Guest post by Angelo Sommariva, Public Affairs and Policy Manager at the housing association Moat
Over the last week, housing issues have certainly been brought to national prominence; for all the wrong reasons. There seems to be a pattern where we mostly focus on housing as a response to a crisis – riots, overcrowding, a fire, welfare benefits cheats, the list goes on. So how do we shed positive light on the issue? How do we look ahead to what we want in future, rather than looking over our shoulder to what we don’t like now?
The sensible starting point might be to decide on some basic concepts that we want to see incorporated into a reformed system. In the Fabian book Homes for Citizens, an essay by Brian Johnson, Chief Executive of Moat, picked up on a number of basic principles that could be used as ‘tests’ for a progressive housing framework.
Lets start with the one that’s most topical: aspiration. We have seen recently that the present housing system could do so much more to encourage people to improve their circumstances. As Tim Leunig has argued for Policy Exchange, it is in nobody’s interest to see areas of “concentrated poverty” which are “dislocated from the labour market”. It is, however, in everybody’s interest that the system encourages participation, leading to an increase in educational achievement and wealth. So how do we do this? With carrots, or with sticks? I would propose that punishing people with little to lose is the wrong approach; incentivising people with much to gain seems like a sensible option.
Incentives could be more easily found with increased co-operation between departments. Despite the promises – from governments of both colours – the ‘personalisation’ of services is still a target rather than a reality. But why shouldn’t housing be more integrated with employment? And health? And education? Perhaps it will ultimately be housing associations that lead the way on a new partnership model for delivering services to residents.
This leads nicely into a discussion about flexibility – both for tenants and for landlords. Firstly, tenants need to feel unrestricted to move for various reasons, such as job opportunities, study, or to be closer to support networks. A system that locks people in, mostly due to red tape, is simply not fit for purpose anymore. For landlords, the system must be equally flexible and should encourage solutions that suit local factors. This should include everything from tenure type, to programme design – eg. as already discussed, programmes that overlap into non-housing areas like employment.
Security is also an issue that we can’t ignore. We need to tell people that if they want to keep their homes for life, they can. But equally, it needs to be clear that the state will not subsidise the home forever – unless, of course the subsidy is genuinely needed. People’s circumstances do change over time, and indeed, we encourage improvement – usually measured by income, education, or other factors. However, we are being contradictory by creating a system that only suits the status quo. Let me briefly explain: under Affordable Rents, social landlords have no available mechanism for phasing out subsidy when it is no longer required – such as when someone’s income improves over time. The only available option to a housing association in this case is the ‘flexibility’ to kick people out of their homes (after a minimum period of two years – although it has been suggested this is only to be used in extreme circumstances). We can do better than that. If we are to create a flexible system that provides both security and aspiration, we need to give landlords the flexibility to phase out subsidy past the 80% rent levels. This will allow people the option of staying in their homes even when public subsidy is no longer applied. However there need to be safeguards. Tenants need to see this rent increase as an investment – not an extra spend. This could be done by giving people the opportunity to enter home ownership, via shared ownership schemes, if they choose. The rent money, which would flow in to housing associations as extra income, should also be ringfenced for the development of more affordable homes.
Then, what of mixed communities? Surely this ought to be one of the flagship ideals of a progressive housing system? Mixed communities are not only desirable because of the egalitarian qualities they reflect, but they provide opportunities to residents that would not otherwise be available to them. This is especially true in higher-cost locations, such as inner city areas, where access to employment comes into play more significantly.
Finally, all of these things need to be looked at in the context of the current financial situation. There needs to be a rethink of what ‘proper use of public subsidy’ means. Regardless of who is in government, we know that public funding for new programmes will be tight. This leaves us with no choice but to think about how we distribute our housing resources and, as obvious as it sounds, we have to rebalance subsidy so that those most in need always get priority. Value for money ought not be a term purely used in the City, but our definition may be somewhat different; to ensure that subsidy is every bit as socially beneficial as it is financially.
In short, housing holds the key to a number of the social problems highlighted by the riots. But let’s use the aftermath to consider the future, rather than self-flagellate over mistakes of the past. A good starting point would be to distance ourselves from reactionary policy-making in favour of sketching out the system we actually want.
Follow Moat on Twitter @moathomes
For more information about the Fabian Society pamphlet 'Homes for Citizens', published in association with Moat and the homelessness charity Crisis, visit the Fabian Society website.