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Opinion: Challenging the myths of renting properties to people with learning disabilities

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Opinion: Challenging the myths of renting properties to people with learning disabilities

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Communities

Private rent levels fall across England and Wales - including London Private rent levels fall across England and Wales - including London

Tenants with learning disabilities and autism are increasingly getting more involved in their housing choices and options but a lack of suitable social housing still means that it can be difficult for them to find appropriate accommodation, says support provider Dimensions: 

Dimensions, a not-for-profit organisation which supports about 3,000 people with learning disabilities and autism across England and Wales, supports many people who are tenants of privately rented houses and housing associations. Increasingly, the housing associations and private landlords are involving them in decisions about their housing – just like anybody else would expect.

Steve Scown, chief executive of Dimensions, said: “Helping to support people with learning disabilities and autism to move into their own home has huge social benefits for them. It gives them empowerment to make their own choices, be more independent and ultimately lead a better quality of life.

“It also allows people with learning disabilities and autism greater opportunities to feel at the centre of communities, which it vital part of them leading fulfilled and independent lives.”

Rashmi Becker, Executive Director of Marketing and Business Development said:  “But there is a national shortage of available social housing to meet the needs of people with learning disabilities and autism. In addition, many local authorities do not treat people we support as a priority for housing. People we support have told us that it is vital to their quality of life to be able to have a choice in where they live and who they live with.

“We have been able to support many people to move from ‘institutional’ settings into their own homes, enabling them to live more independently and participate in their local community. We must see an end to people being ‘placed’ in unsuitable homes with people they may be incompatible with – this is counter-productive in the long-term and has a negative impact on wellbeing.

“We want to work with housing providers, especially the private sector to provide quality housing that will enable people with learning disabilities and autism to achieve their potential. But we also need government to provide better incentives that encourage the private sector to provide housing for people we support, such as basing housing allowances on more realistic rents, and ensuring any changes to the funding of exempt accommodation does not have a detrimental effect on people we support who occupy such homes.”

When housing associations involve people with their housing choices, there are a number of benefits. In one of Dimensions’ regions, Wales, there has been a notable positive change. Within this region, Dimensions works in partnership with three housing associations. All of the people supported by the organisation in Wales have their own assured tenancy agreements

Ceri Meloy, Operations Director for Dimensions in Wales, explains: “All of the people we support who have their own tenancy agreements have established tenant-landlord relationships. Years ago, it used to be a very ‘hands-off’ relationship but we really focussed on building relationships because people with learning disabilities need to have the same relationships with their landlords as everybody else does.”

Before these relationships were built up, people with learning disabilities didn’t have a wide choice of payment options to pay their rent, for example. Instead, it was a complicated process that didn’t involved the person living in the rented property.

About 18 months ago, one of the housing associations decided to try a pilot to give people with learning disabilities options to pay the rent themselves. The housing officer visited each individual supported by Dimensions and discussed options for payments with support staff. This included the housing officer creating photo symbols for each payment type so the tenant understood fully what was being proposed.

Ceri said: “Most people chose to pay at the Post Office. This really has given choices to the people we support in the same way that everybody else has a choice. It really has strengthened the relationship with their landlords and also has helped strengthen the support staff’s understanding of how the housing system works.

“But beyond this, it really has raised the profile of the people we support in their local communities. People see them paying their rent in a public space – at the Post Office. Their community presence because of this has risen up and up and they love being part of the community and so involved with the process. They feel empowered and more confident.”

The other two housing associations that Dimensions works with in Wales are now coming on board with similar schemes.

Added to this success, Dimensions in Wales last year received an award by First Choice Housing Association for involving people with learning disabilities and autism in meetings about their services. Dimensions was presented with the Support Provider award for having the greatest participation of people it supports in their tenant participation events.

Ceri added: “This was fantastic recognition of our efforts not just in Cardiff but across the country to ensure that people with learning disabilities and autism have equal opportunities to engage with their housing providers and be listened to.

“The fact that First Choice Housing Association gave us this award was a positive reflection of their commitment to social inclusion and making sure every tenant has the opportunity to be heard.”

Hilary Ryan, Chief Executive of First Choice Housing Association, said:  “Dimensions have been instrumental in engaging with us and bringing tenants to various events through the year, and that’s why we are especially pleased to give them this award. We look forward to continue working with them this year.” 

All of this progress, however, is in the backdrop of a shortage of social housing for people with learning disabilities and autism. Disappointingly, there remain some myths around renting to people with learning disabilities, mainly centring around the payment of rent.

As a Registered Social Landlord, Dimensions owns 253 homes, leases 50 and has around 1,000 tenants. The organisation often becomes the tenants of properties and then sub-lets to people with learning disabilities and autism; because of a lack of understanding by private landlords and/or local authorities.

But this takes empowerment away from the people being supported – an aspect that needs to change in the future.

Eric Hardman, head of housing at Dimensions, said it was all about working closely with local authorities to achieve the best outcomes possible. For example, Essex County Council have recently confirmed funding of £45k for a further year for a Learning Disability Housing Brokerage service through Dimensions.

Anybody interested in learning more about housing opportunities for people with learning disabilities and autism can contact Dimensions on 0300 373 3730.

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