Chris McGinn: How to tackle the temporary accommodation crisis facing social landlords

Chris McGinn: How to tackle the temporary accommodation crisis facing social landlords

Chris McGinn

Chris McGinn, commercial manager at PfH Scotland, discusses the temporary accommodation crisis that social landlords are dealing with.

Soaring demand for homelessness services is a major challenge for Scottish social landlords right now. In its latest annual assessment, the Scottish Housing Regulator (SHR) flagged this as one of five key strategic risks facing the sector.

Some social landlords are seeing demand reach such a level that it exceeds their capacity to respond. This means they breach their statutory duties by placing people in interim housing that violates the Unsuitable Accommodation Order (UAO) or simply not being able to offer any accommodation at all.

The impact is being felt up and down the country. Over the past 12 months, a number of Scottish councils, along with the Scottish Government, have all declared housing emergencies, including their provision of homelessness services.

And there is no sign of demand easing. The latest Scottish Government figures indicate that more people than ever are in temporary accommodation, and they are spending longer there.

A multitude of factors are driving this. The homelessness prevention obligation in the new Housing Bill is one, along with increased demand from refugee schemes, remediation pressures and worsening environmental conditions.

A severe lack of housing stock is intensifying the situation. Scottish social landlords are seeing a lower turnover of homes than before Covid and the rate at which they are building has also fallen.

This all translates into financial difficulties as well as social ones. Scottish councils’ spend on temporary accommodation has risen by 50% in just three years, and for one local authority, that figure is a staggering 1,395%.

Despite this demand, temporary accommodation still feels like a buried area of spend for many housing associations and councils. Speaking to providers, I get the impression that the urgency of finding suitable housing overrides everything else. How much it costs, who pays, and the quality of accommodation is often unplanned and uncontrolled.

So, how can housing providers adopt a more strategic approach? I’d recommend three key considerations.

Decide on the type of support you want

Take a step back from your current day-to-day work and consider, in an ideal world, the kind of service you would like from a temporary accommodation supplier. Maybe your organisation would benefit from a highly bespoke service, tailor-made to the resident groups you support. Alternatively, your priority might be speed and cost, not personalisation or direct communication. In that case, an all-round, one-stop service might work. Thinking this through will help when it comes to choosing a supplier.

Identify a suitable procurement route

Many housing providers buy straight from hostels, B&Bs, hotels and serviced apartments, rather than working with specialist suppliers. This means spend isn’t always compliant, quality varies and so does price. It also puts the workload on housing officers who have to contact companies directly.

Find the headspace to explore a more structured way of buying temporary accommodation. You could go down a competitive tender route or procure from a framework. The advantage of a framework is that suppliers have already been vetted, your organisation remains compliant with public procurement rules, and you can source a broad range of temporary accommodation fast. Invoicing and payments are also streamlined, freeing up staff time.

Compare suppliers accurately

There are many facets to temporary accommodation and decant services. Some suppliers offer housing only, others provide extras such as taxis, meals and furniture. Services around accommodation booking, extensions, cancellations and overall customer service can vary too.

Add in the fact that algorithms push up accommodation costs daily in response to changing factors, and you can understand the complexity of price comparisons.

One way to navigate this (and something I’ve worked on with colleagues at PfH Scotland) is to identify typical services for each supplier and then build a comparison table. This means landlords can weigh up different providers in a clear and informed way.

Focus on the human side

Ultimately, sourcing temporary accommodation is about people. Being without a secure, safe place to live can be scary and stressful so concentrating on the human element of this procurement activity is crucial.

Different suppliers have different approaches to communicating with residents, inspecting accommodation, responding to requirements and finding the right placement for households. It’s this attitude to tenant satisfaction that should be a central consideration for all social housing providers when choosing a supplier.

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