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A house, a home
Professor Jo Richardson answers your questions about social housing, homelessness and the meaning of home
Before we start, two plugs for webinars. First, if you missed it on 23 May, you can watch the recording of our webinar on public attitudes to wealth, with Polly Toynbee, Gary Stevenson, Dr Lucy Barnes and yours truly, here (Polly also wrote about our polling in the Guardian). Second, I’ll be taking part in a webinar hosted by Patriotic Millionaires UK on tackling extreme wealth (how much is enough?), on 13 June at 1pm UK time, for which you can register here.
Jo Richardson, Professor of Housing and Social Research at De Montfort University, former President of the Chartered Institute of Housing and member of our expert contributors network, answers your questions about housing.
What in your view are the most damaging, and the most helpful, ways in which housing is talked about in the media in the UK at the moment?
The United Nations advocates the right to adequate housing, because it is ‘…the basis of stability… a place to live in peace, security and dignity.’ However, housing is also a commodity – something to bet future individual and societal economic growth on. It is this dissonance which has created a gap in our shared understanding, and our social policy actions. This gap between potential individual profit and societal good is the space in which people ‘protect their asset’ from the impact of new housing development which, on a different intellectual level, they know is needed to house younger generations in their area, or to allow people working in health, teaching and hospitality industries to dwell in order to keep a place alive.
Media narratives play in these shadowy spaces, reconstructing the confusion of what housing and home means. In the finance pages or business news segments, house prices have traditionally been the thermometer of economic health. But more recently there has been a clamour, reflected in the UK media, from those locked out of stable housing, not only because they cannot access the owner-occupied market, but increasingly the private rented market where costs outrun incomes. Campaign groups like Generation Rent have cut through on social and mainstream media with clarion calls for better security in the private rented market. Organisations like the National Housing Federation have also got their message out that we need to be building in excess of 300,000 new homes per year in England, of which about half need to be ‘affordable’. But this message is pitching for head-space amongst the noise of housing as commodity stories in the mainstream media.
When the label of ‘social housing’ is used to stigmatise places and people – this is when damage can occur, both to residents but also to the ideal of social housing itself. The slum clearances over a century ago, the cottage estates of the inter-war years and the mass state house-building endeavour in the aftermath of World War Two moved many people out of visible poverty. Housing had been recognised by the Addison Act (1919) as a key ingredient for public health. The attempt was to lift people away from the ‘giant evils’ of ‘squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease’ identified by Beveridge in his report in 1942. Large-scale council house building and the emergence of the National Health Service were the effects of a government and a nation determined to improve lives.
We have already moved a long way from those years when council housing was a tenure of treasure and pride. The 1980 Housing Act, with Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ meant that this desirable accommodation was up for sale, with a discount, for those who could afford it. Properties which were not bought were ‘residualised’ – set apart from their owner-occupied neighbours: occupants stigmatised in print and TV media casting them as ‘shameless’. Such political and media discursive tropes continue to set social housing on an anti-social stage.
But social housing should speak to our proud heritage as a welfare state – concerned with housing as a human right and as vital for sound public health. The Covid-19 pandemic is surely not so far in our past to remember the importance of stable and affordable housing to keep individuals, families and society safe.
Some work has been done by the Nationwide Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Frameworks UK to examine the discourse on housing. In their report ‘Talking about homes: the foundation for a decent life’ they recommend narrative foregrounding of housing as a source of individual and community health and wellbeing, reframing away from housing as a commodity. More on this later…
One way that I have tried recently to talk about housing and homelessness is to focus on ‘home’ through considering Homeful (a word I coined to combine hopeful and home, and an antonym to homeless). The project was based on previous work exploring six conditions for ‘home’ on top of the necessary, but insufficient, physical dwelling – namely: affordability, safety, security, quality, privacy and connectedness. If we think about ‘home’ to its fullest extent, then this makes a clear distinction from housing as a commodity.
How can we build cross-party support for increased investment in social housing in the UK, given the chronic lack of supply?
Disappointingly, none of the major parties in England seem to have safe affordable housing as a prominent key tenet of their future promises. All had commitments in 2019 general election manifestos. Greens and Social Democrats each promised at least 100,000 social rented homes to be built per year. Coming out of John Healey’s paper: ‘Housing for the Many’, Labour promised to ‘deliver a new social housebuilding programme of more than a million homes over a decade, with council housing at its heart’. The Conservative party committed to increase the number of homes built and to ‘rebalance the housing market towards more home ownership’ (a commitment not repeated in the 2022 Queen’s Speech).
However, if we return to the issue of cognitive dissonance in our framing of housing, then it becomes obvious that focusing government capital resources almost solely on building more housing to buy (commodity) comes at the cost of increasing the supply of affordable housing to rent (fundamental human need). Housing is bought not only to make an individual home, for those who can afford to be an owner occupier, but moreover to make a profit in financial portfolios on assumed future increase in value, or through buy-to-rent schemes.
We do need more political alliances to enable a longer term national affordable housing strategy based on the premise of public health and wellbeing, and housing as a human right. If we look back to lessons from relatively recent history, we can see the good that the council house building programme of 80 years ago did for increasing societal wellbeing at the time. A trajectory of public housing for public good was cut short by the commodification of this national asset through the Right to Buy (RTB) born in the 1980 Housing Act under Thatcher. RTB housing has not only been used for owner occupation, but is now also back in circulation in the private rented sector. Sometimes it is being let back to councils at an expensive nightly rate for use as temporary accommodation, alongside Bed & Breakfasts, for homeless households. The cost for the government of renting emergency private accommodation for homeless households rose to £1.2 billion in the single year 1019/20. Money that could and should be used for capital investment in the asset of social housing to provide secure and affordable homes.
A recommendation to ‘significantly expand social housebuilding’ was even included in a Policy Exchange report recently, although caveated as a means of ‘restarting the stalled conveyor belt of homeownership’ to give younger people space to save up for a ‘home of their own’. But we know that social housing needs to be more than a conveyor belt starter, it is needed for those for whom owner-occupation is an unreachable tenure, and who need the affordability and security of housing outside the precarity of the private rented sector (PRS). Evictions from the PRS are a leading source of homelessness cases. A future strategy needs to recognise the importance of social housing as a key tenure for sustainable, affordable housing, in its own right. A sensible strategy would also stop the selling of existing social housing – at the very least until the need for affordable housing need is met.
One of the key challenges to longer-term, cross-party support is the merry-go-round of housing ministers. The Conservative government has revolved through fifteen housing ministers since 2010, to date. In the last year alone, at a point where only longer-term strategic thinking can help us emerge from a post-pandemic cost-of-living crisis, there have been six housing ministers. It takes passionate politicians in all parties to raise and sustain the prominence of housing on the national policy agenda; they cannot get their teeth into the job if their roles are rotated on such a frequent basis. The role of housing minister should not be seen as a rung on the climbing frame – it needs to be taken more seriously.
Are there any other countries that we can learn from because of their lack of (or creative solutions for) homelessness, the accommodation of travellers and gypsies (sic), and generational imbalances in their housing market?
There are lessons that can be learned from across the world. I’ll share a couple here, but it’s important to note that we can’t just transplant ideas from different cultures and contexts; however, we can distil key ingredients and adapt them for future ideas, strategies and policies.
One enduring example of the importance (and destigmatisation) of social housing is the city of Vienna. Not seen as the preserve of housing for people in poverty, the idea of government subsidised and rent-controlled properties so that all manner of people can afford to live in the city has a strong ideological hold. This example pops into comment pieces and blogs every few years as a ‘model’, more for how we might want to see housing – as a human right; rather than an expectation that something like this could happen in England any time soon.
Looking more widely at ‘home’ – beyond bricks and mortar and more towards the earth as sustainable home – organisations like World Habitat1 have a treasure trove of examples we can learn from. One key idea in the work of World Habitat is ‘community-led housing’. There are a number of examples on their website, from countries across the globe, often in contexts of extreme poverty, housing disadvantage and marginalisaton, where community groups are supported to take the lead on designing, developing and living in the housing they need.
Community-led approaches, along with properly listening to lived experiences, is something that is required if we are to provide sustainable and affordable housing to meet identified need in this country. Some of the most marginalised community voices in Britain are Gypsies and Travellers2.
In recent history, traditional stopping places have been closed off, privatised or built-on – pushing people to the margins of society in liminal spaces, or creating such a hostile context as to see people moving into bricks and mortar, sometimes to the detriment of their mental wellbeing. There are some pockets of good practice in delivering and managing sites in this country, as found in research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2016 and more recently coming out of a national policy advisory forum seeking to support social housing providers to step into the space of delivering quality, affordable Gypsy Traveller sites.
Private landlords have a poor reputation in the media, perhaps brought on by the actions and statements of a few, or media interest in the earnings of cabinet members. Away from the headlines, what role can private landlords play in modernising and improving the rental market in the UK, and can they ever be considered a force for good within the sector?
The social housing sector is not the only way to deliver affordable, quality housing. It can’t be – we don’t have enough social housing to meet the urgent and growing need. I also don’t believe in the binaries of public = good, private = bad. Although I do think it is essential for there to be enough publicly owned housing in the market to substantially contribute towards meeting the need for affordable homes. There is also space for sufficient regulation of private and social rented housing in terms of safety, quality repairs and protection from eviction.
Away from the headlines, there are examples of the private rented sector being utilised for public good. For example, recent World Habitat award winner ‘Homes for Good’ is a Scottish based social enterprise letting agency and property developer raising social investment funding to buy and develop 300 properties to date and further working with 130 landlords to let 200 properties. The idea for the organisation was born out of a poor experience as a traditional private rented landlord, and an imperative to see quality and affordability at the heart of a socially conscious PRS offer. When comparing rental prices in Glasgow, where Homes for Good (HFG) operates, the average monthly PRS rent for a one-bedroom property is £739, compared with £480 with HFG.
A report from Bayes Business School suggests that Almshouses (the UK’s oldest form of social housing) could be part of the solution to the care crisis. Is this a model of social housing that we can or should look to replicate in some form more broadly in the UK?
Almshouses are part of a heritage of philanthropic housing in Britain, dating back over centuries and providing housing welfare long before the state. The largest Almshouse charity currently in the UK is the Durham Aged Mineworkers’ Homes Association (DAMHA) started in the 1890’s by a miner and lay preacher who wanted to provide housing for retired miners in the area who were evicted from their tied accommodation at the end of their working life. DAMHA today still houses older people from the area, although it is no longer necessary for residents to show a connection with the mining industry. The Almshouses of their day had links to a local area, or industry and regularly to church. The challenge of relying on Almshouses to meet the growing gap in affordable housing supply is that not all those in need are of retirement age, connected to a local area, or to church.
What the Bayes report focuses on, in its evaluation, is the importance of social activity that was encouraged in the Almshouse communities researched: ‘The presence of this social component [residents eating and socialising together] … might then support the idea of a reduction in loneliness among residents, which could then lead to better physical and mental health’ (pg 36).
Connection is one of the six conditions of ‘home’ identified in my own (2019) research on place and identity and it mustn’t be forgotten as a key ingredient in the design and delivery of future accommodation. In the Bayes report, the architecture of some of the higher performing communities, gave the physical infrastructure to support communal activity. This attention to detail can be seen in recently designed social housing developments, such as the Stirling prize-winning Goldsmith Street developed by Norwich City Council. Communal spaces and people are at the heart of the Godsmith Street design, with a very strong focus on environmentally sustainable features.
So, Almshouses are an important part of a tapestry of affordable, community-based housing provision. The lessons in the Bayes report, for me, speak to social connection as key to longer life, rather than the particular type of housing provider. This is something that we should all aspire to contribute towards.
Recent guidance from FrameWorks UK has recommended talking about homes as a source of health and wellbeing, to build understanding of why access to decent and affordable homes matter. Do you agree with this, and why?
I strongly agree with the need to reframe the public and political discourse on housing and referred to the Frameworks UK report in part of my answer to question one, above. Housing is seen as a commodity, but home needs to be considered as a foundation for health and wellbeing. In the report for the wider ‘Talking about Poverty’ project, Frameworks and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation include quotes from people with lived experience to explain ‘framing’. One quote says ‘A big part of framing was to connect my story to more widespread structural issues’. This is key to future societal debate on housing – connecting stories to issues. It is something that learned experience alone cannot do, it must include lived experience.
A number of tragedies in recent years have highlighted why politicians and social housing providers must listen to the people who live in their communities. The 72 lives lost in the Grenfell Tower fire nearly six years ago – and more recently Sheila Seleoane and Awaab Ishak - have left families grieving and a society reflecting on what has gone wrong. Inquiries, Ombudsman reports and media stories have, quite rightly, exposed the failings of some landlords in keeping tenants safe in their homes, and in all of these cases we have learned that tenants were not listened to – their concerns not acted on. Looking more broadly at our shared responsibility as a fair society, we must all listen to the stories of lived experience of housing disadvantage and homelessness and connect them back to the wider societal and structural issues that need to change.
While we need the government to do its bit by recognising the imperative for more capital funding to build more social housing, we can support that endeavour by minding our own conversations, reframing our own understanding of what ‘home’ means, for all of us.
Jo’s opinions are hers alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fairness Foundation.
The author of this blog is a Trustee of the organisation World Habitat.
Gypsies and Travellers are minoritised ethnic communities, recognised under Equalities legislation. It is important to use a capital ‘G’ or ‘T’ when writing their name.