Are we about to lose housing associations in the fight against homelessness?
Last week, the announcement of a proposed voluntary agreement between the Government and housing associations to implement Right to Buy without the need for legislation was given further context by the new statistics only hours earlier showing a 5% increase in homelessness in England over the last three months.
The proposal gives housing associations a choice between agreeing to voluntarily sell properties, and being recompensed to replace the sold property with another ‘affordable’ home, or to face having Right to Buy forced upon them through legislation.
At Crisis, we have seen the impact that the huge reduction in truly affordable housing has had on our members and other homeless people. This has been further exacerbated by access to the relatively few homes, which do come available for single formerly homeless people being made harder and harder. The increasing use of higher rent levels, insistence on rent in advance and the need for new tenants to meet local connection and financial capability criteria by some housing associations all act as barriers for people trying to move on into settled homes.
The announcement at the National Housing Federation conference last week suggests that this situation may become even worse for homeless people. There are a number of questions to be answered and, given the very short timescale allowed for a decision, these surely make it impossible for any housing association to take an informed view.
What will happen to the associations which do not agree to this proposal? Will they be coerced into selling their homes? Will they be left, along with councils, as the only providers of housing to the most in need?
What will the relationship between local authorities and housing associations, which is already a bruised one, be like when authorities have to sell their housing stock to fund associations’ perceived development ambitions? We know, through our Turned Away research, that a lack of housing contributes to how councils operate their homelessness services and can make gatekeeping of homeless people more likely.
Most crucially for us and our clients is the key question of what this means for social housing. If a social home is sold, can it be legitimately replaced by a one bedroom flat for affordable ownership? If so, then the increase of 55% we have seen in people rough sleeping since 2010 and the figures we saw yesterday of increasing numbers of families in Bed and Breakfast, or households being ‘placed’ far from home will only increase far beyond their already unacceptable levels. As we have identified with our Costs of Homelessness Research, all this will likely be at a financial cost far higher than the cost of a social housing programme, which would meet this need permanently.
Our clients need truly affordable homes which enable them to rebuild their lives and contribute back to society in a way they are so desperate to do. If housing supply is increased through this proposal, and it is not clear yet whether it will be, then the houses built will have rental levels and tenancy types, which mean our clients will not be able to access them. This will not help us to achieve our goal of ending homelessness and if we can’t count on housing associations to be partners in that aim then we face an even sterner challenge.