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The ‘migrant’ crisis and the potential impact on social housing

14 September 2015 • Melanie Dirom

David Cameron has announced that the UK is to take an extra 20,000 asylum seekers over the remainder of this parliament – equating to 4000 people per year until 2020. Similarly, George Osborne suggested that UK foreign aid requires a ‘fundamental rethink’ and that at least some of it is to be redirected ‘in the national interest’ to house people seeking asylum in the UK.

Whether or not this is enough of a commitment will continue to be debated, but one thing that seems clear (at least so far) is that the foreign aid will be directed towards local councils in order to help them cope with the influx of refugees – at the moment only 750 refugees are resettled in the UK each year. The money will be spent on providing care, services and, arguably most importantly, housing.

Who will house asylum seekers?

On the surface, channelling funds through local councils makes sense. However, at the moment most people seeking asylum are housed by a private company called Serco. This raises several questions; will the councils be housing the asylum seekers themselves? Will they be asking Serco to expand their current remit? If so, will Serco be able to cope? And, if the answer to all of those questions is no, who will be picking those who are left?

The answer, I suspect, will be housing associations. In certain circumstances, Local Authorities can essentially ‘farm out’ their housing obligations to registered providers as they are often best-placed to provide the requisite accommodation and/or care. This happens a lot with people seeking support for homelessness, and already with some asylum cases. Unfortunately, in some very sad instances, it happens to people who fall into both those categories (around 75% of people who are awaiting an appeal for their asylum claim end up homeless).

The issue is financial

Given the ethos of housing associations, I would be very surprised if they did not do all they could to accommodate those seeking asylum – the issue, as always, is financial. Unfortunately, whilst their application is being processed, asylum seekers cannot work and have ‘no recourse to public funds.’ In this context, this means that they can’t receive housing benefit.  So who makes up the rent? Is this where Mr Osborne’s foreign aid steps in? Even if housing associations aren’t called upon, the same questions will be asked by local authorities.

The alternative is to grant ‘humanitarian protection’ to those in need. This is usually granted to people who don’t quite fall under the definition of refugee (and therefore cannot apply for asylum) but would still ‘face a real risk of suffering serious harm’ if they were returned to their home country. Bizarrely, under this protection people are permitted access to public funds which of course would include housing benefit.  Indeed it would appear, as many commentators thought prior to the announcement, that the government will be expanding its ‘Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme’ which was set up in 2014 to grant Humanitarian Protection to those who need it.

An opportunity for Registered Providers?

So far social housing has not become embroiled in the ‘migrant crisis’ and it remains to be seen what specific measures will be put in place to assist councils, or anyone else, in dealing with the influx.  With the right funding in place, could providing housing to migrants present an opportunity to Registered Providers to maximise their income by reducing any voids?  Watch this space!

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