Friday, 22 June 2012

Excellent work of foyer projects stymied by council inefficiencies - UPDATED

Part of the unheralded work of councillors is to see how the services we run affect the lives of ordinary people - particularly the most vulnerable people in our society. Yesterday members of the Communities scrutiny committee visited the Bodmin Foyer project to talk to staff and residents there.

Like other foyers across Cornwall (including the one in Launceston), the Bodmin project takes young people aged 16-25 who are homeless and gives them a roof over their head. They then work with the residents to help them get training or a job and to learn to live independently.

We heard from Mark*, one of the residents, who had been through years of sofa surfing and being in and out of work. He has been helped hugely by the foyer to the extent that he is now in training, is learning to balance his household budgets and has realistic aims and ambitions for his future.

But not everything is running smoothly for the Foyer. They currently have a waiting list of 35 people and at least six of their residents are ready to move out. They included Hazel* who has been living in the Foyer system for almost a year and is keen and able to live independently. The trouble is that it is incredibly difficult for them to find the next place to live. Private landlords are reluctant to take them on given the limit of £70 per week they can claim in housing benefit. And Cornwall Council is so slow in processing benefit applications that many landlords are not prepared to wait the three months it often takes to get any rent.

In addition, the cuts last year in supporting people budgets means that the peripatetic youth workers who used to be available to provide occasional help to young people who had been through the system have gone. In the past, landlords had someone to turn to if young people were facing difficulties. Now they haven't and landlords are often not willing to take the risk.

Whilst Cornwall Council cannot change the single room restriction in housing benefit levels, we need to cut the huge delay in processing housing benefit claims and to consider how we can support young people and landlords so that it becomes easier to move on from the foyer projects.

UPDATE -

It's fair to say that Cornwall Council are making significant improvements in some areas of housing. Cabinet member Mark Kaczmarek has asked me to mention the Stepping Stones project which was launched earlier this week to encourage more private landlords to work with Cornwall Housing to provide good quality homes to some of the families on the Cornwall Homechoice register. I'm happy to help publicise this initiative.

With more than 24,000 applicants on Homechoice and others seeking advice through the housing options service, housing need in Cornwall is high. The Stepping Stones to Homes scheme will work with private landlords with the aim of increasing access to private rented accommodation by giving landlords the confidence that they will receive support from a dedicated housing officer should they encounter issues with a tenant referred by Cornwall Housing.

Mark Kaczmarek, Cornwall Council cabinet member for housing and planning says: “Through Stepping Stones to Homes, Cornwall Housing will offer both private landlords and tenants the assurances and help they need to be able to enjoy a good and long lasting relationship.  We want to get away from the ‘revolving door’ which sees tenants who, for whatever reason, take on a tenancy only for the relationship with the landlord to break down and for the person to be back in the system and in need of emergency advice or accommodation.

We still have too many households in bed and breakfast and other emergency accommodation. It is in the best interests of all concerned to find a better way to help those most in housing need to find a stable and long term home. Housing need in Cornwall is great with over 24,000 applicants on the Homechoice register. We are not going to be able to offer homes to all of those people through social housing. We need private landlords to come forward and offer good quality homes and the Council will do all it can to help them and their tenants.” 

Stepping Stones to Homes provides a Cornwall Housing managed link between prospective tenants, referred by Cornwall Housing, and private landlords. The properties of landlords who sign up to the Stepping Stones to Homes scheme will be inspected by Cornwall Housing’s Private Sector Housing teams to make sure they meet agreed standards. A Landlord Code and a Tenant Code will be set up to ensure that each is aware of their respective responsibilities. 

Stepping Stones to Homes offer:

       One contact point at Cornwall Housing for both landlord and tenant

       A hot line to a trouble-shooter at Cornwall Housing for landlords, to quickly deal with any issues

       A guaranteed deposit Bond for landlords to the value of two months rent

       Fast payment of claims against the deposit – usually within 7 working days

       Rent in advance payment

       Fast tracked Housing Benefit claims

       Housing Benefit will be paid direct to the landlord for the first 6 month of the tenancy

       Landlord code to set out the expectations that Cornwall Housing, tenants and other landlords have of anyone signing up to the scheme. 

       Tenant code so that tenants understand their responsibilities, including the need to take care of the property

       Accreditation scheme which make sure that all properties are inspected and meet an agreed set of standards

       Guaranteed payment of up to 2 weeks rent to give time for an alternative and suitable tenant to be found if a property on the scheme becomes vacant

       A full inventory of the property

       Liaison between tenant, landlord and Cornwall Housing if a tenant decides to leave a property and the opportunity to re-let via the Stepping Stones to Homes scheme
*The names of the residents have been changed

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