Social Housing – time to change the narrative?

Housing is one of the key challenges we face as a society – there is not enough, and what there is can often be unaffordable for those who need it. Barely a week goes by without a news report about rising house prices or dwindling expectations amongst Millennials of ever getting onto the foot of the housing ‘ladder’. The affordability of housing is hugely important, certainly, but home ownership is not the right goal for a significant proportion of the population.

There is a generally held belief that owning a home is everyone’s right and should be everyone’s aspiration – to the extent that those who ‘fail’ to make it onto the housing ladder are seen as somehow lacking or missing out. If we accept that this is true, however, we fall into the trap of valuing a house only in terms of its economic or financial worth, and of significantly under-valuing the fundamental role housing plays in our lives and communities. Fundamental in every sense of the word.

So what role does Social Housing play?

Social Housing (housing rented from ‘social landlords’ – usually housing associations, but including some local authorities and other providers) plays a crucial role in meeting the country’s housing needs. Homes in this sector are regulated with regard to rent levels and housing quality, providing a safe and secure home for all residents. Those tenants with additional support needs benefit from the unique nature of social tenancy – hinging on the fact that landlords understand the everyday challenges faced by many of their residents and design tenancy agreements and services accordingly.

The role of social housing is pivotal. It allows tenants to build a stable foundation for building (or re-building their lives). It enables those on low wages, including ‘key workers’ and those in the ‘gig economy’ to live and raise families close to their place of work. A permanent address is necessary for access to many additional services and benefits. A key benefit of social tenancies is that – unlike many private rental agreements – they don’t routinely need to be renewed every six months, removing that particular stress factor from tenants’ lives and ensuring school and employment continuity. More than that – a stable, secure and affordable home is the starting point for being able to address many other factors in sometimes highly complex and chaotic lives – it’s the first step in a social and human needs hierarchy, and attempts to address other concerns without that foundation are much less likely to succeed.

Why is social housing so important?

More than 1 million households are currently officially waiting for a social tenancy – many of those are struggling to cope in emergency housing. Many more are hidden from statistics as they ‘sofa surf’ amongst family and friends – difficult for the most resilient amongst us; hugely damaging for those who are more vulnerable. All of this comes at a cost to the individuals concerned, their families and communities and to the wider economy.

The report which we at BWB Impact have just produced with housing association Hyde Housing Group (one of the largest social housing providers in London and the south east) to investigate – for the first time – the true value that is really brought to individuals and society through social housing provision. Significantly, our research shows that a social tenancy in and of itself generates at least £11k a year of value in the lives of tenants, with a further £6k of economic value locally for the effect of developing and maintaining the property. At this level, a tenancy costing around £150k to construct gives annual returns to society of over 10% – surely a ‘strong bet’ in a market sense.

Changing the narrative on social housing

The numbers speak for themselves; the stories behind the numbers are even more compelling, and speak to an urgent need for us to change our attitude towards home ownership. If social tenancies can demonstrably bring value not only to the tenants themselves, but to their communities and the wider public purse, then we need more of them. That’s not all that needs to change. We need to stop comparing social housing ‘like for like’ with privately owned homes. True, the core offering of a home is common to both, but they are not the same thing – each model meets different underlying needs. We need to create a blended market where social housing is acknowledged as being a vital element both in housing and in wider social provision. Social tenancies need to be designated as a public resource or service and supply should be actively managed across providers to meet demand. Certainly, we can offer tenants a right to buy their social homes, but we have to have policies and procedures in place such that offering that benefit to some doesn’t create a national lottery of provision for those most in need.

You can read our full report and a short summary of key points on our website.

This information is necessarily of a general nature and doesn’t constitute legal advice. This is not a substitute for formal legal advice, given in the context of full information under an engagement with Bates Wells.

All content on this page is correct as of October 8, 2018.