The Mayor of New York probably has enough on his plate without keeping up with Red Brick. But if he did, he’d find we are much bigger fans of his than we are of Boris Johnson. Told of the new practice of installing ‘poor doors’ in New York apartments, where providing a proportion of affordable housing has been a condition of their receiving building permits, Bill De Blasio said he intended to outlaw them. Back in Britain’s capital, however, installing poor doors seems to be an established practice that fails to trouble his London homologue.
Are poor doors the ultimate sign that social housing is a ‘failed brand’? The story came at the end of a week in which, as Red Brick reported, there was a live Guardian debate that saw the issue raised several times. A week earlier, Boris Worrall of Orbit Housing said that the social housing brand is ‘broken’, although he distinguished the brand from the product. Three weeks before that, Peter Hall’s blog picked up Red Brick’s story about the slow demise of social housing and argued that it would be better to subject it to euthanasia than to try to revive it. Not surprisingly, our friends in SHOUT have been vigilant in defending both the brand and the product. Colin Wiles took part in the Guardian discussion (along with Steve from Red Brick) and went on to challenge the notion of social housing having ‘failed’ or being ‘damaged’ in his column for Inside Housing.
Where does this leave us? There is a suspicion that this ‘failed brand’ debate comes about because some in the sector are positioning themselves to abandon social housing all together. After all, Boris Worrall has elsewhere proclaimed that ‘social housing is dead’. The NHF is hosting what it calls its HotHouse debate about the future of housing associations, one suggestion being that local authorities should be left to house those most excluded and vulnerable, perhaps predominantly in social rented properties. This would free up housing associations to cater for the more aspirational members of Generation Rent. Peter Hall’s argument is that it would be better for housing providers simply to create good quality rented housing, charging discounted rents to poorer tenants and full market rents to those able to pay them.
Probably few would oppose the idea that building some houses for sale or market rent can be a useful way to cross-subsidise social rented dwellings, but can this be done on a big enough scale? In Peter Hall’s example, only one third of the units are at social rents. Alan Holmans, the well-known expert on housing demographics, has pointed out that if we ever build 250,000 homes per year then indeed one-third of them will need to be at subsidised prices. But this means that for the Hall model to work across the board, we would need to capture all of the profits from the housebuilding industry. However tempting to Red Brick this might be, this simple calculation shows why we still need actual subsidy.
As Colin Wiles reminds us, another point that some would wilfully ignore is that both the need for and popularity of social housing are enormous. The Resolution Foundation’s report Home Truths showed that some 1.3 million low/middle-income households face housing costs which take one-third or more of their income. So far, few of these are in the social sector. But in 2012/13 alone there was a net loss of over 40,000 units that would have been let at social rents, so already we are putting parts of the social sector beyond the reach of broad numbers of low-income households, when we should be doing the opposite.
Kate Davies has also entered this debate, from a slightly different viewpoint. She says she admires the aspirational tenants ‘who get good jobs and go on to become homeowners’, but at the same time says we do need social housing as a safe haven for vulnerable people. However well-intentioned, this serves to confirm rather than confront the failed brand argument. It moves us much closer towards the position that the sector is (as she puts it) for ‘poor’ or ‘damaged’ people who can’t be self-sufficient. Ironically, this is the ambulance service view of social housing which persists in the U.S. and which De Blasio aims to challenge.
It’s a regrettably short leap from describing tenants as vulnerable to telling them that it’s all their fault. The media don’t necessarily make that leap – they don’t need to, there are enough viewers and below-the-line commentators who’ll do that for them. Arguing for sympathy rather than condemnation won’t work, especially when half those ready to condemn probably do so because they believe their own circumstances are more deserving of help from the state.
What’s the way forward? As Colin did, we need to keep on banging on about the scale of need that exists and of the supply that’s required. Given that we have an economy in which huge numbers on low and middle incomes find neither renting or buying affordable, low-cost housing is vital and only the social sector can provide the numbers of homes needed. Furthermore, if we were able to do this, we’d soon find that we were housing fewer vulnerable people and more who are simply working in low-paid jobs. (After all, those in work currently account for the fastest growing segment of housing benefit claims.)
But we also need to get a grip on our own perceptions of the sector we run. The fact that new lettings usually go to the most vulnerable applicants shouldn’t blind us to the broad range of people who still live in social housing, even after 30 years of ‘residualisation’. Kate Davies admonishes those who promote social housing as an ‘idealised workers’ paradise’ but it’s equally misleading to go to the other extreme. In my view, talking about ‘failed’ or ‘broken’ bands does just this, and undermines the case we need to make for massive investment so that the sector can properly cater for many more of those who need and want to live in it.
A small lesson can be drawn from a different piece on the Guardian Housing Network. Residents of the Aylesbury Estate objected to the way their homes have been regularly portrayed by Channel 4, including in the opening images of ‘Benefits Street’. The short clip, called an ‘ident’ in the trade, shows a monochrome estate, apparently after a rain storm, populated by pigeons and strung with washing lines and bin bags. Residents helped produce their own, alternative clip, showing the estate in a very different light, featuring the varied groups of people who actually live there. Both the film and the fact that they did it should remind us that there are (still) plenty of vibrant people living in social housing who are getting on with their lives. They suffer much more than we do if where they live is described as ‘failed’ or ‘broken’. Social housing pundits, please note.