Reimagining rent: Lessons from an accelerator for better housing

A unique accelerator* programme aimed at tackling the UK housing crisis through social innovation is now in its second year. Radhika Bynon and John Piper from the Young Foundation share what’s been learned.

Five million households in the UK – 21% of the total – call the Private Rented Sector (PRS) home, with the number set to rise to 5.79m by 2022. While renting works well for many, it’s failing the vulnerable and those on low incomes, with a staggering 29% of PRS homes failing the government’s Decent Homes Standard, and 17% presenting a severe threat to health and safety.

What’s more, renting is no longer a transitional stage – more and more of us expect to rent for most of our lives. With tenants afforded few rights relative to the landlord and with little legal recourse to contest evictions, stability and community cohesion are at risk. According to research by the charity Shelter, evictions from a private tenancy contributed significantly to the 78% rise in homelessness since 2011.

PRS challenges are complex and can seem unsolvable; changing the system needs political focus and a sea-change in how we approach housebuilding. But in the shorter term, many social enterprises are offering brilliant, imaginative ideas to make housing work for the people most at risk. 

Backing promising solutions

Since 2016, The Young Foundation has been helping to scale up some of these innovative enterprises. Developed and delivered in partnership with Nationwide Foundation, the Reimagining Rent accelerator supports early-stage ventures with promising housing solutions by helping them to strengthen their models, demonstrate their social impact and increase their potential to scale up, through a free programme of workshops, consultancy and access to experts and funders. 

Unlike some accelerators, Reimagining Rent focuses on the entrepreneur, rather than the venture. It helps these individuals to find their path, engage with peers and potential collaborators, dig into the social problem they want to address, and develop the skills and values that maximise the chances of success. 

In the first year, the seven ventures we supported worked on three big shortcomings in housing – access, market operation and tenant security. Some also looked at the root causes of homelessness. 

For example, Kineara runs a 10-week programme of holistic, tailored support to prevent the eviction of a tenant once they have fallen into rent arrears. Working with private landlords, the team supports tenants to overcome barriers to employment or education and improve their wellbeing and regain stability. Today, Kineara has an inspirational 92% success rate of keeping people in their own homes, strengthening families and sustaining local communities.

Kineara has a 92% success rate of keeping people in their own homes, strengthening families and sustaining local communities

Meanwhile, Safer Renting supports tenants who are driven to the verge of homelessness by bad landlord practice. Incubated by London-based charity Cambridge House, its advice and advocacy service is available to the most at-risk households living in the worst properties in the private rented sector, aiming to prevent illegal evictions and help tenants move out of poor conditions into better properties. 

Templates for change

Now that we’re in year two of the Reimagining Rent programme, even more opportunities for innovation have come to light. One shocking fact we’ve learned from working with local authorities is that many families receiving housing benefit feel it’s a better choice to live in temporary accommodation while they’re on the council house waiting list (often for up to nine years), rather than renting poor quality, insecure accommodation in the private rented sector for the rest of their lives. 

It has also become clear that the steady decline of available social housing leaves many people on low incomes no option but to rent the very cheapest properties in the PRS. These vulnerable renters often have to put up with chronic quality and safety issues – especially in areas of high demand, like inner London boroughs. This experience can have long-term effects on mental and physical health. 

The extent of under-occupancy has also become clear. According to the 2011 Census there are 1.01 bedrooms per capita in London, meaning that – contrary to popular belief – there are more than enough bedrooms for everyone. The problem lies with an acute shortage of housing at one end of the market, while at the other end of the market, people living in homes with many spare bedrooms! This type of issue is ripe for innovative thinking.

Reimagining Rent Cohort 2 Young Foundation social innovation housing private rented sector

Homeshare UK and The Kohab, from our second cohort (pictured above), are looking at this problem. The Homeshare UK model allows an elderly householder to share their home with someone in housing need in return for regular help around the house. The Kohab is a new build intergenerational living solution whereby people in housing need receive greatly discounted rent, in return for helping out elderly people in their new community.

Both these solutions help to tackle the loneliness faced by many older people, while contributing to preventative care. They also provide templates for schemes that do not need significant material or legislative change to implement, and which could grow considerably with the right support. Similar models are already popular in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Argentina.

These solutions help to tackle the loneliness faced by many older people, while contributing to preventative care

We are also discovering how social innovation and partnerships can complement the current work of local authorities and housing providers, by bringing together two sets of expertise (and resources) to tackle a problem in a new way. Sharing Solutions, for example, is a partnership between Crisis and the London Borough of Lewisham Council. The team has created a scalable model which allows younger vulnerable people on housing benefit to live in new mixed-tenure housing developments. 

Social entrepreneurship of this kind also offers a route for existing housing associations to strengthen their relationship with their local communities. As they have grown, many housing associations find it harder to stay connected to the communities they serve. Partnering with a social enterprise can take them back to their roots by providing jobs for the local community and improving the delivery of their services. 

Building on innovations

These approaches all demonstrate that small-scale interventions designed to disrupt the private rented sector for the better do exist, although for meaningful change to occur these promising ideas need the right support to grow. This can be done by creating an environment which unlocks creativity and encourages people to work together to co-create solutions, while providing the support required for these ideas to be nurtured, tested, implemented, and rapidly scaled if effective. 

Accelerator and business development programmes such as Reimagining Rent can play a significant role here, training entrepreneurs to fully understand and articulate the impact of their organisation while increasing their profile among customers and funders.

Innovation in this field would also benefit hugely from greater collaboration across sectors. Reimagining Rent has shown that partnering with others really helps to create new solutions, and can facilitate change at a more systemic level, by bringing together different perspectives, skills and resources. Collaboration between public, private, social and philanthropic sectors, combined with proper end user design consultation should be standard, not the exception.

Ultimately, the lack of decent, affordable homes for people in need damages not only individuals and families – it harms whole communities. Those who are vulnerable or on low incomes are disproportionately affected though, which alone should underscore the need for collective, breakthrough approaches that address the whole housing system. Growing social innovation is certainly a good place to start. 

*Start-up accelerator programmes support early-stage, growth-driven organisations through a process of intensive, immersive education and mentoring. 

Find out more about the Reimagining Rent programme here.