Housing associations vary a lot and it is not easy to generalise. Most small and medium-sized associations retain their overriding commitment to meeting housing need and to providing good services to their tenants and residents. But there is growing concern at the attitude of some – I emphasise not all – that have become developers first and foremost.
Ten to 15 years ago, associations started getting into private development as a way of generating surpluses, which could be added to the significant grant they received from central government to provide more social housing and affordable home ownership.
Now what was once the tail wags the dog. The primary interest is maxing numbers of new homes irrespective of who they are for and they have all but abandoned their mission to provide social rented homes for the poorest. One of the worst practices – encouraged by the government – has been to convert homes previously let at a social rent rate, typically 50% of market rates, into so-called “affordable” rent, at up to 80% of market rates, so they can make more money out of them.
In the early 2000s the work of housing associations was brought into the light by a new regulatory regime. Associations that had talked a great job for years were shown to have only “one star” services (out of three) following Audit Commission inspections. External scrutiny led to a fast rate of improvement and by the end of the decade, most had achieved three stars: a great example of regulator and regulated working together for the benefit of the customer.
Then, in 2010, the incoming coalition government abolished the regulator, abolished the Audit Commission, and slashed public support for affordable housing by 60% in the first year alone. The results were predictable: rapid commercialisation, a speedy departure from the traditional mission to house the homeless, a decline in service responsiveness, and a desire to switch every available penny into new development.
Why does this matter so much? Simple: housing associations are critically important institutions. They never replaced council housing, as was once intended, but they provided good homes at genuinely affordable rents and prices to people who could not compete in the housing market. Homeless and badly-housed people depended on them to deliver because no one else would.
There is some hope that London mayor Sadiq Khan will pull big associations back from the brink and make them relevant again. He is insisting on more genuinely affordable homes, including social rent, in new developments and is targeting his budget accordingly.
It is desperately important that housing associations – built on public subsidy and mostly charities – gear up to meeting housing need and providing high-quality services again. We also need a new generation of council housing. If we could get both these things, we would stand a hope of tackling the housing crisis.