Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start

I’m not one for New Year resolutions, they’re not worth the booze stained paper they’re written on. Whilst an arbitrary date might help some on the path to negating an annoying habit/chronic cake addiction, the reality is that most of us will fail to keep to those good intentions. Governments are not excluded from such foibles, especially when it comes to housing policy. Unfortunately, unlike the Konami games of old, you can’t just use a cheat code to solve a nation’s housing market problems. A pity really, given the way housing policy is currently heading we probably need all the ‘help’ we can get.

OK Time for Plan B

For all the positive vibes coming from the Barwell/Javid axis little has materially changed so far in May’s tenure as Prime Minister. The switch in rhetoric has been welcome, and you do genuinely get the feeling that Sajid Javid is sincere in his desire to improve the housing situation facing many in the UK. However rhetoric and reality have not quite met. At least not consistently. Indeed it seems at times that Mrs May is willing to do pretty much anything to help the housing crisis, apart from actually do things that will help on a practical level. Promises of a Britain that works for the many have so far fallen flat. That needs to change, sharpish.

Right to Buy, or at least its extension to Housing Associations, is seemingly getting kicked into the long grass (FYI check out Nick Atkin’s piece on why RTB has had its day here). Positive news over better regulation for parts of the PRS and the scrapping of lettings fees should help those renting. But policy and capital funding wise the Autumn Statement proved to largely be a bust. The vast majority of the £44bn earmarked for housing initiatives has been kept for demand side interventions. And of that all bar £15.3bn had already been announced.

A give away on Stamp Duty and a continuation of policies such as Help to Buy are not really what the doctor ordered. With Help to Buy being described by the Adam Smith Institute as being like throwing petrol onto a bonfire. Whilst the Stamp Duty cut is a great example of a policy that on the surface is great for individual households but is actually bollocks at the macro-economic level – a typical state of play for housing policy in the last 2 decades.

Elsewhere, although several million has been set aside to help with homelessness initiatives. Even here Theresa May has managed to piss me off. Her response at the last PMQs before Christmas showed just how little she understands the subject. She also showed that you can be right on a technicality, but utterly wrong on the bigger picture. Being homeless doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sleeping rough. But regardless, the lack of a safe, secure and affordable home has serious detrimental effects. Still, shout out to Theresa May’s researchers for finding the one technical point where the homelessness situation wasn’t total crap. But make no mistake, as a country we’ve been regressing alarmingly on this issue since 2010.

Here Comes the New Sound, Just Like the Old Sound

Since the clusterfuck that was the Brexit vote and subsequent change of personnel in Government I’ve been hoping for a significant departure, in practical terms, from the clueless/ideologically driven housing policy under Cameron et al. Sadly, some honourable mentions aside, what we’ve had so far is more of the same.  Plus ca change. Some improvements have been made, but it’s all a bit piecemeal.

Still, it could be worse, the Conservative Party’s attempt at revamping its social media presence is nothing short of alarming. Honestly, Activate is probably the shittest thing I’ve come across on social media since Mogg-Mentum. It sounds like the start of a fight on Robot Wars for fucks sake. Who are these clowns? Have they met real life people? One only hopes that Conservatives spend more time on fine tuning their housing policy in the upcoming Housing Green Paper than they have on their current social media engagement strategy. Otherwise we really are fucked.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Emil Athanasiou (2015) Same Yet Different

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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.

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

Want is not of need

The only thing more predictable than the unpredictable nature of the Spending Review/Autumn Statement is the flurry of blog posts after the fact. I won’t attempt to cover the ground that has already been well trodden. But the housing policy geek in me can’t help but chew the fat on a couple of points.

Firstly, the good points. Housing has finally got the increase in funding and political attention it desperately needs. A nod here must go to the NHF, CIH and the Homes for Britain campaigns. Further mentions to Generation Rent, Shelter and Crisis. Given how far down the list of priorities perceived by the general public a few months ago it is relieving to see the subject set as one of the focal points of the Spending Review.

Now the bad news. (Yet) again the debate has been skewed to one particular facet of the housing market. Whilst ideology does play a part, there is something more fundamental here. Politicians like stories with happy endings. The story itself might be one of woe, but there is a solution in sight (theirs of course, the opposition’s vision won’t work). With housing, its complex nature, myriad set of interests and unpredictability negates a happily ever after. For there must be losers in housing to ensure winners. Mr Osborne knows this, and has played his cards accordingly.

Previous blogs of mine have highlighted the perceived need by those in power to highlight problems (real or imaginary) that then need resolving (the deficit for example…). They have also pointed to the works of people like Adam Curtis and Naomi Klein who in turn note that such narratives often belie more troublesome endgames and unaccounted-for consequences. The Government for example has chosen to frame the housing crisis as a problem that is just about affordability for first time buyers.

As the JRF rightly points out this current crisis is not just about the inability to buy. But it’s a lot easier for politicians to willy wave about helping those buy their homes than tackle the overarching mindfuck that is the mess our housing system is in. Particularly when actually making housing more affordable would hit the pockets of those who have already won in the game of housing.

Approaches to tackle this narrow view of the housing crisis are thus deliberately limited in their scope. And even then all is not what it seems, many won’t come into effect for a couple of years. Anthony Hilton’s delightfully bitchy, but informed piece, highlights the tricks played by Osborne et al. in their attempts to address housing affordability quite beautifully. For those who can’t be bothered to read outside this article the points to take are:

  • The greatest house building program since the 1970s might not actually build (materially speaking) more homes than already had been slated
  • The affordable homes that are built won’t be that affordable
  • Houses have been reclassified as affordable by a sleight of hand, not in cash terms or in their genuine affordability

Indeed when looking at both the newest Housing Bill and the funding put in place by the Spending Review it’s as if a whole sub-section of society is being written off. Brandon Lewis’s belief that the poorest will be able to buy thanks to the flurry of housing policies is frankly misguided bullshit. When you can’t put money aside for a mortgage, when keeping your crappy rented property as the roof over your head buying doesn’t come into it. But when the narrative is set to that of home-ownership as the solver of all society’s ills I wouldn’t expect anything less.

If allowed social rent will play an important role in helping with the issues in our housing system. Giving people the chance/space to breathe, get their shit in order then maybe one day buy. But until the narrative changes to admit that, we will continue on this merry-go-round of smoke and mirrors with the end result being that housing is utterly unaffordable for an even greater proportion of the country. And with it the chance of a happily ever after.

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

When Bulls Play God

With the Housing Bill making its way through Parliament, rent cuts and a generally rough operating environment the temptation may be to cut back non-core services. But with the Tories intent on reducing state help to a couple of plasters and a turnip, helping communities and individuals (not just building homes) needs to remain a key focus.

If I only had one dollar left I would invest it in an employment advice and tenancy support service.

Bill Gates is often quoted as saying that if he only had one dollar left he would invest it in PR. If I had that dollar I would put it into an employment advice and tenancy support service and it appears many in this sector would agree. Research by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion found that 67% of housing associations either already ran, or were planning to run, a programme to support customers into work. Many seeing this as a natural extension of their role and an increasingly important priority.

The link between landlord and poverty is an interesting one, with property owners in a unique position to directly (by rent) and indirectly (by additional services) impact (if not solve) the socio-economic security of the tenant. Research on that very subject is available here and neatly highlights the approaches/strategies of the sector and the impact they may have. In addition to this report, the struggles of Gentoo and Circle, both laying off staff as the operating environment toughens, show the balancing act many are having to play.

Well paid, secure work, alongside secure housing, is by far and away the best route out of poverty.

Well paid, secure work, alongside secure housing, is by far and away the best route out of poverty. However, for many living in social housing that is either not a realistic achievement due to physical/mental health issues or because of care commitment (in and of itself an undervalued part of our welfare state). But for others, with help, guidance and sustained support it is. As the report from CESI indicates many have, or are about to, rise to the challenge. It is not uncommon for social landlords to build-in apprenticeships and training opportunities for customers/communities into contracts with 3rd party service providers. Maintenance and repairs organisations in particular. Others match fund, or directly fund specific employment training and/or soft skills courses.

So far, so noble but the issue many organisations currently have is defining the benefits for the business. I’ve never been truly convinced by social value calculations. Yes there are undoubtedly more generic benefits that can loosely be quantified but specific cost benefits to businesses are much harder to define. It often takes years for an individual/households to get over historic debt/arrears issues. Poverty is often an up and down life event, it is seldom static. Most importantly life doesn’t neatly fall into financial years for accounting purposes. That aside what should you actually measure? Arrears? Contact with the organisation? Number of repairs? Often such work throws up more questions than answers.

My fear is that without further work into this area, to provide hard and fast, quantifiable proof that employment support benefits all (the CESI report reckoned about £70million could be shaved off the benefit bill) many will simply withdraw as operating pressures squeeze budgets and organisations play safe. That would be a shame for all concerned. Especially those at the sharp end of George Osborne’s attempts at creating lower tax, lower welfare economy.

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

Rumour, Misinformation and Gossip

I’m not usually lost for words (I’m not quite Deadpool, but I’m not far off) however I do find myself at a bit of a loss at what to say following the utter hatchet job undertaken by The Spectator. As someone who works in a heavily performance/data focused part of a housing association I am well aware there is more than one way to skin a cat. The issue is you actually need a moggie in the first place. Alas the Spectator should have gone to Specsavers because whatever it has been skinning, it ain’t a feline.

Inside Housing has done a very good job of debunking a number of figures thrown about with alarming disregard for their origin or the context in which they exist (see below for my favourites). And as much as they are to be commended it would be nice to have seen slight sterner stuff come from the sector’s representative bodies. Something akin to “this is utter bollocks; we are not going to even dignify it with a full response because my 2-year-old child could have done a better job sourcing those figures” for example. Whilst the NHF has done well to rally the responses have lacked a certain punch.

Myths Debunked:

‘Places for People built 792 homes last year’- This is true although the piece does not mention the association’s plans to complete a further 6,631 homes over the next three years.

‘Housing associations managed [to build] just 23,300 homes last year’- As Inside Housing’s development survey shows, the top 50 largest associations alone completed 40,213 homes in 2014/15.

‘Over the last four years housing associations received £23bn* in government grants’ – This has already been corrected by The Spectator itself. In fact, housing associations received £4.5bn of grant through the affordable homes programme between 2011 and 2015.

*I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who went ‘eh!?’ at that particularly erroneous figure…

What the article does show is two things 1) Not many people outside of the sector have much of a clue on what we actually spend our money on – it ain’t just new homes kids, unlike a lot of private landlords we reinvest in our properties. Though occasionally we do balls this up, like really bad. 2) We need a new PR agency… stat. Maybe not so much #ImInWorkJeremy more like #ImDoingMoreThanJustBuildingNewHomesYouDicks. An excellent example has come via Phillipa Jones and Bromford (sorry I know I use these guys a lot but this is a simple, easy to use eample to prove my point). This is the kind of detail we need to set out – publicly, not just in our annual report, because who reads them, honestly?

I think what really narks me is that despite the utter shitness of the article (#sorrynotsorry it really is shit) there is a grain of truth in what is being said. We do need to build more, we do need to be more mindful of how much the upper echelons get paid. We also need to be far more proactive in the PR game. Because it ain’t even half time sweethearts we’re 3-0 down and we’re not looking pretty.

What I’ve also been saddened by is the lack of people pushing the wide range of activities we undertake. Admittedly only in the short 8hrs or so since the article hit. But Housing Associations are essentially mini-welfare states in the communities they operate. Money advice, debt advice, day care centres, training/skills classes, community regeneration are just the tip of the iceberg of what we do. For fuck sake we do so much unheralded work with the people who live in our communities (with being the operative word) but because we can’t pull our fingers out and highlight what we do (outside of 24Housing and InsideHousing) we’re getting smashed.

I will be watching Channel 4 tonight to see what is occurring; honestly I hope it’s better than the preamble that have so far been put out. If its not, I’ll be doing what all middle class people do and write a strongly worded letter…

If you feel so inclined you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

Time To Go Out Swinging?

The non-emergency, emergency budget has seen the last vestiges of hug-a-hoody, compassionate Conservatism washed away in a tide of ideologically driven cuts. Housing and the communities we patronise serve will bear a significant proportion of the associated burdens in this round of fiscal belt-tightening. The future is grim, which ever way you want to spin it. Indeed so dour is the result of the latest budget that it makes the subtext of your average Charles Dickens book seem downright cheerful. A pocket or two is being picked, alas it is the pockets of those who can least afford it that are being rifled through. Though instead of an old man leading his gang of young rascals it is George Osborne, the Treasury and the DWP doing the dirty, so to speak.

Still, the sector perseveres, today saw the NHF hit up  #aplanforhomes in a further attempt at talking some sense into those poor souls who operate in that black hole of logical thought/pit of despair more commonly known as the House of Commons. One of the tweets coming from the event was that the ball was now with Government and that they needed to work with us to deliver it (the aforementioned plan). It is probably the deep cynic in me but being brutally honest they don’t just have the ball; they have all the rackets, the courts and the viewing public as well. And frankly it is here that our fundamental issue exists, for all the fluff, for all the bluster we have not managed to sway public opinion.

When a Government so opposed to the provision of social housing exists the ony real option is to win the popular argument. Regrettably we are still struggling to get our voices heard where it counts. Admittedly it really doesn’t help that our central message is, give us lots of your cash and we will build homes for poor people. Oh yea and whilst doing so we will be charging them rent at a lower level than you will be paying either on your mortgage or your privately rented home/flat/hobbit-hole. Even if the figures stack up in terms of fiscal policy; that my friends is largely beside the point. We’re talking politics here, not sound economics or evidence based policy.

If you have the time I would highly recommend reading The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. A bit of an opinion splitter this one, it won’t give you ‘the’ divine truth but will hopefully provide some context as to the current Government’s thinking. The book highlights how various neo-liberal movements have used existing crises to advance their own ideological agenda. Typically this involves radically shrinking state spending, pulling back social security assistance and pushing market reforms favourable to private sector enterprise at a time when the general public is too shell-shocked to resist. Sound familiar?

This is pretty much what has occurred in the past 30 5 years. It is also why I very much doubt that in the long run we and the boys and girls in blue will be bosom buddies. We are an affront the very idea of neo-liberal economic thought. A monolithic extension of all that is bad with Government intervention in a market. Let the invisible hands of capitalism work its magic and all will be tout sweet, so goes the thinking (the obvious caveat being that this is utter bollocks).

Some have argued that this could be a new dawn for housing.  Others, that the sense of community spirit will be key. And some, well they are just interesting to read. Whilst I admire the generally positive sentiment I can’t quite gee myself up to be as chipper, sorry kids, I just ain’t that guy. Still, I have been proved wrong before (I had my money on Federer beating Djokovic) and I may well be again. In the meantime I’m going to fetal for a bit, wake me up when it’s a little sunnier.

If you feel so inclined you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

Roll Call

Social housing can play a key role in reducing in-work poverty.  In doing so not only will they be helping those who work for them but also the communities in which they operate.

So it turns out if you pay your staff a decent wage not only do they increase their productivity but their reliance on the state might also reduce.  Who wudda thunk it?  The JRF has recently been releasing a number of blogs/research pieces highlighting that whilst some progress is being made a large minority are being left behind.  Worst still for the state assistance is state dependency brigade this is impacting our welfare payments.  Those of you who have even only occasionally read my blogs will have noticed a recurring graph.  This is the one relating to those housing benefit claimants who are in work.  This graph has inexorably been moving up.  However, unlike Yazz and the Plastic Population up isn’t the only way (baby).

There have been a number of reports, largely from the centre left that highlight the absurd situation where the market is able to pay crap wages because the state will subsidise it.  The damage this causes has been known for a while, 5 years ago the JRF released a research piece into the damaging cycles of low-pay-no-pay (another piece I crack out from time to time).  The simple point is this, yes employment has increased in terms of number but like many things this is not just a simple numbers game.  It is the quality of the jobs, and the pay that goes with them, that is key here.  Unfortunately we are being found severely wanting in this regard.

I have previously called for social landlords to put both their money and their ideals where their mouths are on this subject.  A quick look at the Living Wage Foundation’s website will show that a number of housing associations are already doing so.  But given that there are over 1,500 in the country and the foundation has 1,218 businesses/organisations signed up more need to pull their finger out.  You cannot state that you work to better the lives of the communities you operate in without looking after your own community of workers as well.  A guaranteed Living Wage isn’t the be all and end all, but it is a start.

The Living Wage, according to the Foundation that takes its name from the notion, is £7.85 outside of London, £9.15 inside.  That equates to £14,695.20 and £17,128.80 per year respectively.  If as an organisation you can’t guarantee to pay that, or at least the pro-rata equivalent, then I’m sorry but you have no business being a social landlord.  I’m not saying that you chase yet another standard to pin on the bottom of your letterheads.  But God  knows as sector we chase awards like kids at a sweet shop.  Why not chase something that has some benefit other than inflating ego?

The benefits to both business and employees are pretty hefty.  For businesses absenteeism, staff turnover and productivity all improve whilst reputation is also enhanced.  Employees feel more loyal to their employer, are (again) more productive and have a better psychological wellbeing.  Invest in your staff, reap the benefits.

Please don’t take this as a slap down to the sector.  I am highly aware (and appreciative) of the very generous employment packages the sector puts together for its workers.  Having worked both in the Private and 3rd Sector spheres it is always refreshing to see how much time and effort housing associations and their peers put into staff development.  I am also keenly aware that many social landlords do pay something akin or even above the Living Wage at the bottom end of their pay scales.  But this is a simple, but significant, way of protesting against general poor pay whilst having a positive impact closer to home.  As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

If you feel so inclined you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the Twitter handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.