Professor Isobel Anderson: Inappropriate housing causing disabled people physical and emotional distress

The Match Me research project explores the effectiveness of allocations and lettings practice for accessible and adapted social housing in Scotland. Here, Professor Isobel Anderson from the University of Stirling discusses findings from the project’s final report, together with recommendations for policymakers and practitioners.

Professor Isobel Anderson: Inappropriate housing causing disabled people physical and emotional distress

(from left) Professor Isobel Anderson, Diane Theakstone, and Julia Lawrence

Our ‘Match Me’ research on effective allocation of adapted and accessible social rented housing, launched this week, revealed that disabled people who have lengthy waits for housing which appropriately meets their needs experience adverse emotional and mental distress due to this lack of suitable accommodation.

The 18-month long study in partnership with Housing Options Scotland and Horizon Housing Association examined the effectiveness of allocations and lettings practice for accessible and adapted social housing in Scotland. With co-researchers Dianne Theakstone and Julia Lawrence, we adopted a co-production approach which ensured disabled people were closely involved throughout the study, including supporting disabled people to participate as peer interviewers.

We tracked the experiences of 28 disabled home-seekers and new tenants in three local authority areas, as well as conducting interviews and practice discussions with local authority staff and their partners. Only two home seekers moved on to suitable housing during the course of the study. One participant seeking a more suitable home described how, even with a stair-lift installed in her current accommodation, she had to make eight transfers between chair, wheelchair, stair-lift and toilet – and back again – in order to use the bathroom. Our report contains many more examples of the challenges faced in seeking suitable housing and living independently. This is despite proactive approaches from local housing providers to enhance their practice on accessible housing lettings. Where effective matches were achieved, independent living could be transformative for disabled adults and families with disabled children.

The Match Me research uncovered important evidence that the assessment of the suitability of a property should not only consider the access and internal features of the home, but should also look at the accessibility of the external environment and the opportunities for the applicant to maintain local support networks. Some disabled interviewees argued strongly that access to a garden should be recognised by housing allocation systems as a facilitator for emotional and mental wellbeing, and suggested that the needs of the entire household should be taken into consideration – not solely those of the main applicant.

The research report offers practical and policy recommendations to Registered Social Landlords (RSLs), local authorities, Scottish Government and the Scottish Housing Regulator linked to housing allocations, adaptations, design and new supply. This report gives all stakeholders the opportunity and evidence to shape lettings policy and practice to optimise effectiveness in matching disabled people to suitable homes, as well as increasing our stock of accessible housing.

A number of key messages emerge from this research. While housing providers are proactive in reviewing policy and practice to better meet the housing needs of disabled people, there remains some ‘distance’ between landlord goals and applicant experiences. Improved understanding of the challenges and solutions comes from hearing the voices of disabled people through co-production approaches in both research and in development of good policy and practice. 

Policy and Practice

Allocations policies and choice-based lettings schemes remain complex and often difficult for disabled people to understand. Depending on their impairments, disabled people may need support with the application, viewing and moving-in processes. The complexity of disabled people’s housing needs means that the matching process for suitable adapted or accessible housing is also complex. What works for one household or property may not work for another – so there is often a need for quite individualised solutions.

Potential practice improvements to speed up access to housing include making better use of technology to improve quality of data held on accessible/adapted properties and on the specific needs of applicants; flexibility in lettings practice to facilitate a good match; and flexibility in interpretation of disabled people’s housing needs (for example to recognise the needs of all household members and the importance of the external environment as well as housing design). Adaptations can make some of our older housing stock more liveable for some disabled people, but newly built accessible housing offers much more potential to appropriately meet complex mobility and other impairment related housing needs. The research has identified solutions to optimise the matching of adapted/accessible social housing to disabled applicants in ways which maximise choice and control and enable more disabled people to access suitable homes and live independently, while also delivering more cost-effective lettings.

Our Recommendations include:

Local Authorities and RSLs

  • Establish co-production groups involving disabled people across housing tenures, in order to inform decisions on housing and independent living.
  • Consider canvasing widely across partner organisations for nominations where a property cannot be matched to any disabled applicants on the housing list, including local disability organisations and housing providers beyond the local area.
  • Explore the use of new technology to improve intelligence on adapted/accessible properties and to enable remote viewing for applicants who are unable to visit in person.
  • Develop standardised methods for classifying the accessibility of properties.
  • Consider developing a peer support network whereby, upon request, disabled housing applicants can be matched to an existing disabled tenant who has experienced the social housing application process.
  • Recognise that housing needs assessment for disabled people should include, for example, access to a garden for emotional well-being, access to local accessible public transport links and ability to maintain local connections, such as remaining with the same GP.
  • Review organisational policies or procedures that require a tenant, upon leaving, to revert the property to its original state (for example, changes made could be useful to a future disabled tenant).
  • Review allocations systems to ensure that applicants who can make some ‘liveability’ improvements to their homes while waiting for an accessible property are not disadvantaged in allocations or lettings priority schemes.

Scottish Government

  • Review operational support for the National Accessible Housing Register (which was rarely mentioned by participants in this study) as part of a national strategy to support the best use of accessible/adapted housing.
  • Utilise the model outlined in Horizon Housing Association’s Still Minding the Step report for the standardisation of approaches towards local housing need calculations, as part of strategy to increase the pool of accessible housing.
  • Continue to encourage local housing need assessments to produce local targets that are proportional in relation to the amount of new built accessible/adapted housing required across tenures.
  • Develop minimum accessibility standards for new build social housing so that it is more economical and easier to adapt in the future.

Scottish Housing Regulator

  • Recognise that void periods for accessible/adapted social housing may require additional time to allocate and carry out necessary adaptations before an applicant is able to move in. These properties could receive a classification that gives them exemption from standard targets for re-let times.

The Match Me project was made possible thanks to a research grant from the Disability Research into Independent Living and Learning (DRILL) programme, through the National Lottery Community Fund. 

The report was authored by:

  • Professor Isobel Anderson, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling
  • Dr Dianne Theakstone, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling
  • Ms Julia Lawrence, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling
  • Ms Cate Pemble, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling
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