Social Housing: The foundations on which lives are built

Social Housing: Bricks and motar welfare or the foundations on which lives are built?

(First published via The CSM (The Christian Socialist Movement) November 2011)

When listening to and trying to understand the coalition government’s announcements about how to get the housing market moving again, and then comparing these attitudes to those displayed by their reforms of social and affordable housing the most striking thing is the apparent priority each is given.

“It is important to give people, some in their late 30s, a chance to get on the housing ladder…” as if this is the answer to all housing woes and perhaps can be contrasted with “why not simply give everyone a home they can afford?”

Talk of social and affordable housing is now replaced with terms such as “subsidised housing” and “new affordable rents” as though the previous rents, which were much lower, were not affordable. Perhaps from the coalition government’s view, in terms of the perceived level of public subsidy they require, they were not.

The key principle of the new centre right rhetoric seems to be to redefine social housing, not as a tenure of choice but as a tenure of last resort, as a welfare benefit and as a subsidy to the poor that should be restricted and rationed. As Matthew Pennycook writing for the Guardian points out, this idea is central to the housing paper the conservatives published in 2009 ( Public sector or social housing is not something people should chose, the only real choice is to buy, to own. Social housing is seen purely as a safety net, as part of the welfare state, for those unable to achieve anything else; an undesirable feature of the social landscape.

This view is pushing further and further to the fore in the policies the government is pursuing. Whilst first time buyers are to be subsidised, those seeking to rent are to be, from one point of view, penalised. Those seeking to rent in either social or private sector accommodation, are to have their ‘subsidies’ significantly reduced either in terms of having to accept new ‘affordable rents’ at 80% of local market private rents or having their entitlement to housing benefit reduced. Whilst those who can afford a 5 or 10% deposit to buy a home and can get a mortgage will be entitled to the state underwriting a proportion of their mortgage that takes their deposit up to the equivalent of 25% of the purchase price, so they can get a 95% mortgage and so gain their first footsteps on the housing ladder. This can only be interpreted as a reinforcement of the Thatcherite ideology that everyone’s goal must be to own their own home. This stance also serves to weaken the position of those who simply cannot afford to, or for whom owning is seen as too risky a step.

At the same time this ideological step creates real risks for the balance of our communities, and combined with other measures targeted at the social rented sector (e.g. the end of security of tenure; the prospect of requiring a review of entitlement to social housing if the tenants financial circumstances improve) point towards a commodification of housing, which places choice solely in the hands of those with the economic power to chose.

Clear examples of this price driven approach turning housing in to a commodity rather than a foundation of a balanced community is seen in the impending changes to housing benefit and the associated rhetoric; “Why should someone on benefit be paid to live in a house a working family cannot afford?” A reasonable question at face value, but it makes two false assumptions:

  1. That price (rent level) denotes quality of housing;
  2. That price (rent level) is a comparable constant.

Rent levels across the housing sector, both private and public vary by significant degrees according to where you are, just as house prices do in the owner occupier market. Very large rents in parts of London are payable for very modest accommodation and the price driven approach to squeezing down on housing benefit will price families that rely on housing benefit out of large parts of London and the South East. A recent study for the London Council’s estimates that as many as 133,000 households may be unable to afford their current rents and could be forced to move, with all the upheaval this will cause to children’s schooling and their communities, when the final changes to housing benefits come in to force. The Children’s Society has warned that around 80,000 children could be made homeless as a result of the new caps on Housing Benefit. These numbers help illustrate the additional misdirection that is being made about recipients of housing benefit.

A recent statement from the Department from Work and Pensions in response to the recent letter from Bishops questioning the proposed changes to Housing Benefit has said:

“It simply isn’t fair that households on out-of-work benefits can receive a greater income from the state than the average working household gets in wages. Many working-age families with adults in work cannot afford to live in central London, for example, and it is not right for the taxpayer to subsidise households on out-of-work benefits who do.”

This statement implies that the beneficiaries of more generous Housing Benefit are the unemployed, and government comments about ending benefits dependency and pushing those out of work to get a job further create the impression that the tax payer is footing the bill to keep the unemployed in nice houses that the rest of us cannot afford. Yet probably the majority of Housing Benefit recipients are working families on low incomes. Housing Benefit is a means tested benefit open to those in work who would otherwise be unable to pay their rent. The Directgov website states:

“If you’re on a low income, whether you’re working or not, and need financial help to pay all or part of your rent, you may be able to get Housing Benefit… You may get Housing Benefit if you pay rent and your income and capital (savings and investments) are below a certain level. You could qualify if you are out of work, or in work and earning a wage.”

So clearly Housing Benefit is not a subsidy that encourages people not to work or enables those out of work to achieve a better home than those in work. The arguments about Housing Benefit levels are, it would seem, all part of the ideological argument that subsidy for housing should only be used as a last resort and that choice and security in housing are a commodity available to those with the means to pay for it.

A further feature of the housing debate seems to be the choice of language. We talk of home owners and home buyers but when talk turns to social housing we now talk about subsidized houses and affordable rents, we don’t talk about homes. The reality is though that for everyone, whether in private rented accommodation, social rented property or an owner occupier the place you live is your home; and furthermore we do not live in our homes in isolation from the people around us, and stability of home is essential for building communities.

A central feature of housing policy promoted by the Chartered Institute for Housing over the last 20 years or so has been the need for supporting and developing balanced communities. A policy all political parties in one way or another have supported. The idea was that good community balance, and therefore stability, was created through developing owner occupied and social rented housing side by side. Ensuring no visible distinction between the two, no stigma or separation, tenure as a matter of choice as well as need.

The coalition’s housing policies jeopardize that ability to develop and maintain balanced communities. By saying those on housing benefit who require higher levels of support should not have access to high cost homes those on lower incomes will be forced to move out of those higher cost areas. By removing security of tenure from future social rented tenants, insecurity will be built in to the social rented system. By viewing social rents as subsidized rents, for which you must qualify by being of the poorest and most unable to access the private housing market, the social rented sector is stigmatised as being a lesser standard of living.

The concept of non judgemental support is central to the Christian view of social justice. Jesus in Matthew 25:40 says “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”. Within that parable, the message is that acting to help those in need is not just an individualistic act of relieving immediate need, but also collectively raising people out of need altogether. This is a message that runs consistently within the New Testament. In his first letter (1 John3:17) John says “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” Likewise Luke in the book of Acts (4:32-35) talks about how none amongst the believers were left in need, how all things were held in common and distributed to all according to their need.

This seems to be the crucial concept when looking at the future of social housing. How are we meeting those needs? The Coalition Government’s focus is on promoting the private housing market as the primary mechanism for housing, and by extension homes. But how will this meet people’s needs?

It is perhaps in this implied and underlying attitude to need that creates the biggest question for Christian attitudes to social justice and we are faced with a set of simple questions that are difficult to answer:

  • How do we define need?
  • What is a response to need?
  • When is the responsibility to respond to need complete?
  • What responsibility does the person in need have to help themselves?

For example does providing a bed for the night meet the need of the homeless? In one sense it does but does as it relieves the immediate need, but in another sense it does not because the person is still homeless, they are back in need the following day. Therefore our response needs to be more complete than a single response to the immediate need it must be a response that takes the person out of need. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the response was not to simply make sure the victim was alive and safe, but also to provide for his future needs until he was fully healed, a complete response that took the recipient out of need.

In this sense need must be seen as an ongoing condition, not one that can be alleviated by a single act or temporary solution but one that must be treated through measures that end the need altogether. In housing, however, it seems that the Coalition Governments policies in relation to housing need are entirely based on their implicit notion of housing as a commodity and social housing as a fallback position accessible only by those who cannot be pushed to any other form of housing.

If social housing is a bricks and mortar welfare benefit then it must surely be viewed as a temporary stop gap until such time as you enter the private market. But this view, evident in the Coalition Government’s policies for social housing, fails to understand the ongoing concept of need in its fullest sense.

Why should we regard enabling someone on a low income to live in a stable home as somehow a penalty on others? St. Paul says “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1).

Families on low incomes increasingly have found buying in the open market too much of a stretch, and a risk that many do not want to take, especially following the one million or more repossessions experienced in the recessions of the 1990s. What everyone one wants and needs is a stable home, a place to live and grow and be part of a community. Drawing stronger distinctions between those who can and want to buy and those that cannot and do not want to risks increasing the divisions in communities, creating instability and failing to meet real housing need.

In this sense then we are missing an opportunity to redefine the debate on housing from one that revolves around the linear choice between owning and renting to one about how we provide for the most basic of needs, that of a stable home. How do we enable everyone to meet their needs within their relative means?

The answer must come from re-thinking the ways in which we deliver housing. If we are to meet the need to increase the supply of affordable homes, new and innovate ways of doing so are desperately needed; new ways that will allow communities up and down the country to provide the homes they need on land that will otherwise remain barren and undeveloped. MP Jonathan Reynolds’s so far successful private members bill to create co-operative housing tenure as a distinct new legal way of gaining rights to occupy a home is a strong start to that thinking and is driven by the recognition that, as Albert Einstein insightfully said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”.

The co-operative housing (tenure) bill understands that the UK’s linear choice approach to housing tenure (own or rent) has been and remains a constraint on housing supply and is based entirely on a notion of financial advantage that the financial crises of recent years have placed under severe if not terminal strain.

In the UK co-operative housing provides less than 0.1 per cent of homes in comparison to the average of ten per cent contribution to housing supply in the rest of Europe and 14 per cent in Scandinavia. Reaching that level of supply of co-operative homes would add six million homes to the UK housing supply.

What is crucial in the debate about the future of housing is that new solutions are needed, not just reheated old ones. We must question the whether or not the housing market is truly effective in managing supply and demand, in providing choice, in delivering stable homes and balanced communities. For example:

  • How much does anyone benefit from spending around 30% of their income for 25 or in the future probably 30 years on paying a mortgage for their home?
  • Do houses prices significantly restrict where those on the housing ladder can consider living?
  • Does the housing ladder really exist and if it does are the top most rungs out of the reach of most people?
  • Is choice and benefit in the market a convenient illusion?

Most importantly we should be seeking options to reform housing that specifically promote stability, recognize housing as homes and that support communities.

In doing so perhaps the biggest danger that must be opposed is the ideological notion that Social Housing is a trap from which the low paid need to be freed in order to enter the housing market and buy their own home. Social Housing is not a trap, it a real benefit both to the millions of families that develop their homes through it, and to the communities in which they live. What really needs to change is the notion that homes are commodities, they aren’t; they are the foundations on which lives are built.


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