A Problem Shared, A Problem Halved?

In many ways the Shared Ownership product is a rather useful metaphor when looking at the Social Housing sector in the UK. Those who know it, who ‘get it’ tend to champion it to the bitter end. Outside of the bubble rumour, misinformation and gossip tend to undermine something that, in the right place, at the right time and the right people can be an invaluable alternative to mainstream housing. Oh that’s the other thing, it’s totally outside the norm for most people as well.

Some Light Reading

If you haven’t had a chance I would strongly recommend reading Orbit and the CIH’s report on making Shared Ownership the 4th mainstream tenure. It rather accurately and succinctly sums up the product and doesn’t shy away from drawing out some of its deficiencies (in its current form) notably:

  • Inflexibility around moving between shared ownership properties
  • Potentially costly requirements tied to stair-casing
  • Failure to market a consistent product
  • Localised variations to a nationally offered product
  • Considerable difference between supply and demand
  • Limited lender appetite

There are of course some significant pros, for the most part:

  • A pathway to full home ownership for those marginalised by the existing market
  • Security of tenure for those looking for a way out of private renting
  • Flexibility (to a point) to adapt one’s housing situation to their financial one
  • Affordability in an increasingly disjointed housing market

The Broader Context

The Government has substantially increased funding available for Shared Ownership, tying in to a belief (ideological as much as anything) that Home Ownership is the main tenure that should be supported. After the inevitable willy waving, and blaming of a party that hasn’t been in power since 2010, the detail is interesting to say the least. A total of£4.7bn has been set aside for Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes for the 5 year period 2016 to 2021. That mulla will fund:

  • 135,000 homes for help to buy and/or Shared Ownership
  • 10,000 for rent to buy
  • 8,000 for supported and older people accommodation (these could fail to materialise if LHA restrictions, currently delayed, are implemented)
  • 0 social rent properties

The last figure on that list isn’t actually included in the prospectus, indeed you can’t actually find any reference, aside from rent to buy,to renting – either social or affordable. With the current funding stream for that out of favour tenure due to end in 2018 grant funding for none home ownership products could very well cease. That should set all sorts of alarm bells ringing, especially at a time when every form of homelessness is on the increase. But you know, politics, money goes where votes are. And baby, there’s a bucket load in home ownership.

Opportunity Knocks

Considering the historic mis-match between demand and supply for Shared Ownership any increase in this type of housing tenure is welcome. Particularly a product that allows those worried about the insecure nature of private renting, but ineligible for social housing and unable to afford outright ownership, a type of housing that meets their needs. It also allows the sector to right some historic wrongs.

I can count on one hand the number of non-housing people who know about Shared Ownership housing. They all now own one, this is largely typical of when people know about S/O they like the idea (if not always the reality). Finding Narnia is often easier than finding, and then buying a S/O property. And that is before you hit the administrative cock ups our side.

Having worked in and studied the sector for a while the horror stories of bungled S/O are legend. Legal documents without HAs on them (bit awkward when the lender sort to repossess), all sorts of faux pas around tenant rights and responsibilities. A fundamental lack of knowledge about the product outside of one bloke who left in the late 90s. In short S/O doesn’t have a glorious history. This funding regime can provide a consistent, coherent product that can help one element of the 3 sub-crises that make up our current of the housing crisis. And gloss over years of ballsing it up.

The Catch

This Government seldom gives without taking something, the Housing and Planning Bill, along with the latest funding regime, are designed to steer HAs away from social and affordable rent provision. Though in truth some don’t need much steering. So far there has been a complete blindness to the need of a diverse set of policy interventions from Cameron et al, home ownership is truly king. Don’t get me wrong, S/O is a darn good product, but it is not for everyone and it is not a silver, gold or even rainbow coloured bullet for our housing woes.

Whilst some in the sector might be getting moist at the thought of becoming even more a provider of housing for sale instead of rent, it is worth remembering why we are here. If you are having a bout of amnesia, just look at the DCLG figures homelessness. Might be worth showing your local Tory MP as well, because the recent rise is largely their party’s fault.

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A Matter of Perspective

Often when talking about ‘the housing crisis’ people actually gloss over the fact that there are probably about 3 interlocking crises.  Lack of joined up policy making, particularly where the welfare state, local authority budgets and the provision of social housing are concerned, has helped to make a bad situation significantly worse. Even more so when political dogma and vote winning have interfered with policy decisions.

1 – Every Single Measure of Homelessness is on the Increase

The 2000s saw a remarkable drop in households being accepted as homeless. However, this situation is reversing, rapidly. largely it must be said as a direct and indirect result of austerity measures and cuts to welfare assistance. Whether ‘official’ homelessness, the rough sleeper count or hidden homelessness, the trends are deeply worrying. The below graph, shamelessly nicked from the Homelessness Monitor Report from Crisis (Jan 2016), shows the recent up-trend, and broader context. We are in a much better position than previously, but we’re heading in the wrong direction.

Crisis - Homelessness Monitor

It is not just in homelessness where there is any issue. Those living in temporary accommodation are also on the increase, as councils struggle to meet legal requirements around homelessness thanks (again) to the reduction in social housing available, especially in the capital.

chart2 – The Middle Class Malaise

The broadening of Affordable Housing (coinciding with the death of the term social) to a point where a £450,000 home can be seen as affordable is frankly bollocks. But it fits if your focus is on the middle class voters that got (and will keep) you in power. Whilst a renewed interest in Shared Ownership (with the severe kinks in this product hopefully to be ironed out) is very welcome as it might actually help the lower income quartile; the overwhelming focus is straight home ownership.Why? Because even the middle class are feeling the pinch and their voices are better organised and more readily heard than those at the bottom of the pile. Aside from winning the next election. The below chart from Savills’ analysis of the ‘crisis of home ownership‘ highlights quite neatly the long term state of play in housing tenure and de facto why the Government is so keen to reverse declining trends of home ownership.

housing-tenure(3)

The volume (and cash set aside) of the schemes available to help is quite remarkable. Especially at a time when funding for social housing is being slashed and austerity is still the medicine of the day. The problem with the initiatives being put in place is that not one of them is a supply side measure. Great if you want to look busy doing something whilst actually achieving fuck all. Bad if you actually what to solve systemic issues with housing in this country. Sadly this is not new in housing policy  and the failure to tackle the UK’s housing market shortcomings is 3 decades in the making. And whether you are red, blue or yellow, none of the main political parties come up smelling of roses here.

3 – Loads of People Now Rely on the Private Rented Sector

The push towards private renting has a number of influences. Changes in lifestyles, the amount of money required for a deposit, house price to earning ratios, the overall cost of buying & then maintaining a mortgage and greater restrictions (post 2008) on accessibility of finance to purchase have all played their part. Let’s be clear, private renting isn’t bad in and of itself (they fecking love it on the continent), though long term there are some potential drawbacks. But the growth of buy to let landlords, of amateur hour landlords is an issue. As are increasing rents, and the horrific standards of some rented properties.

Whilst this Government has steadfast ignored Generation Rent (I’m sure this has nothing to do with how many MPs are landlords) there are serious concerns about how to regulate a sector that does not always work efficiently and effectively. FYI simply because something is private enterprise, doesn’t mean that it is a bastion of efficient working (just ask a train provider in this country). Throwing schemes at people to help them buy, particularly ones that aren’t affordable for a lot of private renters, doesn’t solve the problem, it merely gives political cover to ignore it. The silence on this issue in Parliament is deafening and real, fundamental change, is required to make the private sector meet the needs of those who use it.

Rounding it up

Like or lump it a thriving economy needs a stable housing market. You will only get that with a greater amount of regulation in private sector, a social housing sector big enough to meet the demand and needs of those on the margins. Because for a significant proportion of households simply keeping a stable roof over their head is day to day struggle.  And whilst intervention is welcome for those aspiring to buy, any approach to housing policy must look to assist those at all points of their housing journey. Not just those who can shout the loudest. We can start to do that by recognising the separate, but interlinked, elements of our housing crises.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

 

April Fools

It appears that the world has temporarily gone mad. Or at least temporarily remembered that life is incredibly different if you have lots of money. But, a bit like anger at the banks for pretty much bringing this country to its knees then having the cheek to ask for a helping billion or two, the swell of indignation will die down leaving but a few angry vessels beached on the sand dunes of rage. Once that occurs maybe we can sit down and have an adult conversation.

Things to learn

How often has the sector been on the back foot struggling to explain a concept many outside of the sector don’t understand?

Firstly, what is it with us British and mentioning sex and/or money? A slight whiff of those topics and we go all Hugh Grant in a 1990s rom-com. For once I am largely on the side of our Prime Minister (shocking, I know). Whilst some would have you believe otherwise Mr Cameron Snr has legally, and to a large extent morally, done nothing wrong. Guilt by association doesn’t mean guilt, which is funnily enough something the UK Justice System found out to its cost this year. What Mr Cameron Jnr has done wrong however is drop the ball regarding his response to a non-event. But more crucially he failed to grasp the general feeling and perception around the issue at hand. For the uninformed this is an interesting take on  the ramifications of Blairmore-gate in the Economist online. However, setting aside the embarrassment of David Cameron, there are one or two things for housing to pick up here.

Your argument is as good as there are ears willing to listen

You can have facts, figures and the belief in a moral argument on your side, but that doesn’t mean you will win the argument. Sound familiar Housing Comms people (pay attention at the back). I’m not going to overly slag off how we do things. Though if you are feeling the need to feed your masochistic tendencies Mr Halewood is always on call to rightly pull us up on where things have slipped a bit. But how many times as a sector have there been inaccurate, but morally on point attacks against Chief Exec pay, or the amount of homes we build? How often has the sector been on the back foot, struggling to explain a concept many outside of the sector don’t understand. As G.I Joe notes, knowing is half the battle, if we don’t push what we do it is left for those outside the sector to fill in the gaps. This will not always be in a positive light.

Just as an FYI if you can fully and utterly explain the workings of the Camerons’ ‘Investment’ scheme I would be grateful. I get lost somewhere around the dollar-denominated global…zzzzzzzz bit. Sorry nodded off again. The FT have a good stab here mind.

When to go hard, when to go home

Ultimately it’s about being a bit more nuanced around news stories that affect the sector. The recent attack pieces in the Times and predecessor articles in the Standard and the Times (again) are easy to bat away on the figures side because the journalism around them has frankly been a bit haphazard. However, they tie into popular perceptions around the sector with those in power if not the general public. Knowing when to go full balls, and knowing when to be a bit more subtle is key to shaping the debate, and as the NHF keeps on saying ‘Own our future‘. Getting some press outside of the trade magazines and the Guardian Housing Network wouldn’t go amiss either. Stop preaching to the converted.

What we don’t need

A fucking hash-tag. Seriously, one more of those bloody things to promote yet another BS marketing/event ploy and I will be getting out the wet plimsolls and slapping (metaphorically of course) sense into people. A hash-tag based awareness/marketing approach on its own does not a successful campaign make. Or for someone with good intentions (I guess) like Alan Duncan going so far off message as to send the poor Conservative PR lass/guy into early retirement. To see him in full flow winning muppet of the day just go here. Tell me Alan, is there a cut off point for low earners, or is it tapered in, much like Universal Credit and now Starter Homes discount repayments? In fairness to the chap at least he attempted to clarify his statement, I think. I was to busy being synthetically indignant at being told about what is fair by someone who claimed over £4,000 of public money to have his lawn mowed (he did pay it back, and got demoted for his troubles). Behave and have a Snickers you silly sausage.

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