housing lessors themselves. There is a points system that takes into account the degree to which your existing housing is sub-standard.
Q: If someone's children are in institutional care, can that person access social housing so the children can come home? In the Czech context, many children never return from institutional care because their parents have not arranged safe housing.
A: That situation cannot occur in Scotland. There could be a case in which children are taken away from their parents for safety reasons (abuse, etc.), but that is always done in the best interest of the child. It is always the main aim and main interest of the child that he or she be returned to the family. It definitely cannot happen that children would not be returned to a family because the parents don't have housing. The circumstances cannot occur that would lead to such a situation.
Q: Could you very briefly, in a few points, describe your meeting today with Czech municipal politicians at the British Embassy and their response to your presentation?
A: My presentation was mostly about the situation in Edinburgh, where I am a member of the council, and how we uphold the right to housing. I mainly emphasized the fact that collaboration and partnership at all levels (with NNOs, the authorities, private lessors, etc.) led to the creation of a strategy that has reduced the number of homeless people (even among people who had previously repeatedly requested housing support) by half, as well as dramatically lowering the number of people living on the street. It seems the system works, that it's the right approach, but there is always the need to find political consensus - people now recognize that as long as everyone has adequate housing, they can work on their other problems (which are very often hidden from view) so they can integrate into society, and this will always be a win-win strategy. It is always cheaper and it always creates a better community. We now have the majority of society agreeing that this strategy is correct. As for the second part of your question, it would be best to ask those who attended the presentation (laughs).
Q: What struck you about the discussion?
A: The local situation here. In Scotland there are 5.5 million people and we have 32 local authorities, but I understand that your population is twice as large as ours and you have more than 6 000 municipal authorities. In our case it was much easier to develop a national strategy because we could communicate with everyone much more easily, sit at the same table together. I think that finding consensus with such a large number of municipalities of different sizes will be rather complicated. That was my first conclusion, but I am a foreigner and I don't know the details of the situation here.
Q: How do you handle housing debts, back rent? This is perceived as a big obstacle and problem in the Czech Republic.
A: Certainly in every social housing system there are people who for whatever reason don't pay their rent or simply cannot pay it. What is key in our system is to intervene with the problem begins, when we see that rent isn't being paid in full. A bureaucrat or a representative of the lessor will immediately contact the tenant (by SMS or telephone or in person) to find out what is going on, what the problem is. They attempt to find a solution as quickly as possible because once those debts start to accumulate they become unsustainable. In situations where a tenant arbitrarily stops paying rent even though he or she has enough money - just decides to stop paying - then naturally an eviction proceeding is begun. However, if the indebted tenant cooperates with the authorities does his or her best to find a solution, for example by establishing and maintaining a lower rent and making at least small payments on what is owed, then an eviction proceedings is not begun, because it is more expensive and leads to a very complicated situation in which it is very complicated and expensive to integrate the person back into housing. It is also very expensive for the property manager, they have to clean the apartment, find a new tenant, lose rent for the period in which no one is in the apartment. Usually it is much more expensive to evict people than to help them keep their housing.
Q: In the Czech Republic all costs are borne by the evictees, which means in the vast majority of cases their financial situations become insoluble.
A: Yes, we also have tools for addressing over-indebtedness, such as bankruptcy, which is a demanding, dramatic process, but it does mean you start with a clean slate. Most people agree to pay off their debts. Very often it is obvious that the entire amount owed will never be paid off, the purpose is rather the effort to correct the situation, to have an opportunity to return to the system, because if they are in the system it is more likely they will be valid members of society who pay their taxes and benefit society as a whole.
Q: How does your society perceive these arguments about cost-effectiveness?
A: The majority opinion is that paying rent is a matter of course, that it must be paid. No one wants to support those who don't pay their rent. That's completely obvious. However, when people undergo serious life problems (and very often they can be extremely serious) that make it impossible for them to pay their rent, then in most cases it is possible to explain that support for such people is reasonable, and everyone accepts that as a fair solution.
Q: Could you mention some of the weak elements of the Scottish system, if you see any?
A: For example, there exists a certain tension between the concept of social housing only for homeless people and social housing for a broader circle of users. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, social housing was provided in less-developed regions so as to make it easier for the workforce to move there and increase workforce availability in those regions, but that was then abolished, and the danger is that places of social deprivation will then arise where social housing was provided. This constant tension consists of the fact that you must house the people with the greatest problems, but if they are concentrated on one place, the locality becomes a troubled one. That means it is necessary to design the system so there is some sort of balance, so the social mix is maintained. Another problem is that there is never enough social housing (smiles), that there is always more demand than supply.
Q: Are there any groups that are discriminated against on the housing market, at risk of homelessness because of discrimination?
A: Not in the social housing sector. Municipalities and housing associations take the exact same approach and must meet anti-discrimination requirements without exception.
Q: What does that mean in practice, how do you achieve anti-discriminatory behavior?
A: You monitor the applicants, we monitor their ethnicity (as well as their gender, their sexuality, etc.) and provide the results of that monitoring to the regulator. It is possible to easily determine how many applicants from which group have received housing. It is completely obvious when discrimination occurs. The private sector is very different. We need anti-discrimination legislation there, but it is very complicated to arrange it. A private lessor will basically say an apartment has been leased and it is not easy to overturn such a contract. That does happen. There are not many Romani people in Scotland, but this does happen to members of other ethnic minorities.
Q: Let's return to the social sector - you regularly determine, through observation, whether discrimination is occurring?
A: Yes, every three months the regulator publishes the numbers, compares various factors, and evaluates the various risks of discriminatory behavior.
Q: What happens once you determine discrimination is happening?
A: In that case the regulator performs and in-depth inspection of the practices of the social housing lessor, issues recommendations, and gives the lessor time to correct the situation. After three months the inspection is performed again, and if the requirements are not met, other correction tools can be applied. In extreme cases, the regulator takes over administration of the housing stock.
Q: Does the social housing sector influence the private sector, the market behavior of lessors?
A: Not entirely, the private sector is a market unto itself, but it also has sub-categories like the student sector, the very wealthy, etc. In the sector for people on welfare, the prices are usually based on the maximum amount of those benefits.
Q: How high are the social housing rents, how high are the benefits?
A: Now they are fundamentally lower than they were. It used to be calculated, for housing associations, on the basis of grants for construction. Originally, the grants provided 100 % of the costs, so the rents were very low. The grants were then reduced to 25 % of costs, and the rents were increased to cover the costs of owners borrowing from the capital market.
Q: That means the social housing sector in Scotland was built with state money?
A: The towns were the main investors into housing infrastructure after the Second World War, and a very extensive sector of public housing was created. After the changes in housing policy, it became possible to purchase a social apartment at a discount, which according to my information is rather similar to your experience here in the Czech Republic. That led to an enormous privatization of the highest-quality housing stock, which is today in private hands. The social housing sector was greatly reduced and involved apartments of lower quality, with worse energy costs, and in less popular localities. Nevertheless, there does exist a continue transfer of resources into social housing, but it's not able to replace the entire housing stock that existed prior to privatization.
Q: More and more households in the Czech Republic are grappling with their debts to the utility companies, and the supply of electricity or gas is cut off in many cases. What does a lessor do in Scotland in such a situation?
A: We don't have many buildings that are heated in common, which means utility debts don't concern all the tenants, they are the personal problem of the subscriber who owes money. If someone has a problem with being cut off from utilities, the power company is obliged to assist them, and if the debt is high, the supplier installs a special meter that requires immediate payment for every unit of energy (it's coin-operated), but that is a much more expensive way to access power.
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