Before I started working in the social housing sector, I wasn’t really sure what social housing was. I was aware it was a not-for-profit sector, could also be called third sector, and involved doing social good. It’s only been about eight months, but I’m starting to get a fair idea of what this sector is all about – and how vital it is for a fully functioning society.
It’s worth saying I’m still novice to all of this, and still learning the right jargon used in the sector. I’m also still learning about the history of this world I now work in, so may well get some of the particulars muddled and even wrong.
Also, this isn’t a critical look at the housing association world, just my observations and to bring some clarity – both for myself and hopefully for others.
Many years ago, the government made provision to provide housing for people in society who needed to be housed, but couldn’t afford to live in a private property. Life was good and simple. Residents received significant grants to subsidise the low rents being charged by the councils. These properties were never really about money making – it was about helping people in society live a near normal life.
Councils began to release their housing stock to what are called ‘Registered Social Landlords’. That is, not-for-profit organisations who could bid for housing stock to maintain and sustain them. Life was good for these RSLs too. Up to 90% of the cost of maintaining the housing stock was government grant, and at the end of the year, if you overspent, you could claim it back from the council.
Typically, the types of people being housed were what are now called ‘general needs‘. That is, people who could not afford to live in private rented accommodation, buy a house, or reliant on housing benefits. It has also included families who needed help with housing – single families or large families.
If you were a vulnerable person in society you were either neglected, had a carer in some way, or, if you were lucky, were being cared for full time in a residential setting.
Post 1988(ish) life changed quite dramatically for housing associations. The grant they received from local authorities started to diminish dramatically. Suddenly they needed to start making money to cover the amount not being received via grants. Also at this time, HAs were allowed to start borrowing money against their housing stock – which had never happened before.
Let’s fast forward to 2014, and this is what the social housing market now looks like.
If you want to live in a social housing unit, you have to apply through your local authority who will assess you and place you on a waiting list. Increasingly you can do this directly via HAs, although if you don’t know you can, this is not an obvious step to take. Local authorities then instruct HAs who needs to be housed, and by and large they have to comply.
General needs is still a strong mainstay of what HAs are responsible for. Helping people understand changes in welfare benefits, claiming rents at the right levels, and ensuring they’re living in housing which is in good conditions.
There are now a growing number of people with vulnerable needs in society who need to be taken care of:
– mental health needs
– drug addicts
– older people
In part some of these needs are taken care of by housing associations who are commissioned to do this from local authorities. In part it’s taken care of by charities and other not-for-profit organisations.
Some HAs have chosen to move to a more commercial approach which helps to subsidise their social purpose.
The kind of thing they can do is develop new properties specifically for a mixed tenure purpose. This means you have people buying or renting properties at full market value living alongside those who either qualify for affordable housing or shared ownership. Affordable housing is where the HA can charge a lesser rent than market value up to a maximum of 80%. Shared Ownership is where the resident can buy the property in partnership with the local authority. In either case, the resident is for all intents and purposes the owner of the property and free to normal house choices.
Typically, affordable housing is made available for ‘keyworkers‘ – nurses, fire fighters, police, etc. What is also starting to become the norm is that those living on what we might call good incomes, are still not able to afford a property at market value, and needing to enter the affordable or shared ownership market. Although not a bad thing, it does cast an eye over how tough it is to get onto the property ladder.
The thinking behind mixed tenure developments is that you promote social aspiration. Families who are less well to do see those living well and aspire to want to live a better more affluent lifestyle. It’s a lofty ambition, and can work well – although clearly it is not without it’s problems.
Housing benefits are inextricably linked to the way HAs work – especially in the general needs market. I’m not even going to try and explain how, it’s still something I’m learning about.
Ok, that’s it for now. In a later post I’ll talk about the challenges of delivering OD in this sector.