The growing social mission of social housing

At the Conservative Party Conference last month, Demos hosted an event with the social housing provider Orbit regarding their role is helping their tenants with younger children tackle poverty, identify routes to employment, build social networks and resilience, and other means of boosting their social mobility.

The discussion that ensued very much underlined the fact that the social housing sector see the provision of bricks and mortar as just one part of their mission – and in some cases, not even the most important part.

At a time of such chronic housing shortage and spiralling private rents, it’s easy to get sucked into a debate about whether “affordable” housing is truly affordable, and whether social housing providers should be renting properties at the “affordable” (80% of local market rates) level at all. The hard truth is, that following sweeping cuts to the social housing grant, most social housing providers cannot survive by just providing housing at social rent levels. Affordable rental properties and, indeed, offering a proportion of properties for sale or rent at full market prices are often now the only way social housing providers can support, through cross-subsidy, their social mission. And it’s a social mission that has grown exponentially as social problems generated by years of austerity start to mount up.

I warned, back in 2012, that social housing providers could soon find themselves spread too thinly as they pick up the shortfall left by local agencies as austerity cuts took hold. Everything from mental health and substance abuse teams to employment and early years services, all of which have felt the full force of cuts imposed on local authorities from above, have no doubt found some salvation in the form of their local social housing associations. Many vulnerable groups who may have otherwise seen their services withdrawn, and who are lucky enough to be living in social housing, have found their landlords now stepping up to the plate in providing health and social care support, skills, education and employment support, debt and benefits advice, and so on.

Demand for these services has never been higher, yet grant funding to provide them has never been so hard to come by. Add to this the huge shortage of social housing following years of dwindling build rates by local authorities and an upward pressure on rents is an inevitability.

So where next for the sector? Associations like Orbit continue to look for ways to do more with less, tackling some of the root causes of their tenants’ poverty (e.g. affordable childcare) and rolling out relatively cheap but practical solutions (leaving soft furnishings in flats when people move out, saving new tenants that expense). Some are looking to improve social, inter-generational and peer support networks – tenants connected by their association and then helping each other, sharing skills and resources to improve lives at little expense. What’s clear is that these organisations are innovating, rather than giving up. Expanding their reach to tackle growing social needs, not retrenching into the narrow provision of four walls and a roof.

The government has recently announced £2 billion of additional funding to support the building of 25,000 new affordable homes. This a drop in the ocean considering 1.7 million people are currently on waiting lists for such homes. And as it comes at the same time as a £10 billion expansion of Help to Buy, and £25 billion is spent on housing benefit each year to prop up un-affordable rents, one wonders whether the Government has truly grasped the value of social housing beyond its bricks and mortar. Social housing doesn’t just give a family somewhere safe to live – it now guarantees access to a range of additional services and a ready-made community of support, which tackles poverty, unemployment, loneliness, addiction, poor health and a plethora of other social problems. Whatever the current Government pledges to spend to increase this form of housing, it’s unlikely to be enough.