Successive governments have described our housing as ‘in crisis.’ Owner occupation has declined sharply while government promotes it as the ideal answer that most people aspire to. Private renting has risen steeply but has become increasingly insecure. It is now the major cause of rising homelessness. Meanwhile, council and housing association renting—“social housing”—has declined steadily due to the sale of existing tenanted homes to their occupiers under the Right to Buy and the demolition of existing, run down, council-built estates.
Social housing plays a crucial role because it charges low rents and guarantees minimal standards while offering security of tenure. Its decline is closely associated with rising homelessness as families under threat of homelessness are forced into private renting from which they can be evicted with very little notice, often because rents are unaffordable. Private landlords charge market rents, and are increasingly used as an expensive alternative to low cost, secure, social housing in areas of high demand. Owner occupation, the most popular tenure, is decreasingly accessible to younger households with modest incomes.
Because social landlords take on the most acute cases of need, there is growing stigma attached to being a tenant. But social landlords (councils and housing associations) play a far wider role in tackling community problems; investing in estate renewal; maintaining neighbourhoods; helping house the most vulnerable groups in society and supporting them; offering a wide range of mixed tenures; encouraging community and social initiatives; and in many cases promoting tenant involvement. This social investment offer immeasurable benefits to society as a whole, a contribution that goes largely unrecognised. We call this wider role “Housing Plus”.
“Housing Plus”– investment beyond the bare “bricks and mortar” – is essential to making rented housing work, as the Grenfell disaster and its repercussions illustrate. The lessons from that fire affect social landlords countrywide. The key message is that rented housing works only if landlords play a wider role in the communities where they operate. They need to manage proactively; repair and make safe their rented homes; communicate with and respond to their tenants; ensure “the right to peaceful enjoyment of the home”. They can do this, particularly in multi-storey blocks of flats, only if they work with and respond to the needs of residents directly.
Rented housing works only if:
- social landlords combine housing provision and community conditions;
- landlords recognise the gaps in services caused by funding cuts and welfare reform, which they need to plug in order to remain viable as landlords;
- they address the need for supported housing for elderly and disabled residents;
- rent arrears and debt are given special attention among specific groups, such as young lone parents, and single middle aged, low skilled men;
- needy households can access low cost social housing in order to reduce growing levels of homelessness
- community-based solutions are encouraged to tap the energy and capacity in communities to tackle problems.
We set out to document below-the-radar evidence of how austerity, inequality and insecurity affect low income communities by gathering and documenting the lived experiences of residents and front-line staff . For six years, since the harsh cuts in services began to bite, LSE Housing—in partnership with the National Communities Resource Centre, the National Housing Federation, the Charted Institute of Housing and the University of Manchester—has run over 40 two-day workshop-style residential Think Tanks with housing professionals and tenants at Trafford Hall, a resource centre set up 25 years ago to build capacity and know-how among those who live and work in low income communities, particularly tenants, and to support community self-help as a way to tackle community problems.
The Think Tanks, researched, programmed and documented by a small team in the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion at LSE, have systematically tackled key challenges facing social landlords. Topics include: Universal Credit; energy saving; lessons from the Grenfell disaster; neighbourhood management; housing young people; supported housing; estate renewal and many other topics. These workshops gather a unique body of evidence with nearly 2000 participants, of whom half are tenants, representing around 350 social landlords. We have documented ground-level evidence and knowledge and expert inputs. The key ideas, action plans and headline findings from each Think Tank make up a body of knowledge that fed directly into the Social Housing Green Paper and the Hackett Review of Building Regulations.
The most important social policy lessons are:
- Firstly, community stability is greatly enhanced by the social role of social landlords, operating as non-profit housing providers.
- Secondly, unpopular, run-down estates can be rescued through careful housing management;
- Thirdly older, larger estates of rented housing need hands-on local neighbourhood management and frequent re-investment in order to work.
- Fourthly, homelessness results from many social pressures, with housing at the very centre and social landlords have a key role alongside community initiatives, local authority obligations, and government support.
- Fifthly, social landlords can improve private renting by providing secure, affordable, decent rented homes at below market prices, to help drive up standards and plug a gap in housing.
- Sixthly, social landlords need to tap the initiative, knowledge and energy of low income groups as they can play a key role in helping solve problems that they live with.
- lastly, community-led, community-based housing responds directly to local needs; and many small local initiatives can make a big difference to communities and how they work.
For all these reasons, and many more, housing is about far more than bricks and mortar. Housing is a many-sided social, physical, financial and environmental service helping communities to survive and thrive.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.