For housing associations, providing affordable homes to those in need is absolutely fundamental. However, when it comes to who we house, it’s getting harder to do the right thing.
In recent years, we’ve been encouraged to increase rents to make up for reduced grant. For residents, the harsh reality has been that incomes haven’t kept up; work doesn’t always mean getting out of poverty; and housing benefit doesn’t always ‘take the strain’.
This means some people are increasingly struggling to afford social rents, let alone meet the higher affordable rent.
As a charitable organisation, we want our homes to change people’s lives for the better. Is it right to let a property to someone that desperately needs one, knowing that it may push them into debt? We think the answer is no, and we do not want to set people up to fail.
So when it’s clear that someone won’t be able to pay the rent, even with housing benefit, we’re not willing to offer them a tenancy straightaway.
Instead, we are taking steps to help people achieve a sustainable tenancy before they move in.
The first step has been to make a commitment to no longer convert our social rented homes to affordable rent. The second is having frank and honest conversations with those who may struggle, those whose rents would take up more than 40% of their income.
We talk about how people will cope, and how we can help them, such as providing financial advice or supporting them towards work.
For most, we find a solution quickly. We’ve only refused a few applications at pre-tenancy stage over the last year on affordability, and our help hasn’t stopped there.
In fact, we’re now also working with our local authority partners to develop a different approach to lettings.
We want to get to know our future residents, and their individual situation, much earlier than their pre-tenancy meeting. If we get to know people earlier, we, our future residents, and other services, can use whatever ‘waiting time’ is available to prepare for a sustainable tenancy. This way, when the right home becomes available, people will have the best possible chance of success.
So doing the right thing means understanding our residents’ challenges, and working with them and with our partners to overcome them. And the national picture is made up of millions of households for whom our sector wants to do the right thing.
So, when I join Cathy Newman and my fellow panellists at the CIH Conference, I’m sure we will discuss the need for our post-election government to join up the diverse policies that affect our residents and our ability to house those in need.
I hope that welfare is reformed sensitively; that our partners are able to continue their vital services; and that politicians deliver on their commitment to increase supply to provide affordable homes for all inome groups. My fear is more demand side initiatives are targeted at home ownership, like this week’s announcement on Right to Buy, instead of the longer term mixed tenure strategy this country badly needs.