Tag Archives: social housing

Social housing should not be viewed as ‘second class’ or an experiment

I was at a workshop on building new homes and we got to a contentious point about what was being planned.  I asked the room  (mainly architects and regenerators) if they would take the same action / design they were planning if this was not social housing. There was silence in response because most recognised the likely answer was no. I then asked if they personally would live next door to or above the facility they were planning and again the answer was silence.

Why oh why do Councils and Housing providers still persist in designing things into new social housing and estates that they would not dream of placing on a ‘private’ estates? The answer clearly comes down the fact that this would result in  a reduction in sale price whereas it is not seen as an issue in social housing. All too often there is still this unconscious perception that it does not matter with social housing because ‘they’ don’t own the property.

I grew up on a council estate and am all too familiar with the snobbery and patronising behaviour that can be directed at social housing. Anybody who knows me will be aware of my complete antipathy for murals and mosaics which were the universal panacea for all ‘deprivation’ ills between the 1970’s and 1990’s. ‘These poor people are deprived, lets give them a mural (and let them eat cake too)’. Don’t get me wrong I am big supporter of public art, but I’m talking quality and well thought out work, not something  bad that marks you out as a ‘deprived’ area. How many murals and mosaics do you see on new ‘private’ estates …mmm… none! I like graffiti and a nice Gaudi mosaic but not as a marker  and I mean you too Banksy.

All too often on mixed new build estates I hear the term ‘tenure blind’ but it never is, the quality of the work surfaces, tiles and finishes is always just that bit cheaper in the social units.

A few things to consider:

  • Rent covers all costs in the same way as a mortgage does so stop treating different tenures differently
  • If it is not alright where you live why do you think it will be alright in ‘social housing’
  • By putting a different financial value on social housing you are also putting a lower social value

Tackling the Stigma Felt by Residents

The Government’s Green Paper on Social Housing came out promising four main items. One of the main items was to tackle “the stigma felt by residents”, to which the paper proposed the solution of “celebrating thriving communities”. And yet, two key questions that the green paper failed to address were “what is the stigma” and “what divides are there within estates and  communities?”

Many regeneration projects involve creating new private blocks to be sold on the estates in order to pay for “new and improved” social housing. When talking to residents on a soon to be regenerated estate in Camberwell, I heard that one of their biggest concerns was the potential divide between the new block of private and the old close-knit community. Whether finishes would be completed to the same standard; whether they would be locked out of communal facilities aligned with private block as they’d seen in other estates; whether they’d be made to feel lesser by those living on the same plot of land that they had currently inhabited exclusively . The residents were sure this would exist, the so-called poor doors.

When presented with initial plans, some residents went so far as to measure the split of open space overlooked by blocks for existing tenants and blocks for potential private owners. They found inequalities and stigma.

If this is what “stigma” is, then it comes as no surprise, evident differences in the standard of living due to the difference of social and private housing which occurs even within the same estate. But how have we found ourselves at this point, where people expect this level of blatant stigma? I’m a linguistics student, so I cannot help but be drawn to the language. The terms “council housing”, “social housing”, “council housing residents”. Compare to other countries such as Singapore where “government built” housing is abundant and sought after, their “public housing” and its residents are not termed under “council” or “social”. Instead the acronym HDB (housing development board) is used. And the people? Just residents. They are residents of Singapore who live in their homes.

The very policy of determining residents of council and social housing as that seeks to establish their identity according to their place in society. They are not homeowners. They are tenants of the council, the society. When we seek to establish who a person is according to where they live, how can stigma help but exist?

So, if the stigma can be felt and perceived by residents in their own homes and then physically seen in the differences between private and social in their estates or within how housing associations treat the divide, then the problem with stigma does not exist solely within the public’s perception but rather within the estates themselves. We have ingrained stigma through language and so many other policies into the very people that are meant to be helped. And to now differentiate between the “thriving communities” and the communities that are struggling as a solution only isolates the latter. It may help public perception, but does it actually help the residents?

Some small things for consideration:

  • Insist that architects propose tenure blind designs and finishes on all projects. (This should be a given).
  • Share the amenity space equally between tenure types and avoid gating or segregating
  • More housing association and council led inclusive events to bring the communities together. Or at least research on “thriving” communities to see what may help mend broken communities.
  • Most importantly: Not further isolating struggling and stigmatized communities as a solution for stigma.

Applicants wanted to work in Regeneration and Social Housing

 

Last year, for  almost 6 months we tried to appoint a young person based in Hackney as a paid intern to gain experience of housing regeneration and community work. As we love our work,  we naïvely thought that this position would attract plenty of school leavers or graduates keen to get some practical skills to add to their CV.

Careers in housing seem to be reached almost entirely by accident, yet the range of skills that can be acquired and the diversity of areas you can work in means that there are very, very few boring jobs in the sector. The sector needs to do more to attract bright compassionate people to want to work in housing and community work.

Eventually we recruited Lydia through word of mouth and it was a successful six month internship on both sides. Lydia enjoyed the wide range of tasks we gave her and the chance to follow her own interests too. We appreciated having an extra pair of hands. She has gone on to be successfully accepted onto a masters degree in Urban Regeneration and follow her dream to work abroad.  Read her blog of December 2017 to learn more about how she felt.

This year we are busier than ever and hope to give another enthusiastic graduate or school leaver the chance to find out how fascinating working with a community as they face major changes to their homes and community can be. Our advertisement is on the Graduate Talent Poll website and www.indeed.com. We also will accept CVs via e-mail to rob@sourcepartnership.com or carol@sourcepartnership.com

 

When a Test of Opinion is Too Close to Call

We recently completed a Test of Opinion for a large housing association to gauge support from tenants for a full estate redevelopment versus a refurbishment scheme. This consultation came at the end of a full options appraisal which had engaged tenants of the estate in workshop events and two exhibitions over 12 months.

A Tenants Steering Group has led on selecting us as their independent advisors, selecting architects and commenting on each and every option are they were presented. As it often the case, a number of tenants volunteered hours of their time, using up precious leave from work, sacrificing family time and calling in child-care favours to ensure that proposals were the best they possibly could be. The estate blocks are  mainly heated by electrical night storage heaters and tenants report extremely high energy bills and lack of warmth and hot water. between 20 and 30 families are living in overcrowded conditions.

In the shadow of the Grenfell Tower fire, the refurbishment option excluded cladding as many tenants  were fearful of this and similarly installing gas in the taller blocks was dismissed. However gas central central heating is possible for the lower rise blocks and  this solution has already been applied to the ten town houses. There was proposed some small scale new build and garage conversions to create larger family homes.

The more radical and expensive option of complete redevelopment involved phased decanting of homes with 26 tenants required to move off the estate with a right to return. Tenants interrogated the architects about the extent of the disruption for those who would be living on a building site for several years so that tenants could realistically anticipate  the pain.

The test of opinion took place over two weeks following the final design exhibition.  There was a late campaign led by the tenants of the town houses to reject redevelopment and some misrepresentation of the facts were evident in this. However, in the main tenants participated with an 82% turnout being achieved by the deadline. We believe that this was because the test of opinion returns were confidential either on-line or by post.

The votes cast were split 50% / 50% for each option and only by analysing the results by household (very few joint tenancies) was identifying a marginal preference possible – our very own Brexit.

The landlord has decided to explore further the refurbishment option and to enhance the refurbishment “offer”  in an attempt to win over those who expressed a preference for redevelopment. The outcome of the findings regarding cladding at Grenfell Tower and  the outcome of the pilot renewal of an electrical storage system  over the coming cold months will be pivotal.

New Homes Nightmares…..

One of the things we hear from residents who are facing the demolition of their existing social housing is the fear that  a new build  home will not are not as well built as their old home. It takes a lot to allay this fear including and many visits to new build schemes.

I was saddened to  read the article by John Harris in the Guardian on 11th April  about Housing Associations facing a storm of complaints about new homes. There has been a lot of articles both in the press and on the news about the Orchard Village scheme, which has got to the point where the housing association (Clarion) is buying back new build properties. I was also aware about the problems with Solomons Passage as one of my friends (a tenant) has been decanted so they can knock down the building that is 7 years old. This article implies that the problem may be wider.

So what is going wrong?

Working on large schemes I always say to residents and officers that a contractor will only be as good as the contract management applied to them. Lets be clear, developers and builders are in this to make money, whilst they do think about their reputations their primary focus is to make a profit. It requires good contract management  by the client i.e. the housing provider to ensure that corners are not cut and that specifications are kept to. Quality control, checking, checking and independent testing are key.

We have seen an increase in building by social housing providers  and this has not been matched by an increase in the right staff within Housing Associations and Councils who oversee new build from cradle to grave. At least one association I have worked with has seen their new build properties increase from just over 100 units in 5 years to nearer 5000 over the next 5 years. Whilst the teams overseeing the work have increased, its not proportionate and  more crucially  emphasis has had to be placed on slowly developing skill in house which is  a very steep learning curve. All too often the focus is on design rather than good structural quality. Nice pretty apartments with lovely work surfaces  may sell but are they liveable and sustainable, apparently  not in some cases.

It is crucial that good technical advice is sourced BUT over reliance on external technical consultants is part of the problem. On the schemes mentioned where were the Clerk of Works and the Employers Agent?

Going forward  there are a few options for social housing providers  to think about balancing:

  • Building up internal technical expertise not just  project management and design
  • Earlier involvement by those teams that pick up problems – the repairs and major works teams
  • Accepting you don’t have the skills and passing the risk on to someone who specialises in building and will ensure they don’t carry a large defects cost
  • Stop trying to be everything you do not necessarily have the skills to build on a large scale and manage social housing- something may have to give
  • A good clerk of works is worth their weight in copper piping but the spec they inspect against must be right in the first place

Above all else, learn from your mistakes! A lot of landlords would not get away with this if they were working in the open market.

View from the front line – 3 years of pain (and why it’s worth it)

Three years of pain (and why it’s worth it)

Zoë Kennedy, Styles House TMO, styleshouse.org.uk, @styleshouse

After suffering the trauma of council organised major works, we finally decided we’d had enough and we were becoming a TMO. We’d thought about it for years, but it seemed such a big step and a lot of work, so we had always put it off for another day. Finally though, we realised the amount of effort required to get a good service from the council could be put to something positive.

There is no getting around it, becoming a TMO is long. You might think you can do it quick, but you can’t. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing though as there is a lot to learn. You won’t just be running the estate, you’ll be an employer running a small business with things like payments to the HMRC. That’s pretty big and scary and you need to be trained in how to do it. What we found though, was that there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do and as a group we always had someone who had skills in that area.

img_1108It’s important to keep focused on why you are becoming a TMO and what you want to achieve. We had decided that it would be easier to be a TMO than fight with the council to get anything done and luckily the council kept reminding us of this every time a repair was needed. The most useful experience, however, was visiting other TMOs. We met people, just like us, who were successfully running their TMOs.  We realised that it didn’t take any particular skill, just committed people and a good manager.

We also spent time picturing what our TMO would look like. We knew we wanted an onsite manager and a regular cleaner. Once we made the decision it was easy to come up with a structure and budget. We over estimated everything, which I think was the right approach as it meant we were cautious when spending money and managed to make savings which we have invested back in the estate.

It’s also important to write as many policies and procedures as possible wile you are setting up the TMO. Yes it’s boring, but you’ll be thankful later when you are busy running the TMO that you don’t have to write them. I am currently rewriting our disciplinary policy and really wish we had done it properly the first time around.

Finally, don’t worry about conflict in your group. We had a lot of conflict and were (and still are) a very argumentative group. I would rather that we weren’t but it doesn’t cause any major problems and it’s the reality of being democratic, you just won’t all agree.

Tenancy Management – Human Problems

With respect to the presenter, our session  with the committee members of  a developing tenant management organisation to seek to negotiate the contents of their management agreement with their Council was not the most exciting prospect for a Saturday.  A view obviously shared by some absent members.

However, aided by a presentation referencing real life experiences and a small, fully engaged group of participants: the event was not only informative but stimulating and yes there were even some laughs. I was reminded of one of the reasons I started working in housing in the first place. A roof over your family’s head is one of the most fundamental desires for anybody and, increasingly, a precious commodity. The investment made by society in trying to ensure every family has a home is very special in the UK.

precious-housing

It can be pleasurable to be part of introducing a new tenant to their home – especially as housing applicants in the most need may have come from quite traumatic circumstances. Tenants at our event have lived in their council homes for up to 35 years and remain grateful for them.

Each potential problem that can arise in a tenancy involves a real human problem: repairs, rent arrears and benefit claims, debt, transfers, succession on death of a tenant, troublesome neighbours, their kids and their dogs – this session explored them all.

Watching this committee develop their ideas to make the experience of renting a home in their tenant management organisation something to be proud of and something they would value through behaviour was inspiring.  From the moment a tenant views their home on this estate, the tenant management organisation wants them to feel at home, part of a community.  However,  they will expect every resident to adhere to a good neighbours’ code of conduct and tenants to pay their rent on time. In return they are determined to provide a best value service, protect the rights of quiet enjoyment and ensure that their staff provide compassionate support when needed. They’ll go far.

 

 

Social Housing Changes Lives

I am prompted by #housingday to think about the value of social housing. At a very posh artists’ opening recently I was asked what I do for a living. Usually my answer meets with blank stares and a swift change of subject,  but this time the enquirer’s face lit up and she responded with “social housing changed my family’s life!”

This was no old age pensioner talking about the old days but a middle class woman younger than me from South London who recalled that she and her brothers were brought up in rooms in Brockley.  Rooms that had a full size bath in the kitchen which,  with a wooden board over the top, doubled up  for food preparation on non-bath days.

Eventually their rooms were bought up by a housing association and they were upgraded to a self-contained flat with inside toilet and a separate bathroom, with bedrooms that they did not need to share – an event so major in her life that it still brings joy to her forty years on, despite her current day affluent circumstances. She lives in a house worth well over a million pounds but is an avid fan of social housing and opposed to offering the Right to Buy these precious commodities.

bath-in-kitchen-3

I was reminded of my own upbringing in railway (tied) housing and my mother bathing us in the kitchen sink, I suppose we didn’t have a bathroom or it was too cold to use in winter, That was still quite normal in the 1960s.

My son laughed when I told him this story about his friend’s mother and my childhood, – suddenly my generation is part of the bad old days when social housing was less available. There was a housing shortage: employers were able to tie people to their jobs by providing basic workers accommodation; and private landlords could provide frankly substandard housing  to needy families.

We’ve come a long way since then, the standards set by social landlords have dragged the rest of the rented sector into providing decent accommodation. Millions of families’ lives have been changed by social housing, even in the last generation, let’s keep it plentiful and affordable.

 

 

It’s all about the money, money, money

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As Jessie J said we all have a price tag. There have been a spate of money related articles and reports that highlight how the conversation on Social Housing is increasingly being framed in economic terms. This is not entirely surprising as most of this is aimed at a Government that primarily uses, sometimes blunt, economic tools to deliver its policy. One of many worries here is that policy and the numbers are at odds.

Peabody and the CBI recently produced a report which attempted to quantify the contribution to London (£15.3bn) of social tenants. Just a while later we get the great and the good Moodys, downgrading the credit rating for Places for People and Genesis because more risk has been introduced because of diversification away from Social Housing. We also have the thresholds for Pay to Stay, £31,000 outside London and £40,000 in London. So it seems that the argument for social housing is now being fought on the numbers playing field.

The latest indications on what government grant will be available point clearly to a policy that is about fiddling at the edges of market intervention on build for sale and is not about increasing social housing supply. Indeed, as the details emerge on the Right to Buy for Housing Associations and the money effectively being removed from Local Authorities another avenue for increased building is shut off.

So we have a situation at best where social housing rental supply will be at best static. It seems that supply will be met by using Pay to Stay to push people out into the private market and ‘free up’ units. Mmmmm, there are a few issues here that don’t quite make sense:

  • An already overheated private rental market and lack of affordable sale properties for those being pushed into leaving the social rented market
  • Brexit pushing properties off the market
  • HA’s risking more borrowing costs because effectively they cannot build the level of social housing they would like and therefore higher build costs = either less supply of new homes or inflated costs

Throw in Housing Benefit caps and (if ever) Universal credit and the numbers look less like adding up.

Maybe we need a bit more advanced economic modelling which really takes into account the benefit brought to the economy by workers accessing really affordable housing and what the impact on our economy of the multiple squeeze on this group will be.

One other important point made by CIH and NHF, in the last recession virtually the only significant building was of social housing which saved us from even worse economic turmoil.