Why we need more social housing
This content applies to England only.
The number of people living in social housing in this country is in decline. As waiting lists continue to grow, more and more people are being forced into private rented housing instead. This is leaving thousands of families and vulnerable households without a suitable home.
- There are more than 1.8 million households waiting for a social home – an increase of 81% since 1997.
- Two thirds of households on the waiting list have been waiting for more than a year.
- Nearly 41,000 households with dependent children were living in temporary accommodation at the end of December 2012.
Many of the issues with social housing stem from the same problem: there just have not been enough social homes built over the past few decades. But while there is a huge lack of supply, demand for social housing has soared. More recently, a series of government policy changes have changed the very nature of social housing.
A lack of social homes
The biggest problem facing social housing is that as a country we are simply not building enough affordable homes. As a result, waiting lists for social housing continue to grow – forcing more and more people to move into private rented accommodation.
Often this form of housing – with short-term contracts, unpredictable rent rises and a lack of security – is unsuitable for those who are vulnerable or in housing need. And yet with a lack of social housing available this is the only option left for many households.
The ‘bedroom tax’
For the first time, families on the lowest incomes may not be able to afford even social housing, due to new restrictions to housing benefit payments.
Under the size criteria (known widely as the bedroom tax), introduced in April 2013, if an individual or family has more bedrooms than the new rules say they need, they are considered to be ‘under-occupying’ their home. As a result, their housing benefit is reduced. If housing benefit no longer covers the full cost of their rent, they’ll have to pay it by themselves.
This policy was designed to reduce the housing benefit bill and encourage those with extra rooms to move into smaller properties, freeing up larger homes for families to move into. But the bedroom tax is extremely crude in how it is applied, and doesn’t take into account personal circumstances.
For example, a divorced parent that isn’t the main guardian of their child, and therefore only has them over at weekends, will not be allowed to keep a bedroom available without being charged. There are a wide range of cases such as this that will not be exempt from the bedroom tax, leaving thousands struggling to keep up with their rent. This will push many into arrears, leaving them at risk of homelessness.
Some people caught by the restriction have lived in their family homes and local neighbourhoods for decades. The increased rent will force many of these individuals out of their homes and away from their local support networks.
Even for those willing and able to move, there are not enough social rented homes for smaller households available. This means that, through no fault of their own, many will be unable to move to a smaller home. For example, 4,700 families in Hull are ‘over-occupiers’ yet there are only 73 one-bed flats to move into in the area.
Social housing allocation policies
In certain areas of the country social housing allocation policies have changed dramatically. More and more local authorities are choosing to move away from prioritising those in greatest housing need, instead giving more weight to applicants who are in work or who have lived in the area for a long time.
While those who are in work should be rewarded, it’s also important not to penalise those who cannot find employment or are unable to work. Social housing was created to provide a stable form of housing for those in need. Moving the priority away from these groups to favour those in work undermines the very purpose of social housing.
Affordable Rent is a new way of financing social homes. The properties are made available at 80% of market rent, and allocated in the same way as social housing. Some contracts may require landlords to re-let existing social housing at Affordable Rents. The extra money raised from Affordable Rent tenants should then be invested back into building more social homes.
Investing more money into building social homes is a crucial solution to the housing crisis, but the Affordable Rent model is not a sustainable solution for people at risk of homelessness or struggling with costs. Unlike traditional social housing, Affordable Rent tenancies can be offered on very short-term contracts – meaning that they can’t offer the security and stability of a social home. They are also far more expensive pushing them out of reach for those normally eligible for social housing.
While Affordable Rent homes can be a useful alternative to the private rented sector, there is a danger that they will be used to replace traditional social housing. This would leave vulnerable families with no option but to move into more expensive homes on shorter contracts, unsuitable for them and their families.
Alongside building more Affordable Rent homes, it’s important that we keep building properties that can be let out as traditional social tenancies to cater for those unable to afford the more expensive affordable rental properties or in need of longer tenancies.
The end of lifelong tenancies
The Localism Act 2011 changed the rules on the length of tenancies for social renters. Social landlords can now let on short-term contracts of five years and, in some cases, as little as two years.
It is important that those who rent from a social landlord have the opportunity of a permanent, secure home. However, the shortage of social housing means local authorities have to deal with the many thousands of households that are waiting, whether in temporary accommodation or in insecure private rentals, for the offer of a social home.
Shelter has campaigned for local authorities to carry on offering longer-term tenancies, where possible, to those households that are vulnerable and in need of a secure home; for example, households containing someone over 60 years of age, or people with a long-term medical or welfare need. We also recommend that families with children are offered longer-term tenancies so that their families can get the stability they need.
Shelter analysis of English Housing Survey 2010/11 (latest available data)