Millions face a fat chance of social housing

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With some of the poorest and most vulnerable being turned down for social housing, what hope is there for those working households struggling to hold on in the private rented sector? 

By Mark Cantrell 

MILLIONS of private renters are in desperate need of social housing, argues the charity Shelter, after claiming that half of those who work are just one pay-day away from becoming homeless.

But with social housing now such a scarce resource that even the poorest and most vulnerable are apparently being turned away, what hope is there for the people caught between this rock and a hard place?

The issue was highlighted by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) in its report, Rethinking Allocations, and it makes for a sobering counterpoint to Shelter’s latest findings.

Social housing, of course, is a badly diminished resource; a result both of deliberate policy and casual neglect of the tenure. Social homes have been lost in droves through right to buy, or conversion to more expensive ‘affordable’ rent, while the construction of new homes has plummeted, especially since the 2010 Conservative-led coalition government slashed capital spending on new social homes.

The result has been ever-tighter rationing of the homes that do remain, with waiting lists consequently growing ever-longer: four million households across England, according to the CIH. The consequences are disturbing to say the least.

Rethinking Allocations offers a glimpse into a bleak world of social landlords excluding the poorest and most vulnerable from a social home – because they are deemed too poor to be anything other than a financial risk.

“For decades, we have failed to build enough homes, and our welfare safety net is no longer fit for purpose,” said the report’s author, Faye Greaves, policy and practice officer at the CIH. “More and more people are turning to local authorities and housing associations for help to access social housing.

“But that leaves housing providers having to find a balance between people in acute need, local priorities, and their need to develop sustainable tenancies. What we found is that relying solely on processes can end up having the opposite effect to that intended.”

The problem isn’t just about the desperate lack of social housing, then; bureaucratic lethargy – blind observance of rules and procedure – plays a part too. There needs to be more emphasis on putting people before process, CIH says, to ensure people’s unique circumstances and housing histories are given proper consideration.

“The housing crisis has produced an increasingly complex challenge for those charged with allocating local authority and housing association homes,” said Steve Jennings, chair of South Liverpool Homes, which sponsored the report. “But as a sector we must remember that we are dealing with people who need a home, so we must put them at the heart of any process to allocate the ones we own and manage.”

Terrie Alafat CBE, [then] chief executive of the CIH, added: “It may seem obvious to put people at the heart of deciding about something so essential as their home, but as we’ve found, the pressures that housing providers face can lead to them relying on processes alone.”

As it is, meanwhile, the perverse logic of the situation explored in Rethinking Allocations, rather suggests (in theory at least) that Shelter’s three million working private renters would be a better prospect for social landlords; a cruel twist in the story of the nation’s already dystopian housing system.

“By allowing the number of genuinely affordable social homes to plummet, politicians have super-charged our housing emergency,” said Polly Neate, Shelter’s chief executive. “Millions of working people are now caught in an endless cycle of paying grossly expensive private rents they can barely afford – with all the insecurity that brings. Many are terrified that even a short-term dip in income could result in them losing their home for good.”

Based on the findings of a survey carried out on its behalf by YouGov, together with an analysis of official statistics, Shelter claims that almost three million private renters could be just one paycheque away from losing their home; with little savings or other means to offer a ‘buffer’ in the event of a losing their job.

The situation is particularly bleak for working families with children, the charity adds. Its findings suggest a “staggering” 60%, or 760,000 renting families could be just one paycheque away from losing their home. What is worse, a job loss would render more than half a million of these families (550,000) immediately unable to pay their rent.

Shelter says its findings chime with the Government’s own figures, which reveal 63% of private renting households have no savings at all. With renters paying on average 41% of their household income on rents, this makes it “incredibly difficult” for renters to save.

Given these findings, Shelter is calling for the construction of more social homes as the only “stable and genuinely affordable alternative” to private renting for millions of people.

“Warm words and piecemeal policies will not solve this deepening crisis,” Neate added. “The only way politicians can fix what has gone so wrong is with a clear commitment from every party to deliver three million more social homes over the next 20 years.”

Meanwhile, in a separate analysis of official figures, Shelter added more to the grim litany, claiming that over the course of the financial year 2018/19, a household in England became homeless every four minutes. What’s more, Shelter says:

  • A new generation of young people and families are being hit by our “housing emergency” with 56,440 young people aged 16 to 24 becoming homeless or threatened with homelessness in the last year
  • Young people are disproportionately affected by homelessness: they represent 21% of all applicants found to be homeless or threatened with homelessness in the last year, but make up just 14% of the general population
  • 22% of households found to be homeless or threatened with homelessness lost their last settled home due to the ending of a private rented tenancy
  • 28% of households found to be homeless or threatened with homelessness were living in a private rented home – this is the most common type of accommodation to live in at the time of applying for homelessness support
  • More than a quarter (27%) of applicants owed a homelessness duty are in work

“During a year where Brexit negotiations have totally dominated the political agenda, catastrophic numbers of people have become homeless,” Neate said. “While the housing crisis is out of the spotlight, families with young children are trapped in grim temporary accommodation like B&Bs and shipping containers, and young people feel the damaging effects of growing up in a housing emergency.

“Cripplingly expensive private rents, frozen housing benefits, and lengthy waiting lists for social homes are pushing people to the sharp edge of a housing emergency which won’t go away without genuinely affordable homes.

“The Government must invest in a new generation of social homes if they are to pull hundreds of thousands of people out of homelessness. And in the meantime, they must urgently increase housing benefit so that it covers at least the bottom third of private rents.”

For now, though, it seems inevitable that for the people highlighted in this recent work by both Shelter and the CIH, it’s a fat chance of a social home for some time to come.


This article first appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing magazine #6 October 2019.


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