The Local Housing Allowance ‘Strategy’

Local Housing Allowance (LHA) Strategy. Amy Varle from Social Property investment

Having left my council role in the hope of identifying solutions to homelessness within the private rental sector, in 2013 I began attending property networking events in my home city of Manchester.

For a while, I did feel a little terrified as I sat amongst the experienced property investors – and people who it seemed to me at the time were sheer geniuses within their respective fields! It was, however, a great introduction to the private property marketplace and the networking ‘scene’ remains a great way to get started for those with limited experience.

Looking back, I learned masses during this period and for a while, hopped from meeting to meeting, enjoying the energy and soaking everything up.

I met lots of people who were new to property and there was always a buzz in the air – after seven or eight years feeling stifled and frustrated within a local government environment, here was a place where the entrepreneurial spirit was actively welcomed and encouraged!

Amy Varle and Social Property Investment

What I Discovered By Talking Openly About The Local Housing Allowance

My willingness to talk openly about the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) marketplace and of its challenges – from a Local Authority perspective – meant that I was never short of friendly faces to talk to at a property networking event.

I remember one evening being stunned to find a queue of people lined up, each eager to ask a question – I was later told a rumour had circulated, there was a council renegade in the room!

At each gathering I attended, I listened intently as many of the landlords I encountered recalled their horror stories of letting to tenants in receipt of ‘LHA’. Having spent my entire career to this point supporting ‘social’ tenants of all backgrounds and circumstance to successfully manage and maintain their homes, most of the problems which were relayed to me were more than familiar – breakdowns in communication, sanctions of benefits, damage to property, non-payments of rent.

I was happy to provide support and guidance on the spot and a lot of the time, this ten-minute chat was all that was needed to resolve a major obstacle or problem: a new approach, a fresh pair of eyes and a contrast in knowledge and skill.

I was quickly learning that there was – and still is – a widening need for professional support in this section of housing delivery: where ‘public meets private sector’. I discovered that there was actually very little in terms of resources or guidance for stakeholders operating within the ‘LHA’ marketplace – and many of the people I encountered were (understandably) way out of their depth.

Tracking Down The Illusive LHA Strategy

Having spent most of my working life following council-written instruction manuals to complete even the most mundane of tasks, I found it baffling that (at this stage) the UK was spending £5 billion a year on a benefit paid to assist people with housing costs – and yet, was making little to no information on good working practice available to those who were providing the homes.

I genuinely spent a few months searching online for a copy of the elusive ‘LHA Strategy’ instruction manual; surely there couldn’t be an entire investment industry worth billions of pounds which was quite literally navigated by guess work?!

The more I investigated, the more I didn’t understand.

What were the recommended methods for sourcing and screening applicants, best practices for collecting payments of rent?

Where were the official pointers for in times of crisis – and how did you get advice on safeguarding tenants who could be deemed vulnerable?

As well as all of this, who was making sure that the interests of both investor and occupant were fulfilled and that risk for all participants was fully assessed and adequately mitigated?

It seemed there was nobody official to advise, mediate or manage across this whole of this sector; there were still very few specialised ‘social’ lettings agencies in the area and local councils appeared to be making little to no attempt at bridging the gap.

Landlords and their property managers were finding their way in the dark, with more and more expected of them in terms of responsibility and their service delivery.

The Affordable Housing Industry

Working in the affordable housing industry requires a delicate balance of skill, tact, assertiveness, and compassion.

Amy Varle Teaching LHA good practice at the Official HMO Group Manchester meet 2015
Amy Teaching LHA good practice at the Official HMO Group Manchester meet 2015

People who are in receipt of welfare benefits are inevitably facing issues connected to poverty and the repercussions of sustained poverty can be far reaching. ‘Social’ issues – which can affect a person’s physical and mental health, their ability to obtain and maintain suitable employment, as well as their well-being and overall approach to life – will inevitably impact on a person’s ability to consistently manage the responsibilities associated with a tenancy in the private rented sector.

Very few landlords I’ve encountered are qualified social workers or psychologists – and I haven‘t yet met any who are paid to undertake this role in association with the housing services they provide.

Despite this, many providers of affordable housing within the private rented sector are having no other option but to step-up and assist their tenants with crisis related to family breakdowns, domestic violence, debt, unemployment, and ill health.

It was perplexing to me that the charitable organisations were working all over Manchester to feed and clothe a growing number of people living on the streets – yet housing provision was available and could be sustained, if only the both the owners and their occupants were afforded an appropriate level of steering, education and/or support.

Homelessness Is A Problem That Can Be Solved

The more I learned, the more I believed that homelessness was a problem that could be solved, if only we approached it in a slightly different manner.

The limitations of available solutions in the UK meant that I was continually being led to explore American techniques and I began to wonder if adaptations could be utilised here in Britain. Could we utilise the strengths, talents, and resources of each of the sectors and blend them to create a model which would work for everyone?

The opportunity to find out was presented to me sooner than I had anticipated and shortly afterward, I was out on the streets of Manchester, offering to house those who were homeless – and creating solutions for real.

Next Week:The Manchester Pilot

Next: Part 3 – Housing the Homeless (Manchester Pilot Scheme)
Previously: Part 1 – Introducing Amy Varle

Get In Touch

I’ll be on hand to answer your questions if you leave them in the comments section below. And, if there are any topics you’d like exploring with the experts I’ll be meeting then don’t hesitate to get in touch either here or on the Property Investments UK Facebook page.

And, of course don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter – Amy Felicity Vale / @MissAmyVarle

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