A rental agency for the homeless has been opened in Surrey. Now others are eager to replicate the model.
“I’ve always been interested in people thinking this is original,” says Helen Watson, CEO of Rentstart, a rental agency in Walton-on-Thames that is exclusively for the homeless. “If you come across a real estate agent, whether you are buying or renting, you are someone who walks into some place and says, ‘I need a place to live.’ Can you help me?'”
The concept may not be original, but starting a rental agency for the homeless almost certainly is. About 450 people come Rentstart, which is a charity, looks every year for emergency accommodation or suitable private rental housing. But until August, each of them would have been greeted by a doorbell entry system and an unsanitary shared office on the back of Main Street Walton-on-Thames.
Now all Rentstart clients, owners, staff and volunteers are welcome in a spacious and airy space that has large windows and several consultation rooms. With crisp white walls, glossy laminate floors, comfy green couches, and Rorschach prints on the walls, the former bank looks like any contemporary real estate agent. The charity says the idea behind opening a major address on a main street was to create a place where customers felt valued, respected and part of the community.
“It’s such a nice place to go in,” says Blair Darby, a Rentstart customer, who contacted the charity after becoming homeless. “You go in there and you don’t have to hide. It just looks like an office and it’s done in a really nice modern way. “
Darby, an actor, was left homeless in 2016 after returning to the UK from Austria, where he had been playing dictator Idi Amin in a stage production. “From being praised and applauded on a beautiful setting in Austria, he was sleeping on the streets of England,” said the 64-year-old.
For weeks, Darby pretended to be a tourist in Walton-on-Thames until a local homeless organization put him in contact with a shelter about 35 miles away in Crawley, West Sussex, which was later pointed out by Rentstart.
Rentstart, which occupies a former bank, has a prominent location on the main street of Walton-on-Thames. Image: Rentstart
Darby appreciated the personal touch at Rentstart, which along with finding accommodation can provide deposit guarantees for clients and provide a month’s rent in advance. It also distributes starter kits containing household items and helps people find jobs, navigate universal credit, and access health services. “Rentstart just saves lives,” says Darby. “They certainly saved me.”
According to Watson, housing clients, some of whom are dealing with complex personal issues, it’s easy. “It keeps people housed in good quality housing, where they can start dealing with whatever they need next, [that’s hard],” she says.
The lack of available housing in the area makes it even more difficult, which is why Rentstart handles the leases so that it can sublet to those in need rather than allow the houses to hit the private rental market. “We had to take the risk to make sure we could continue to house people,” says Watson.
Rentstart only saves lives. They certainly saved me
Thirty private owners now rent directly through the charity, and Rentstart offers guaranteed rent, ongoing lease support, and property improvement grants.
Since opening in Walton-on-Thames, various charities and councils have contacted Rentstart in hopes of replicating the service. The charity declined to name names as it was not yet working directly with them.
Watson believes the Rentstart model could be implemented elsewhere, but says it would have to improve existing homeless services, which vary from region to region; a centralized top-down approach, he adds, would not work.
“We believe in the small and the local,” says Watson. “You have to know your area, that’s the only way we have been able to house people.”
Lead Image: Rentstart