We meet our Early Doors Coproduction Group who share some of the work they have been doing in response to Bristol City Council’s HomeChoice consultation. The HomeChoice system in Bristol is a housing allocation scheme, and the way those registered can find out about and bid for available social homes in the city. They explain what their group does and key aspects to their response…
What is the Housing Co-production Group?
We are a group of people living in Hartcliffe, Withywood and Hengrove who want to work together to find solutions to housing and homelessness issues and create change. We are facilitated by Early Doors – a project from Caring in Bristol and Housing Matters (formerly CHAS) working with people experiencing housing issues. Early Doors offers individual advice and group training.
Our group has met monthly since January 2022. Our members have experienced a wide range of housing insecurity issues, including recent eviction notices, accessing support through ‘Everyone In’ (a response to homelessness during the pandemic lockdowns), long periods of sofa surfing and navigating temporary accommodation with our families.
We have fought for our homes, and we believe that everyone has the right to and deserves safe, warm, and secure homes.
What were your initial thoughts when approaching this consultation?
The HomeChoice system has been a constant discussion point across our meetings. Most of our members are registered and bid regularly through the system. There are big challenges in Bristol, Home Choice is part of that, but the system is unlikely to ever work when we live in a city where there is not enough truly affordable housing. However, we can see that there are smaller steps that could make people’s experiences of trying to access affordable, secure social housing better.
What was your starting point in this process?
We discussed what we felt works in Home Choice and social housing currently. This included:
- Properties are advertised every week. It’s easy to see what is available and to look at the type of properties that are regularly advertised. This helps people decide what type and place to bid on.
- Council social housing rent is affordable. Our group felt that rent was affordable, especially in comparison to the Private Rental Sector (PRS).
- The security of tenancy was something that was highly valued. This was one of the main reasons people who were listed as Band 3 or Band 4 [the lowest two bands] gave as why they continued to bid, even if they knew their chances of successfully bidding were virtually zero.
- The additional support available in Housing Association Tenancies. We felt that when additional support is offered, it can work well and help support someone to maintain a secure and long-term home.
What areas did you identify as not working in the HomeChoice system?
Submitting changes of circumstances wasn’t understood by most of our members and they ‘seemed to get lost in the system’. We felt the length of time it takes to assess changes of circumstances was unacceptable and that often individuals needed external, independent support to speed the process along. It can be challenging to gather good quality evidence as GPs or schools often do not understand what is required of them in a letter addressed to Housing Officers. We also questioned whether Housing Officers have the expertise or training required to assess the impact of poor-quality housing on physical health, mental health, or educational needs.
There were mixed opinions in the groups on direct offers. We felt that if HomeChoice was a ‘learning system’ and there was the option to refuse and give reasons for refusing a number of direct offers, then this could work well. For example, households stated their needs and priorities and then were able to be given a maximum number of direct offers that they could refuse. This could be fair if the system learnt why an offer had been refused and then presented a better suited option in the next round.
Our members who were given the lowest Band 4, still felt that they had a significant housing need. We felt that it was important to keep Band 4 to acknowledge the number of people in Bristol who need affordable secure homes and who are on low and insecure incomes.
We felt that this is a group of people who have a significant housing need and are being kept in constant housing insecurity because they are being pushed into unaffordable privately rented accommodation. For those of us in Band 4 on low incomes and on Universal Credit it is incredibly difficult to find PRS (Private Rental Sector) homes that will accept us, and we cannot compete in the open market.
The group explored how it feels to use the system, and some of the consequences when turning down an unsuitable property, for example. What did you find?
One of the key things we want to impress is the impact of the HomeChoice system on our sense of value and self. We felt that the system is not currently trauma-informed and does not recognise that many people using HomeChoice have experienced or are at risk of homelessness. Our members read ‘consequences’ as threats and felt that they system wasn’t there to support us in finding a long-term home but often wanted to ‘catch us out’.
We also felt that the complexity of the system didn’t support people to take ownership of their situation. This resulted in people being given misleading information and there being miscommunications between citizens and the Housing Team.
We explored the risks of working with private landlords through the HomeChoice system. Some of our members currently live in Imperial Apartments, they wanted to highlight the risks of the HomeChoice system working with private landlords. In their experience, Imperial Apartments originally being advertised on Home Choice (although we understand it has now been removed) created significant confusion. Some people believed that they had been placed into temporary accommodation or social housing and were distressed to discover that this was not the case. Additionally, some residents did not understand that accepting a flat at Imperial Apartments would affect their banding and were frustrated to have been ‘moved down’ a banding as a result.
As part of your consultation response, you looked opportunities for change that could make the HomeChoice system better, hopefully a shared aim of the consultation process for everyone involved.
What could change?
Firstly, we want to acknowledge that we need to build more social housing in Bristol. However, we are aware that this is beyond the scope of this consultation. Our key suggestions were:
- Home Choice Workers should be trained in a number of specialisms (Occupational Therapy, neurodiversity, mental health, social workers, trauma-informed care, disability/ mobility) so that assessments of priority and banding have been assessed fairly, correctly, within a specialist field.
- Those who assess evidence should support other professionals to provide the evidence in a way that furthers the application.
- Households should be given a longer period before deciding about an offer. People should be signposted to independent advice and support to understand the implications and consequences of accepting or refusing offers.
- The core family unit needs to be considered when making offers – this should include work, school, and community suitability.
The consultation closed on October 7th 2022 and is now under review by Bristol City Council. The result is expected to be posted here: https://www.ask.bristol.gov.uk/housing-allocations
For more information about HomeChoice visit: https://www.homechoicebristol.co.uk/
If you’re looking for advice and information around housing or debt in Bristol, take a look at Early Doors’ new booklet.