A foot on the rental ladder

EXMOUTH is leading the way in breaking down barriers, caused by historic prejudice , to tackle homelessness in the resort.

EXMOUTH is leading the way in breaking down barriers, caused by 'historic prejudice', to tackle homelessness in the resort.

It is at the forefront of a scheme which aims to help people find private, rented accommodation - even if they don't have a deposit.

SmartMove, initially set up by charity Crisis, but run in Devon by Community Housing Aid, is empowering the homeless to help themselves - at a time when the waiting list for council homes in East Devon outstrips the number of properties owned by the authority.

The model developed locally is influencing best practice guidelines nationwide.

Local letting agents are supporting the scheme - even though 'No DSS' are two words still regularly seen in 'accommodation to let' adverts, while the homeless are also competing for properties against a proliferation of second homes and holiday lets.

SmartMove, which is partially funded by East Devon District Council, provides a deposit guarantee scheme and a host of other free services, which don't only help the homeless into accommodation but prevents future homelessness The charity even provides free help and advice for landlords - covering everything from how to apply for grants to improve their properties to keeping up to date with the law.

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Convincing landlords of the scheme's benefits has not been easy - as Community Housing Aid director Jacqui Gale and SmartMove co-ordinator Carrie Eavis explain.

"The perception is that the homeless are sleeping on park benches, swigging cider," said Carrie. "It's not true."

Although Exmouth does have a number of rough sleepers, the vast majority of SmartMove's clients are local people on low incomes.

SmartMove has encountered barriers over perceptions of people on benefits.

"The 'No DSS' wording is historic prejudice," said Jacqui.

She pointed out that, due to the district's low wage culture, many thousands of individuals and families are in receipt of benefits even though they may work.

And, with the advent of the credit crunch followed by recession, more people are finding themselves out of work - meaning, even if they haven't been on benefits in the past, they will now need to make a claim.

Nova Homes and Exmouth Property Rentals were among the first to support SmartMove.

Jacqui says the new Local Housing Allowance, which guarantees housing benefit levels are set at a fair rent, means landlords have got nothing to lose.

Carrie would like to thank Nova Homes and Exmouth Property Rentals for recognising the potential of a scheme that provides on-going support to both tenants and landlords - 90 per cent of SmartMove's clients are still in their rented homes a year after moving in.

"We can provide a bond guarantee in lieu of a cash deposit to help people access private rented accommodation," she said.

"It is for the full amount - but not in cash.

"It empowers people to be independent and builds their confidence. They also save into the guarantee scheme, so they have a deposit for the future."

Those receiving help from SmartMove have all been referred by East Devon District Council. Direct approaches are not accepted.

Jacqui said: "Demand exceeds what we can supply, but that is down to funding.

"If more money was given to us, we could double our service.

"East Devon can only refer eight cases a month, but the need is probably around 30."

Following a referral, SmartMove assesses the client and provides a tenancy workshop, which gives people the skills to maintain a tenancy.

The workshop also explores how people can budget, benefit from the Local Housing Allowance and promote SmartMove to landlords.

Once a client has found a property, SmartMove provides even more help and visits them once they have settled in.

"We have started to look at fuel poverty and how tenants can manage and reduce their energy consumption," said Carrie.

Accessing the private rental market is helping families to stay living locally. Fewer children are being forced to change schools and workers are retaining their jobs.

Carrie said: "The funding from East Devon District Council is a positive move. People will get a good service."

? Landlords can download a special SmartMove information pack from the Journal's website, www.exmouthjournal.co.uk.