A charity is for life, not just for Christmas

So unless you have managed to find sanctuary from the internet over the last week you may have noticed a bizarre trend. Twitter and Facebook news feeds have been clogged up with people getting cold/ice water thrown over them. Some have simply done the challenge and nominated others. Many more have donated and pointed out where others can do the same. A minority have rallied against the superficiality of it all, whilst conceding the success of the campaign.

I must confess I have largely stayed away from the spectacle. But I can’t help but marvel at the impact the campaign to raise funds and awareness for ALS also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. So far over $94million has been raised since July.  If we had fundraising skills that good housing associations might not need capital funding…only joking!

The overwhelming success of Ice Bucket challenge is a lesson in how to do a viral social media campaign.  Hell even George W Bush got involved, probably the closest he will ever get to understanding that water-boarding, so profligate under his watch, is not cool.

For housing there are potential number of points to take on board from the ice-water challenge craze. One – you can take an unfashionable and largely unknown cause and get it viral. Two social media is the cheapest and most effective PR tool ever invented. Seriously, if you have senior members of staff not up to date with Twitter et al I would question whether they are worth their pay-check. You don’t have to be an expert on all things tweet but you do need to understand the potential of these tools. Otherwise you risk going the way of the Dodo. Hell I’ll take a slice of your monthly pay packet to ensure you know all the ins and outs.  The beauty of the campaign is its simplicity, accessibility and the buy-in it generates. It is not even a new concept (neck nominations and makeup-less selfies anyone?). It is everything social housing needs in a marketing/awareness campaign.

A word of caution is needed here. For every icewater challenge there are failures, social media can be fickle thing, trolls be everywhere. Additionally (and perhaps crucially) ALS is a neutral, apolitical target. No-one, unless they are a monumental bell-end, would campaign against looking for a cure to ALS. Social housing is unfortunately a different kettle of fish. It is unlikely that you will see Will Smith, Katie Price and Jon Lewis (my mate, not the department store) making themselves look like muppets for the sake of more social housing. Well Jon might at a push. A big push. Possibly with bribery involved.  Regardless, the world of social housing would do well to learn from the ALS/icewater challenge. We also need to be careful of the Marx and Engels syndrome. Who, after writing a political thesis on the poor, struggled to find any. Any pro social housing campaign needs its residents at its heart.

Social Housing Under Threat aka SHOUT and Council Homes Chat are two fine examples of such campaigns, as is the up and coming #housingday2014 (following on from its 2013 incarnation). If you have not looked them up I suggest you do so.

Funnily yesterday I was nominated and today I fulfilled my part of the bargain.  I would put the video up but I wouldn’t want to scar you for life.  I didn’t go for ALS but rather a couple of causes that my mates are undertaking and Refuge, the domestic violence charity.  Because apparently people still think it is OK to ‘Chris Brown’ their partner, it isn’t, ever.  And given the stress DV shelters are under regarding funding cuts I thought it best to highlight their plight.

Links to the aforementioned causes are below. I will also be putting aside one day a month to volunteer at a local charity.  I’m a busy chap but I would like to make the ALS challange have a little more permanency.  Because quite frankly getting a little wet isn’t going to make the world a better place on its own.  If you have any ideas or suggestions about where to offer my humble assistance please tweet them to me or comment below.

Matt and Laura – Cycling Somerset to Spain.

https://www.justgiving.com/somerset2spain/

Marcus – lots of running…

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-10-11-12-marathon-challenge-p2

Refuge – because domestic violence happens

http://refuge.org.uk/

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

Got Any Change?

Working in housing can some times feel as rewarding as head-butting a rather unforgiving wall.  The circular nature of policy announcements can be as perplexing as it is incomprehensible.  This week has perfectly summed up how relentlessly negative parts of working in housing can be.  The blue half of the Coalition Government lining up to give a financial kicking to those it deems unworthy of financial support.  The yellow half still unsure what to do or how to position itself, presumably they are pre-occupied by having to look at alternative forms of employment post 2015.  As for Labour, well, Ed Miliband, need I say more?

Last year George ‘nobody likes me’ Osborne tested the waters over reducing the Benefit Cap whilst earlier this year the Tories put feelers out over cutting access to housing benefit to the Under 25s.  This week The Policy Exchange, a Think Tank closely aligned to the Conservatives has again called for a reduction in the benefit cap. I have (unintentionally) experienced what it has been like to try and live in a household surviving on circa £26,000 per annum.  Living a modest life (no wild parties, cocaine and hoes for me) running a car on finance and a two bed house with 2 dogs is hardly excessive.  Yet at the time me and my girlfriend had sod all money at the end of the month.  How families have survived the cap at the currently level, and with child dependants is beyond me.  Reducing the cap to £23,400, whilst admittedly higher than the originally mooted figure of £18,000, will serve to drive already struggling families even further into poverty (and perversely into an even greater state of dependence).  The notion of cutting housing benefit to the under-25s is so arbitrary, so grotesque and so skewed from real life (not everyone can rely on family and friends) that I feel disgusted giving it even some credibility by talking about it.  It has had only a smattering of airing since first being suggested but still, back to the drawing-board Tory HQ.

I get the political motivation behind these moves.  It plays very well with the Tory bread and butter support, pushes Labour into a sticky situation on how it would approach the issue and the Blue brigade get to look tough on benefit ‘scoundrels’.  Apparently looking tough is a good thing in politics, they should get out more methinks.  It is a move that is largely doomed to fail as it doesn’t address the fundamental issues driving up HB payments i.e. the lack of genuinely affordable housing (well housing full stop) and the rising cost of living.  It will simply punish the poor unfortunate sods who fall foul of yet another moving of the goal posts.

Most frustratingly, as the cost of living and house prices continue to outstrip wage growth more and more are having to rely on housing benefit to make ends meet.  The powers that be still don’t seem to understand the nature of the problem at hand or what needs to be done to resolve it.  Of course it is a lot easier to further marginalise a minority with little political clout than address the systemic failings of our housing system.  Investing in desperately need social housing (at levels that will actually yield positive results) seems to be a pipe dream at the moment.  And just as help to buy and right to buy have served to ratchet up housing demand without facilitating increased supply, withdrawing state assistance to the poor will serve to magnify their dire situation.  Housing costs, and housing benefit payments will continue to rise until the housing market’s flaws are resolved.  Period.  No amount of redefining eligibility for housing benefit assistance will change that.  As Shelter’s tweet earlier this week neatly sums up, the increase housing costs facing you, I and t’others is getting ridiculous.

Shelter - Rise in house prices
Shelter – Rise in house prices

The Government will point to recent employment figures as proof that things are improving.  Yes there may be more people in work than seen for many years but the security, pay and nature of the work out there is debatable.  On this I can only really speak from personal experience.  But despite having both a 1st Class Degree (OK it is only in Social Policy and Sociology) and Masters (in Housing Policy and Practice) I have only ever had jobs on fixed term contracts.  My lady-friend has been through two spells of unemployment and I have mates who are still on the rock ‘n’ roll.  Regardless of the official figures it ain’t easy job-wise at the moment for us young’ns.

Re-re-used Graph 1 – Rise in number of working claimants on housing benefit

DWP (2014) Summary Tables for Housing Benefit Recipients
DWP (2014) Summary Tables for Housing Benefit Recipients

I find it utterly bizarre that politicians constantly look to implement policies that treat symptoms and not causes of problems (perhaps I am a tad naive).  And I hope the announcements mentioned above are merely political posturing in the run up to next year’s election.  Alas I cannot help but feel they have a distinct possibility of becoming reality.  Both moves would mean further hardship, but this government seems to be able to cast a blind eye of such realities in the name of ‘progress’ being made elsewhere in the economy and gains at the ballot box.  I’ve said it before, and I will say it again.  You judge a civilised society by how it treats its most vulnerable and in need.  On this measure we are failing miserably.

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs at https://ngblog2013.wordpress.com.

Between a rock and a hard place

Despite ostensibly being an independent sector, the uneasy marriage of public funding, public policy diktat and a requirement to house the sods unlucky enough to be poor has meant our independence is about as concrete as Iain Duncan Smith’s grip on statistics.  This may change in the coming years as lower funding levels means the sector can, quite legitimately, give the old ‘stuffez-vous’ to central government.

A new lease of independence (bring back pre 1974!) can have many far reaching consequences and this week one of them got an airing.  An interesting point and counter point from Hannah Fearn and Martin Collett around council nominations has highlighted one of the (many) quirks of social housing delivery in the UK.  Councils have a right to very high nomination rates, largely a result of LSVTs in the 80s, 90s and 00s.  The deal being we provide the house, they provide the people.  But as the restrictions on access to housing get ever tougher social landlords are having to be increasingly wary of who comes a-knocking.  Particularly with bright ideas like the bedroom tax (now in the on-line version of the Oxford Dictionary no-less) currently in play.

Whilst I have sympathy Hannah’s point, I would disagree with her that allowing social landlords to pick and choose who gets housed is the thin end of the wedge for a couple of reasons.  1) It is already happening.  Like it or lump it social landlords can veto a nomination (provided there is good reason).   2) Because providing poor/marginalised people with housing is still the primary purpose of social landlords (well depending on who you talking to in the sector…).  This isn’t going to change any time soon.

Much to the chagrin of the free-market, trickle-down theorists out there* there are still a large number of financially up the creek people who can’t afford to own or rent privately.  And given the utter inability of the private sector to build enough homes (no it isn’t just down to s106 agreements or planning policy) we are having to step up to the plate.  Yes welfare reforms will make our job tougher, though at least the DWP is coming round to the idea of letting us know who will be getting Universal Credit.  But this does not mean that as a sector we will completely spin off the poorest and most vulnerable or cherry pick the best.  We are an increasing financially competent bunch, but we’re not heartless.  Surprisingly the poorest and most vulnerable tend to be a lot easier to manage arrears wise.  This is because they receive 100% housing benefit, it is directed straight to us and all is tout sweet (mostly).  The royal pain in the backsides are the self-employed (unreliable cash flow means we turn into de facto credit facility via rent arrears) and the part-claimants (fraud, error and complexity are abounds here).

However it is the wider point of independence raised in the two blogs that is of interest to me.  Does a post grant operating environment mean we can reposition ourselves as a truly independent sector? Freedom via mounting private debt? Not quite William Wallace is it and in all honesty probably not.  As I have blogged about before this scenario has worked in Holland (with one or two pitfalls) but that is a unique situation and alas I do not think it is workable here.  The need for, if not the liking of, central government to facilitate low cost, subsidised housing for the poor will remain.  Whilst this continues to be the case the big chiefs in London town will want to retain a broad control over policy direction in housing, but not the cost of implementing it (obviously).  And thus will be reluctant to let social housing rule itself.  Ironically true freedom may only be ours when there is no longer a need for social housing.

*Who would have thought that by ensuring that a small minority (of largely white, middle class men) get to stay insanely wealthy, that the rest of society wouldn’t see the benefit?  Personally I’m shocked.

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

Ps if you haven’t checked out Hannah Fearn‘s work or the Guardian Housing Network page I would highly recommend them.  You don’t even have to wear sandals.

It’s not me, it’s you…it’s definitely you

A number of different figures have popped out this week which should worry anyone who is even a little bit sentient.  Firstly it appears that we have mislaid around 35,000 social rented properties.  By mislaid I mean that they have been lost through Right to Buy or re-let as ‘affordable rent’.  The next depressing figure is the startling news that nearly 1 million claimants of housing benefit are in work.  The increase in those reliant on housing benefit, yet working, to meet their housing costs is a direct consequence of a lack of truly affordable housing and a stumbling economic recovery in which wages barely keep pace with rising costs (see below for numbers).

Moderately Cute Chart (1) – Number of Housing Benefit Claimants in Work 2009-2013

DWP (2014) Summary Tables for Housing Benefit Recipients
DWP (2014) Summary Tables for Housing Benefit Recipients

From the moment I first saw that affordable rents were to be an intrinsic requirement of the 2011-15 funding round I noted two things.  One, ‘affordable’ rent is not actually affordable for the poorest in the UK, it is intermediate market rent by another name.  Second, if you are looking at a means by which to reduce housing benefit spend you shouldn’t increase the rent on the very properties you intend to put people who can’t afford to go anywhere else.  Especially as those people are going to use housing benefit to pay that higher rent.  This is about as wise and logical as kicking a bear in the nuts and insulting its mother (i.e. not very, never kick a bear in its manhood and definitely never insult its mother, they’re a bit sensitive on the subject).  I guess the hope was by allowing social landlords to charge more rent by switching social to ‘affordable’ properties it would make up for the monumental drop in capital funding (see below).  This is what I call the Student Loan approach to replacing capital funding i.e. push the financial burden onto someone else.

Moderately Cute Chart (2) Monumental Drop in Capital Funding

Capital Funding
HCA Capital Funding Programmes 2008-2018

As the RSA (The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, thank [insert deity of your choice] for acronyms) notes this is a bizarre state of affairs and has lead to an amusing situation, if only for the sheer farce of it all.  One department, the DCLG is reducing funding and actively pushing up rents (but at the same time wants more housing built by social landlords…) whilst the other (everyone’s favourite) the DWP is trying to cut spending on housing benefit (which will impact on the ability of social landlords to build by reducing their income stream, perpetuating a lack of genuinely affordable housing).

Public money is being wasted as housing benefit that otherwise would have been paid out to cover social rent at 50-60% of the market rent is now being shelled out at 80% thanks to the new ‘affordable’ rent model.  This roughly equates to £4billion being thrown to wind that could have been reinvested elsewhere*.  More housing perhaps?  At the same time social housing stock is being leached by right to buy and affordable re-lets but the ‘lost’ properties are not being replaced at a fast enough rate to ensure there isn’t a net loss.  Even worse a lot of the housing that is in the pipeline will be largely will be 1 or 2 bed properties.  Great for bedroom tax affected households, bollocks for everyone else.  What happened to building housing according to need rather than central government diktat?

For me this is not just a monumental cock up at central government level, it is a continuing of the death by a thousand cuts to social housing that has been under-way since the 1980s. Private ownership is god in this country help to buy and right to buy have all been geared towards this.  Social housing is an afterthought, the dirty cousin of the private sector (though people are at least starting to wake up to the power of generation rent).  The blasé, disjointed approach to housing policy highlighted above is merely a reflection of this, as is the fact we’ve gone through 4 housing ministers since 2010.  It should be (another) wake up call (as if we need any more) to those who care about the sector to campaign on its behalf.  If these bumbling chaps and chapesses can’t draw up coherent policy on their own then we will need to give them a little help and guidance.  Failing that, whack them round the head with a very big stick (metaphorically of course).

A number in the sector have already asked the question what the hell is going on with housing policy at the moment?  I feel a more suitable one would be what the hell are we going to do about it?

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

* Correction the figure £4billion relates to overall HB rise and is not just the impact of the introduction of affordable rent.