Cinderella's Little Sister: Social housing
by Claudia Wood
Social housing providers have always been unsung heroes when it comes to supporting the most vulnerable groups in society. If social care is the “Cinderella service” when put up against the political might of the NHS, then social housing is Cinderella’s little sister.
For years, social landlords have sought to fulfil their “social mission” – a requirement of registration – by offering a plethora of support services to their tenants, on top of affordable housing. This ranges from substance abuse support to employment and debt advice, digital inclusion and personal care. Not every landlord is active in all of these areas, but estimates suggest half offer care and support. Being registered as a social landlord also requires you to promote social behaviour, inclusion and empowerment, so a half is no doubt an underestimate – social housing organisations often talk about support given to tenants “off the clock”. In the latest year that numbers were available, social landlords ploughed £272 million of their own funds to provide 6,800 neighbourhood schemes.
The most important other source of funding for these services was, at least until recently, the Supporting People government programme. But cuts of 12 per cent - translated to the un-ringfenced world of local authority budgets as cuts of up to 50 per cent, has decimated the financial footing many housing providers relied on.
But does this cloud have a silver lining? Could the retrenchment of Supporting People and social care budgets spell the end of a regime which defined people by their eligibility for funding pots, and kick start an era where a support is provided according to what people actually need?
This was the hypothesis Demos and one housing provider – Home Group – mulled over at the end of last year. Speaking to other providers and housing experts, and dozens of social tenants, it soon became apparent that the traditional “all or nothing” approach – where tenants with “no support needs” get a roof over their heads and little else, while those who reach the Supporting People benchmark (or better yet, the social care eligibility benchmark) get a full range of services – was no longer appropriate. And not just because the budgets which defined these benchmarks were in decline. There was a more fundamental reason: “no need” tenants aren’t “no need” any longer.
Social housing tenants are often the most socially and/or economically vulnerable groups in society. Forty-five per cent of tenants with “general needs” (i.e. the “no need” group who are not eligible for Supporting People or social care services) actually have at least one element of vulnerability - such as previous homelessness, poor physical or mental health or disability, experience of domestic violence or time spent in prison. The other 55 per cent are likely to have lower incomes than average – a private renter’s median income in 2009/10 was £552 per week, compared to £291 for social renters – and less likely to work (only 23 per cent of social renters work full time).
With soaring unemployment, benefits cuts and increased food and fuel prices to contend with, these low income and vulnerable “no needs” tenants are now those most at risk of poverty, family breakdown, and declining physical and mental health. The days when they could be left to their own devices while resources were reserved for tenants in supported living are long gone.
Demos’ report, supported by the Home Group, investigates how housing providers can adapt to an era where social tenants can be placed on a spectrum of need, rather than in two or three distinct service boxes. And crucially, how they can do this with less money.
A vital first step is better needs assessments for all tenants – not just those with predefined “needs” – to really identify potential risk factors. But ultimately, we conclude that the key is to build the capabilities of tenants to support each other, to foster networks between tenants and the wider community, and to harness people’s existing skills by creating volunteering and employment opportunities to let tenants “put something back in”. Providing universal employment, financial and tenancy management for “no need” groups – another vital step - becomes less daunting when landlords are facilitators and trainers, rather than direct deliverers.
What we found was a sector eager to do more, in spite of the funding restraints placed on it. But to fulfil this ambition, social landlords must utilise their biggest resource – their tenants.