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Surviving

For someone involved in housing for 50 years, it is impossible not to feel embarrassed and ashamed by the appalling conditions lived in by some social tenants as exposed by Daniel Hewitt’s ITV documentary, Surviving Squalor.

The ‘regulator’ (sic) should be throwing the book and the ‘Ombudsman’ (equally sic) should be down on them like a ton of bricks. Sadly, they are both ineffectual. I would like tenants to be able to sue for damages more easily and for landlords to be prosecuted. But where are the highly paid Executives, and where are the Boards and where are the councillors who run these organisations?

We are rightly angry at some of the cases shown and it is excellent journalism especially when the tenants themselves are allowed to speak. Once again, we see people who are articulate but totally exasperated, just wanting a decent service in return for their rent and service charges.

But equally fine journalism and campaigning has also exposed many a bad private landlord over the years. The cases of many badly treated lessees and shared owners have also had wide coverage recently. And I recall that some of the worst housing conditions and poverty I ever encountered were amongst elderly homeowners. So, the issues are broader, not confined to a single tenure, and must be properly examined.

Across all tenures, our standards and expectations are just too low – and falling behind all the time, especially when health implications and climate change are considered – the remedies are just not good enough, and accountability is totally inadequate.

At the core, we just don’t invest enough of our national wealth in homes, and we don’t invest because we do not value highly enough the human dignity that comes with living in a decent, appropriate, warm, dry, affordable home.

There was plenty to be annoyed about in the programme. The practised apologies seemingly written by PR people. The disgrace that urgent action is taken when a bad case gets on the telly – ITV might quickly find itself inundated as the country’s leading housing advice agency. The lack of intervention by people who should intervene. The quick return to normality that inevitably follows.

But one thing above all made me feel sick. Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, said it was nothing to do with the government, it was all down to bad practice and mismanagement. However guilty we feel, rightly, housing people should condemn this oleaginous brass-necked man.

His Party abolished the regulator, abolished the Audit Commission, abolished the National Tenant Voice, cut housing by 60% as its first act in 2010, ended new funding for social rented homes, introduced chaos into rent setting so no-one could plan, and pushed landlords into taking money out of housing management, maintenance, and capitalised repairs to ‘cross-subsidise’ new build as the only way of getting new homes built.

This is not an excuse for landlords, and it is not all about money – some of the worst disrepair cases in the programme seemed to be in blocks that had expensive new cladding – but for Jenrick not to admit that government drives this increasingly rickety machine is buck-passing of the worst kind.

I do think social landlords have lost sight of the bread and butter, their first duty, that homes must be properly managed and properly maintained. I know only too well that it is possible for things to go wrong even when you think you are doing it right. But now there is too much emphasis on shiny new schemes, sparkling financial products, innovative new structures, and fancy regeneration.

Development is seen to be exciting and strategic, management boring and messily detailed. Housing Association Boards do not have enough people on them with experience of running social housing in which people with relatively small incomes live. They are stuffed with people interested in development and finance, important skills but not enough. I suspect many of them never meet a tenant. I know quite a lot of dedicated councillors and I have almost no explanation as to why local councillors in the boroughs depicted were not up in arms.

Of course, some people jumped at the opportunity to denounce social housing. This is where the greatest peril lies. All too often, social housing has been made to fail by government, even if too many social landlords have also been complicit. Yet the sector has rallied due to the efforts of tenants and campaigners, and it has survived an attempt to end it altogether.

It is still the case that millions of people would be delighted to get a social rented home. Most social tenants are satisfied with their homes, the vast majority are in reasonable condition but lacking investment since the end of the decent homes programme.  

Social rented housing is still the main hope in the search for a solution to the housing crisis. But the sector must stop shooting itself in the foot, speak out for tenants, be more competent, be more caring, and be more focused on the core task of running what we already have well.

<strong>Steve Hilditch</strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick blog.
Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

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Squalor and The Return of Real Capitalism

ITV’s releases ‘Surviving Squalor: Britain’s Housing Shame’ on Sunday at 10:15pm. Unquestionably highlighting some of the most horrific housing conditions endures by people and families living in social housing in the UK. 

Red Brick has long forewarned about the return of squalor. The national scandal that has been the neglect of housing. But as housing associations and local authorities are the only owner operator game in town, is it time for a rethink?

For many, these conditions are everyday norms. The perpetrators are not rogue private landlords, but housing associations and local authorities. And calls for regulatory intervention are falling on deaf ears.

Some of the worst offenders are receiving the most funding

The need for social housing has never been starker. So stark even the Tory Government has made an allocation to fund 30,000 new social homes. Notably following a recent funding announcement under the Affordable Homes Programme. In London, Sadiq Khan has seen £3.46bn distributed. The bulk of the funding is conditional on an emphasis towards social rent.

This funding comes with new conditions attached. These include all new buildings requiring sprinklers and that no combustible materials exist in the facades. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the biggest beneficiary for funding affordable housing in the capital was not a local authority. Instead Europe’s largest housing association, Clarion Housing will receive £240m to deliver 2,000 homes, of which 1,250 are for social rent.

Previous concerns over controversial mega mergers are coming home to roost

Clarion Housing was a merger between Affinity Sutton and Circle Housing Group in 2016. This occurred under the then Minister of State for Housing and Planning Gavin Barwell. Two of the housing associations in the Circle group had chronic problems with its repairs and maintenance services.

Circle had found itself downgraded as a result of ‘serious issues of disrepair’. Nevertheless, the mega merger went ahead. This was despite John Biggs, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, condemning the lack of local accountability in the transfer to Clarion of Old Ford (Circle). The original stock transfer from the local authority crucially had this as a term in the original transfer agreement, which was completely disregarded.

Highlighting local concerns about the merger, and lack of local accountability, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Rushanara Ali questioned the Government. In response, Barwell argued that the housing associations involved believed the merger “will create a more efficient organization”.

Board’s lack tenant and resident representation

Two years after the merger, the now Lord Barwell found himself welcomed onto the board of Clarion Housing. In addition to David Orr, who had served 13 years as CEO of the housing association trade body the National Housing Federation, in addition to Graham Farrant – who has previously worked  for Dame Shirley Porter when the council moved homeless people into asbestos-ridden tower blocks. At present no tenant or resident sits on the board of Clarion Housing.

Red Brick has long argued for the Mayor to undertake a full audit of board membership of housing associations. While not against those with private sector experience, we need to balance this with expertise in social housing, alongside experiences of tenants and residents.

Clarion Housing continues to dodge regulator judgement despite serious controversies

Clarion Housing have been constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons. Not least down to the tireless campaigning of those affected, particularly across London. ITV Political Correspondent, Daniel Hewitt, has been legendary in his journalism. In particular through coverage of the appalling conditions on a housing estate of 500 homes in South London.

It appears too many residents in 2021 are living in squalor. In this situation finding themselves infested with vermin and plagued with damp issues. The scale of the most recent case prompted consideration whether Clarion Housing breached standards by the Regulator for Social Housing (RSH). The RSH had cleared Clarion just three months prior following an investigation into a major repairs scandal 5 years before. That time concerning buildings in Tower Hamlets.

On the 12th August 2021 the RSH curiously once again found no issues, citing there is no “evidence of systemic or organizational failure which indicates a breach of the consumer standards” . Weeks later Sadiq handed them almost a quarter of a billion pounds to go onto acquire and manage more properties. All the while living conditions remain dire for those affected.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg, red tape and bureaucracy in the Housing Ombudsman is holding back a tide of cases

Last November, Clarion featured in another investigation, this time by the BBC, investigating how they manage complaints handling and service charges. To date, further action has been actively delayed by the Housing Ombudsman, giving excuses such as not being able to take it on given the different tenures of those effected within a group complaint. The Housing Ombudsman is the ultimate gatekeeper to the RSH.

Still to this date, both shared owners and social tenants continue to pursue their case with the Housing Ombudsman. Almost three years after originally raising concerns with the landlord. Yet these recent regulatory judgements do not fill them with much hope.

But what does this achieve? Cases with the Housing Ombudsman can take up to in excess of a year to process. Even after having to slog through a complaints process that can be manipulated to take over a year in itself. Experiences all too familiar for those whose landlord is Clarion Housing. Along with other dysfunctional housing associations and local authorities.

For those living in the rat infested damp ridden flats that don’t even break social housing regulations, they are left to despair. For those currently living in temporary accommodation, or those who have been made homeless for weeks on end, after repeated leaks and floods of sewage water, lack of action from the Housing Ombudsman or RSH evaporates any sense of hope.

Clarion Housing Resident, Tower Hamlets 2021
Sector needs to do more to prioritise existing housing conditions

But what is the sector doing to tackle the problem of poor housing conditions? The short answer is not enough. Co-Founder of the Social Housing Under Threat campaign (SHOUT), Tom Murtha, aptly pointed out something did not quite sit right as to why housing conditions were not even on the agenda at the Chartered Institute of Housing’s ‘Housing 2021’ annual conference. This was an event that Housing Minister Christopher Pincher could not be bothered to attend in person. Coupled with Daniel Hewitt’s lack of invitation to speak, as pointed out by Tom Murtha below:

What was on the agenda was housing’s role in health and wellbeing. In addition to this was a panel featuring the RSH’s new Director of Consumer Regulation. Since January 2021 Kate Dodsworth has taken up the mantel. She has also talked about “the road to consumer regulation”, Although called for housing associations to fix their issues now and to “not wait for the regulator to come round in a couple years”.

Perhaps after ITV’s ‘Surviving Squalor’ is released they should come knocking somewhat sooner.

Lacking transparency, Housing Ombudsman statistics are massaged to cover the backs of its largest members

Kate is the former CEO of Gateway Housing, who topped the tables in the Housing Ombudsman own “complaints failures index”. This is despite only having found to be 9 times at fault between 2017/18 and 2019/20. Clarion Housing in comparison were at fault a staggering 129 times.

Determinations by Housing Ombudsman 2017/18 to 2019/20

Oddly, the index weights the number of determinations by how many homes each social landlord manages. In a way, this makes larger landlords appear lower down the rankings, despite having higher total numbers. Larger organisations claim they are more efficient – as aforementioned by Lord Barwell. But if true, bigger organisations should be indexed more heavily based on size. As opposed to the other way round.

In the latest landlord performance data published by the Housing Ombudsman, complaints received on Clarion Housing about complaint handling has seen a 250% increase in 2019/20 compared to 2017/18. Over the past three years Clarion Housing has received 1,899 complaints, of which 42.5% are related to property conditions.

What is not transparent from these figures is the number of tenant’s and leaseholders impacted by the complaints. By way of example, over 500 homes were affected in the ITV investigation, but these are not logged as individual complaints. Nor are they split out by tenure.

Social media is making prevalence of cases harder to ignore

In Channel 4’s ‘Grenfell: The Untold Story’ the poor treatment of residents by both landlord and local politician was all too revealing. It revealed how the then MP Victoria Borwick urged a mother concerned about being without water for days to “take baths with people next door”. This exemplifies the growing sense of the “us and them” society that we know is so deeply corrosive to our cohesion as a nation.

This remarkable footage emerged from a meeting concerning repairs and maintenance. It provides such crucial evidence of the plight put forward by many residents, many of whom are no longer around.

Snippets from this weekend’s ‘Surviving Squalor’ also highlight the ineptitudes of some local authorities too. Chronically ill Mehdi was living with water leaks contaminated with “significant faecal contamination”.

His landlord?

Lewisham Homes – a recent nominee for the Tpas England Awards Shortlist. While TPAS expressed their shame at the conditions some tenants are having to endure, they highlighted that their awards cover a range of categories. Admittedly, not just “managing homes”.

Real capitalism in the interest of humanity can help solve our low-income housing issues

So herein lies Sadiq’s funding conundrum. At present grant can only be provided to local authorities or housing associations. Some of which face reputational damage resulting from serious causes of concern and ESG related controversies.

Under the Labour-led Wheatley Act 1924 we as a country subsidised private builders to create homes for those on low-incomes. If we are to provide grant to the private sector conditional on owner operation at social rent levels, we would enable funding packages to be less reliant on those guilty of such poor management. Instead, we see the lion’s share of London’s funding for example go to a housing association with the most complaint determinations against its name. Clarion Housing.

At present we are dealing with the inability of the country to meet the heavy burdens now placed upon it. Back in 1924 private enterprise had little to no interest investing money in houses for letting purposes. Yet today we see operators indeed willing to invest. Whether this be through the burgeoning Build-to-Rent sector, or the nascent Single Family Rental sector, the local authority and housing association is no longer the only possible investment partner to bear these costs.

At the time, John Wheatley described his socialist housing funding proposals as “real capitalism – an attempt to patch up, in the interests of humanity, a capitalist ordered society”. Yes you read that correctly. The first socialist Labour government knew it had to patch up these interests through what it described “real capitalism”. For this reason, it is not outside Labour principles to fund housing at social rent levels for direct provision by the private sector. Nor has it ever been.

We need to diversify who owns and operates social housing

At present, only Registered Social Landlords can own and operate affordable housing under the eye of the regulator. Often forward funding from housebuilders and developers who do not have a long-term interest in the construction of the property. We have seen Clarion Housing’s own Group Director of Development highlight the “lack of commerciality in the sector”. It comes as no surprise that we see just as many issues with new build social housing, as we do with buildings coming to the end of their life.

In America federal states fund the construction of affordable rental housing for those on low-incomes through conditional tax credits. They provide this to both for-profit and not-for-profit owner operators through its Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) programme. By being sector agnostic both state and federal government drive competition, and thus commerciality, into funding programmes.

We should explore progressive innovative new funding models of low-income rental housing. For those on the left we cannot shun the private sector. We must work progressively with it to provide more options for those in most housing need. This will allow government to be less reliant on some of the worst offenders to deliver housing for those on low-incomes.

The ultimate goal?

To make fewer people have to survive squalor.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Christopher Worrall</span></strong>
Christopher Worrall

Editor of Red Brick.

He sits on the Labour Housing Group Executive Committee, is Chair of Poplar and Limehouse CLP, and co-hosts the Priced Out podcast.

He writes in a personal capacity.

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How do we reset the housing market?

England’s housing system has failed. We need to press the reset button on housing – let’s start with planning.

Rampant house price inflation. Hundreds of thousands of people trapped in unsafe buildings. Tens of thousands of families made homeless during a global pandemic. Our housing system is broken.

You would think given the state of things, that fundamental reform of housing would be top of the political agenda and an obvious vote winner. Yet this isn’t the case and we’ve seen no substantive policy action in decades, with the supply of new homes per year now well below the housebuilding highs of the  1960s and 1970s. Despite being badly needed, the popularity of the ‘not in my backyard’ mantra has made housing reform politically untenable, with devastating consequences.

This problem is most obvious at the local level. While many voters are often sympathetic to the problems of housing affordability and homelessness, they too often oppose the construction of new homes, including affordable homes. Building more homes would help tackle such problems by directly increasing the supply of affordable homes and expanding the number of housing options available to people more generally.

England’s housing crisis is a product of multiple local housing crises. In many of the areas where opposition to new homes is strongest, affordability problems are often the worst. Of course, the ramifications of this crisis are not felt equally. It is often the younger and less well-off residents who are eventually priced out of their own communities.

Building more and better homes is not a panacea. But we must acknowledge it is part of the solution. As Geoff Meen, one of the UK’s foremost housing experts has pointed out, it’s ‘perfectly possible for there to be both an absolute shortage of homes and a distribution problem’. In essence, we are not building enough homes in England, and we do not have the right policies to create more sustainable credit conditions or ensure fair access to housing for people on all incomes.

Once we acknowledge that building more homes is part of the solution, then the next question we must answer is ‘how do we build more’? Part of the answer lies in the way we deliver homes through England’s planning system. While the government’s proposed reforms aren’t flawless, they do present a vision. Significant questions about what these reforms could mean for the delivery of affordable housing persist and they certainly don’t go far enough in tackling high land values.

The answer to these weaknesses is better reforms, not no reforms. We must imagine a better alternative to our current planning system if we are to tackle the root causes of the housing crisis.

To show their credibility on housing issues, political parties must better sell a vision for a planning system that delivers the homes we need and in doing so, stops people from being priced out of their communities. That requires putting aside the short-term gains of winning immediate votes by objecting to local development and instead explaining why we need to build more homes in this country. Making the case for more homes nationally while opposing them in their backyard reduces the credibility of any national message politicians might have on housing.

The widespread opposition to the government’s planning reforms suggest that they were dead on arrival. That is not a reason to abandon attempts to address the housing crisis. At the moment, our planning system reinforces England’s broken housing market because land that obtains planning permission increases exponentially in value. This makes it increasingly difficult to build homes at affordable prices. Despite this, suitable policy solutions such as the introduction of zoning policy find few advocates and instead, the dysfunctional status quo persists.

We need to build a new consensus on housing. It is time to move beyond the short-term gains and quick wins that come from opposing new homes. Instead, politicians must present a bold and radical vision for how they will address England’s housing crisis. Now is the time for radical and ambitious vision that would improve the supply of high-quality and affordable homes, while also tackling the unfair distribution of homes.  The myriad of problems facing the housing market – from the building safety crisis to rampant unaffordability – will only get worse without action to deliver better quality and more affordable homes.

The longer the housing crisis goes unfixed, the more damage it does. Progressives must not fall into the trap of opposition for opposition’s sake. Instead, they should articulate a clear vision that that explains why the housing market is broken, why we need radical action to fix things and how a fairer society can be created if we get things right. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Jonathan Webb</span></strong>
Jonathan Webb

Jonathan Webb is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR North. He tweets @jrkwebb.

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Housing has to be at the heart of Labour’s vision

We have a mountain to climb to win the next election, but housing has to be at the heart of Labour’s vision as the best country to grow up and grow old in

Labour is the Party of safe, secure, affordable homes to rent and buy. We have a proud record in national and local government, upgrading social homes to make them decent and warm and building new truly affordable homes for local communities.

I’m delighted to have been appointed Shadow Housing Secretary. It’s a huge brief, with lots to do. I’m keen to work with colleagues in the Labour Housing Group to engage with voters and members on the key challenges and opportunities. 

A decade of Conservative government has made the housing emergency worse. 

The failure of the government to build social housing has pushed many into the private rented sector which has exploded in size, and cost. Taxpayers now pay billions of pounds in housing benefit to landlords, getting very little in return. Private tenants pay expensive rents, have few rights, and are often at the mercy of unscrupulous practices. The pandemic has brought renters’ plight to the forefront.

The government should make good on their promise that no one should lose their home because of the virus. I challenged Ministers to bring forward a plan to tackle the Covid rent arrears crisis recently in Parliament. We’ve argued for emergency legislation to end Section 21 evictions, yet government have kicked the Renters Reform Bill into the long grass. 

We’ve seen homeownership plummet, whilst house prices have surged, pricing first time buyers out of the market, and creating huge inequality in housing wealth. The government’s stamp duty holiday has pushed up prices wiping out the benefit whilst making it more expensive for everyone, including first time buyers, to get on or up the ladder. 

Fixing the Building Safety scandal is another priority. The Government’s approach to building safety has been ineffective, blighted by inertia, and is beset by increasing costs. I’ll work with anyone to get homeowners out of the fix they’re in. It’s wrong that leaseholders and tenants are being forced to shell out money for faults they didn’t cause, all the while living in unsafe, unsellable, homes.

Social landlords have been excluded altogether from the Building Safety Fund, using up valuable funds that they would have invested in new council/social housing after being abandoned by government. As the Building Safety Bill goes through Parliament we’ll work to get leaseholders a cast iron guarantee that they won’t have to pay for fire safety works.

We’ve also called for the government to establish a new Building Works Agency – a crack team of government-appointed experts and engineers in direct charge of resolving this crisis, going block by block, assessing risk, commissioning and funding works, certifying buildings as safe and flats sellable. 

The BWA would work closely with local authorities and fire chiefs, who have been gathering data and are well placed to know how to manage projects in their areas. The Agency would also have the legal powers to pursue those responsible for costs through the courts. 

Our Building Works Agency follows the model in Victoria, Australia. The big lesson from there that our government needs to learn fast, is that the Government needs to be interventionist, or the work will never get done. 

In Victoria, the government carried out a full-scale audit, proactively going to every building over two stories high, rather than waiting for building owners to report themselves. Cladding Safety Victoria was set up, an organisation with powers to fix dangerous buildings. Each building has a dedicated officer, and they appoint a project manager directly.

Cladding Safety Victoria uses a trusted set of fire engineers to assess the works that will be necessary. They organise the insurance, which is otherwise too hard to get on the market. Cladding Safety Victoria releases funds according to milestones and inspections. Vitally, they ensure that a fire engineer sign off the building as safe at the end. In the meantime, homeowners can sell because they have a proof that the works will be done and paid for.

For too long the government has had its head in the sand, we need to see real leadership to challenge vested interests and get the job done. 

There are lots of other issues in the in-tray too – from future proofing our homes to tackle the climate emergency and create good green jobs, to tackling homelessness, to giving social housing tenants a voice and redress in a system which undervalues them. 

My aim is to put Labour at the heart of the debate on the future of housing. We need a housing system that is safe, affordable, that works for people not simply for profit, and brings Keir’s leadership pledge that housing is a human right to life. 

We have a mountain to climb to win the next election, but housing has to be at the heart of Labour’s vision as the best country to grow up and grow old in. I look forward to working with you to achieve this. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Lucy Powell</span></strong> <strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">MP</span></strong>
Lucy Powell MP

Lucy Powell is the Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Manchester Central and Labour’s Shadow Housing Secretary.

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Terrors of Temporary Accommodation

‘I can say it is cold, very cold in my room. I have got no access to the kitchen, no fridge, no basic things that I need.’

Many complex social challenges have not received much focus over the last 18 months while we have been grappling with the pandemic. But they have continued to bubble away out of sight and, as we are now (hopefully) moving towards the end of the pandemic, some of them are reaching boiling point.  This is true of hidden homelessness and the stark lack of truly affordable housing which causes people to be stuck in Temporary Accommodation for far too long. 

I work for Justlife Foundation, an organisation that works to ensure stays in Temporary Accommodation (TA) are as short, safe and healthy as possible. TA is a broad term that describes short-term housing used for people who are homeless while waiting for something more permanent that satisfies the main housing duty under the Housing Act 1996. Residents of TA might have a short-term agreement, nightly licenses or non-secure tenancies, offering little or no tenancy rights, and they may or may not receive support from services.

We would call everyone living in TA ‘hidden homeless,’ however, some are arguably even more hidden than others – with tens of thousands single homeless households living in insecure housing, not placed by local authorities under homelessness legislation and not included in the official statistics that tell us how many individuals and families are living in local authority-placed TA. All those who are ‘hidden homeless’ are not visible to the public and wider society in the way those who sleep rough.


Life in Temporary Accommodation

Experiences for hidden homeless households in TA is anything but short, safe and healthy. Research conducted between 2014-2016 with the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) North uncovered a bleak reality, where individuals with limited access to local authority support ended up staying in TA for anywhere from six months to 38 years.  

‘When I first moved in, I had no running water for over a week. I kept complaining about it. So I couldn’t shower, I couldn’t even use the loo, and literally no one would do anything. They kept saying that someone would do something, and every day I’d come back and it would still not work. It was just so frustrating. And also I think I’d want to know that there’s no cooking facilities at all.’

Our research revealed that approximately half the TA residents do not have a working lock on their door. Most share filthy squalid bathroom facilities that are regularly out of order, many have windows that do not close, and most were not provided with bedding. Illegal money lending and drug dealing are commonplace, and the prognosis for those entering TA is likely to involve deteriorating mental and physical health, increased anxiety, higher drug and alcohol use, increased social isolation, and an increased risk of premature death.  

This picture is true for single homeless households and families alike (see Gold Standard Report, Shared Health Foundation). Children are often placed alongside single adults with complex mental health and substance misuse problems. 

“It’s hell. You can’t sleep, you got your ears, playing the music loud. You report it to [the landlord] and he just gets really nasty with you, and if you challenge him he attacks you against the wall. He’s had me pinned against the wall at least four times, and I’ve just had enough of it.” 

Even before the pandemic, TA residents were disadvantaged, with many facing multiple and complex issues. This has worsened in the last year according to our most recent research into the impact of COVID-19 on those we support. Interviewees spoke of horrible conditions, perfect for the spread of COVID-19, in which they felt forced to ‘self-isolate’. The closure of many support services and the decrease in available move-on accommodation, has left many residents feeling more trapped than ever and experiencing deteriorating physical and mental health. 

‘When he [the landlord] comes around he doesn’t knock on the door he just walks in. So if you’re getting dressed, it’s tough…. he can get in with his key, yes. Because there is no inner lock, so you can’t lock him out, unless you barricade the door. And there’s even females there as well.’ 


Numbers continue to rise 

The use of TA has significantly increased during the pandemic. Under ‘Everyone In’, 15,000 rough sleepers were housed, mainly in hotels. Now that has ended, the shortage of appropriate housing means many are being moved either into TA or back onto the streets. Shelter’s report “Homeless in a Pandemic” showed over 250,000 people were living in TA across England in June 2020, an increase of 83% since 2010. This figure does not include those who were placed inside under ‘Everyone In’ and does not account for those who are yet to lose their home as the evictions ban is lifted.

In addition, national statistics show only those placed by local authorities in TA, and not those homeless individuals who have found some other way into different kinds of Temporary Accommodation. Our 2017 report, ‘Lifting the Lid on Hidden Homelessness: A New Analysis’ estimated the number of households living in Bed & Breakfasts (B&B) across England to be close to 51,500, almost 10 times the official figure of 5,870.

The picture becomes even more murky when we take Exempt Accommodation into account. Exempt accommodation is a type of housing where landlords receive the higher housing benefit rate due to the provision of additional services for residents. It technically sits in the social housing—rather than private housing—sector and has existed for many years. However, changes to Universal Credit, and the rising cost of housing, have created a wave of new Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMO). Many previously used as Bed & Breakfasts or private hostels are changing, as landlords move into the more lucrative exempt accommodation sector as landlords seek higher returns.

For people stuck there, Exempt Accommodation can be difficult to distinguish from TA. As Councillor Sharon Thompson’s blog about Exempt Accommodation in Birmingham (10th May) shows, there is a distinct lack of regulation and standards across both TA and Exempt Accommodation, as well as limited enforcement powers for those in local authorities who want to ensure standards are being kept. Standards in both types of accommodation are often very poor.

For people stuck there, Exempt Accommodation can be difficult to distinguish from TA. As Councillor Sharon Thompson’s blog about Exempt Accommodation in Birmingham (10th May) shows, there is a distinct lack of regulation and standards across both TA and Exempt Accommodation, as well as limited enforcement powers for those in local authorities who want to ensure standards are being kept. Standards in both types of accommodation are often very poor.


What can be done 

We agree with the five areas outlined in the petition to end the scandal of Exempt Accommodation that collectively call on the national government to create more regulation within the sector, to increase funding to local authorities to enable greater resource and effective enforcement and, finally, to create safeguards around community and resident impact.  Each of these would have a positive impact on those living in all forms of temporary housing, but we also feel there are further ways to address additional problems with TA both locally and nationally:

Setting up local ‘Temporary Accommodation Action Groups’

  • First recommended in Nowhere Fast 2016, these are local groups that include all stakeholders of the accommodation, including residents and landlords, that come together with a common agenda to develop locally-relevant improvements to experiences in the accommodation. Currently there are four as part of our National TA Network: Brighton, East Sussex, Hackney and Manchester.

Joining, and encouraging MPs to join, the newly formed APPG on Households in TA

  • Justlife and Shared Health Foundation have pushed for the development of the APPG, focusing both on quick immediate aims/objectives as well as longer-term inquiries into the impact Temporary Accommodation has on the health and wellbeing of children, families and individuals, in order to better inform parliamentarians of the issues/challenges facing those in TA across England.

We believe that both these groups, alongside targeted action to meet people’s individual needs, will be vital in bringing about positive change for the hundreds of thousands of people who are hidden away in Temporary as well as Exempt Accommodation.

References

Gossman, S; Procter, A; Paylor, D and Maciver, C. (2020) Hidden Homelessness Exposed: The impact of COVID-19 on single homeless households living in temporary accommodation. Justlife Foundation. https://www.justlife.org.uk/assets/documents/JL_Report-HiddenHomelessness-The-impact-of-COVID-19_v3.pdf

Maciver, C. (2017) Lifting the Lid on Hidden Homelessness: A new analysis. Justlife Foundation. https://www.justlife.org.uk/assets/documents/JL_UTA-Report-2017_HR_Web-Ready.pdf

Rose, A and Davies, B. (2014) Not Home: the lives of hidden homeless households in unsupported temporary accommodation in England. IPPR North. https://www.justlife.org.uk/assets/documents/not-home_dec2014.pdf

Shared Health Foundation (2019). Homeless Families: The Gold Standard: A proposal. https://1b9dd56c-a72a-4a23-82a6-2eeb4eed747d.filesusr.com/ugd/ba5732_f620bf7c1e2d45af809d9c406f253bd3.pdf

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Christa Maciver</span></strong>
Christa Maciver

Christa is Head of Research, Policy and Communications at Just Life UK.

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Intolerable Initial Accommodation

The UK has a proud historic record of providing a safe haven for people fleeing war, conflict and persecution, including Ugandan Asians in 1972, Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s, people fleeing the Holocaust in Germany and central Europe in the 1940s.

There are many ways in which Tory led governments since 2010 have betrayed that tradition, more of which we will see this coming week as the pernicious Nationality and Borders Bill is debated at second reading, but amongst them the way that housing is provided for those seeking asylum in the UK stands out.

Housing for asylum seekers is currently provided by the government under two types of contract – ‘initial accommodation’ and ‘dispersal accommodation’.  Initial accommodation is typically provided in hostels or hotels and is intended for no more than 3-4 weeks.  Dispersal accommodation is more likely to be self-contained private rented accommodation, where asylum seekers can live until their claim for asylum is processed.

There is an initial accommodation site in my constituency, and I have frequent contact with the residents there.  Most residents have fled situations of extreme danger and hardship and many are deeply traumatised.  They are grateful to be in a place of such comparable safety, and very reluctant to complain or raise concerns, they appreciate the staff who often go above and beyond their job descriptions and contracted hours to provide services and support.  Yet the appalling nature of this government’s approach is clear to see.

It is common for asylum seekers to remain in initial accommodation for months or even years at a time, far longer than the expected 3-4 weeks.  The budget for food in initial accommodation is very low.  Asylum seekers are not allowed to undertake paid work, they receive less than £40 a week for subsistence and the only independent cooking facility provided is a single microwave, so opportunities to supplement the food provided on site are limited.  The food is poor quality, bland and has little variety, so residents staying in initial accommodation for extended periods often end up eating very little. 

The monotony of life in initial accommodation is often intolerable, particularly for asylum seekers who have suffered horrific experiences prior to arriving in the UK.  For weeks at a time during the pandemic, asylum seekers have been confined to single rooms, often with no Wi-Fi or data.  The lack of positive activity, sense of purpose and distraction from the trauma they have suffered is unbearable for many and mental health support is very hard to access. Asylum seekers are at the mercy of the Home Office, which can take months and years to decide on an application for asylum, and the government doesn’t even have a monitored service standard for some types of applications.

The government contracts do not provide for basics such as underwear, clothing and shoes.  These are issues of basic human dignity.  Just this week, I heard a heart-breaking story of a woman who broke down sobbing as she was given clean underwear by a kind NHS worker, because she had got her period whilst travelling to the UK and been unable to wash or change for days. This was not provided as a matter of course under the government contract and no-one had previously asked about her needs.

The situation is particularly bad for asylum seekers with disabilities and/or young children.  It is very hard for children in initial accommodation to access school places and there are meagre play facilities on site.

The worst of the initial accommodation involves the use of military barracks, and the government was recently found by the High Court to have provided inadequate and unsafe accommodation at Napier Barracks in Kent, where a major Covid outbreak was deemed to be inevitable. 

The conditions at Napier barracks are truly shocking. The court found that there were serious fire risks, the barracks were dirty and unhygienic, and that being in an environment which resembled a prison was likely to result in a deterioration of the mental health of asylum seekers.  Former residents of Napier Barracks have spoken about the impossibility of sleep at the barracks which also has intolerable mental health impacts – sleep deprivation is often used as a form of torture, and that is what these asylum seekers experienced.

The punitive approach taken by the government is the polar opposite of the response from local communities in many areas where there are initial accommodation sites.  In my constituency, there are local community organisations and faith groups who provide support and advice, sustaining hot meals, friendship and conversation, activities and play for children.  I know that whenever there is a need for clothing or a pram, our community will strain every sinew to meet that need.  There are many moving examples of friendship, solidarity and support.

Our communities are also stepping up to help refugees in other ways.  Community sponsorship – a government scheme in which communities can apply to welcome a refugee family to their area – has been growing steadily in recent years, including in my constituency where two families have so far been welcomed by members of our community who have provided housing, funding and support to enable them to rebuild their lives following unimaginably difficult experiences.

The Tories choose to use asylum seekers to fuel their culture war.  Instead of upholding our proud tradition as a country of refuge, treating those who come here seeking sanctuary with dignity and compassion and establishing application systems which are efficient and reliable; their housing provision can be anything but a place of refuge, and their asylum system traps people in limbo for months and years at a time.

It doesn’t have to be like this.  The essential requirements of human dignity are clear – privacy, nutritious food, clothing and underwear, the ability to communicate with family and legal representatives, access to medical care, including mental health support. This is the very least we should offer to those who come here looking for a place of safety, and these things should be specified and funded in any government contracts for accommodation.  There should be additional funding for local authorities with initial accommodation and dispersal accommodation in their areas to be able to meet the needs of asylum seekers, including mental health needs to begin the process of recovering from trauma.

This week, Parliament will debate the Immigration and Borders Bill, an appalling piece of legislation which if it is passed will allow the government to return asylum seekers to the nearest safe country they have passed through on their way to the UK; or to hold them in third country reception centres.  Labour will vote against this Bill.  I hope that as MPs across the House debate this Bill each one will ask themselves whether this is how they would want their loved ones to be treated should they ever have the misfortune to have to flee conflict or persecution and seek sanctuary in another land.  How we treat those who have faced unimaginable pain, hardship and loss is a measure of our society and under the Tories the UK is falling far short.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Helen Hayes MP</span></strong>
Helen Hayes MP

Helen Hayes MP, Labour Member of Parliament for Dulwich and West Norwood

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Ballot Busting Regeneration

On a hot Sunday afternoon in June, housing association tenants covered their flats in banners and protested outside their building. The residents live in Jura House, on the Aberfeldy estate in Tower Hamlets, which is halfway through a 20-year regeneration led by Poplar HARCA in partnership with EcoWorld London.

Much is written about the controversies of estate regeneration projects, but this protest was different. Impatient for change, residents here were protesting that regeneration is not happening fast enough. The proposals for new homes, parks, shops and walking and cycling connections do not represent ‘gentrification’ in their eyes, but as better future for and community, and they want to it happen for their children, before they grow up.

Aberfeldy, in Poplar, sits within the constituency I represent, and the community here face significant disadvantages in terms of access to employment, health and wellbeing. The social housing in Aberfeldy is a post-war development, built to replace the Victorian housing destroyed in the blitz. By the time it was completed in the 1970s, there was already a recognition that the estate was not the success the planners hoped it would be. Divided by roads, many Londoners would never even know this neighbourhood existed: the A12 and A13 surround the site, physically severing it from the rest of Poplar. Today, much of the housing is visibly dated and tired, and Jura House has seen better days. In 2009, the decision was made to regenerate the estate.

Since 2012, almost 700 homes have been delivered, including 165 homes for social rent, alongside a much-loved new public park called East India Green, complete with art created with the local community. This summer a further 223 homes will start to be handed over to new occupants and the first new shops on Aberfeldy Street will open, along with a new GP surgery, community centre, and a nursery. However, this is the last phase of the scheme that currently has full planning permission.

Due to the success of the initial phases, Poplar HARCA and EcoWorld London decided to develop a new, more ambitious, masterplan for the wider area and a planning application is expected later this year. Poplar HARCA have been talking to residents throughout. A Residents Steering Group meets regularly with the project team, including the architects and planners, and the extremely detailed, and at times robust, feedback from these discussions has informed the emerging plans. Alongside this, public consultations have collected feedback from residents across Poplar.

These efforts to understand residents aspirations has resulted in huge public backing for change. When a ballot was held last year, 93% of residents endorsed the regeneration plans, on a 91% turnout. An impressive and almost unprecedented mandate in favour of proceeding with estate regeneration.

The proposals go beyond replacing and increasing the existing council housing in Aberfeldy, which is of course funded in large part by new homes for private sale – a necessary trade-off that the community understands and endorses. Alongside providing up to 1,600 new homes, the Aberfeldy New Masterplan is designed to fulfil several strategic objectives. Top of this list is improving connectivity across Poplar, piece address the lack of safe connections across the A12, A13 and the River Lea, that has left residents here physically and mentally disconnected from the rest of London for generations. Improved walking and cycling routes along a new green corridor lined with more welcoming and better-connected public parks and spaces are designed to turn Aberfeldy from an estate into a place. This is underpinned by one big move – to close a vehicular underpass and transform it into a safe, vibrant cycling and walking link. These elements of the masterplan are popular, particularly with young people, who want a safer neighbourhood where they can walk or cycle to school, rather than be driven there by their parents.

So why are residents protesting? Well, after many years of talking about regeneration, residents want to see the promises of positive change delivered, and fast! Witnessing your neighbours being successfully rehomed in the earlier phases while you face the prospect of waiting for years, along with the added uncertainty of not knowing whether the masterplan will happen at all, is understandably not a welcome one.

A masterplan on this scale is a complicated and costly process. The bigger and more ambitious the plan, the more social and economic objectives it seeks to achieve, the more complicated and lengthy the process becomes, and the difficulty of balancing the competing and often incompatible priorities of communities, planners, policy makers and politicians become more pronounced. As time moves on so does the political weather, with individuals, councils and political priorities changing, along – potentially – with the prospects of support needed for the project to be delivered. Satisfying councillors and planners that you have adequately met, or given acceptable reasons for why you can’t, the ever-growing list of national, London and local planning regulations, is increasingly technical and time consuming, and with all parts of the scheme impacting the rest, difficulty in one area can return you back to square one on others.

This challenge is greater too on projects where some of the wider regeneration aspirations can only be delivered with public funding, and these funds often have fixed deadlines against delivered outcomes. All of this can only be met if the different private and public organisations involved are on the same page, working to achieve the same goal and mindful of the bigger picture. It is fair to say that isn’t always the case. Is our planning system capable of delivering complex projects such as this one?

The planning system is often criticised for being unresponsive to the needs and voices of local people when a scheme has been approved against the noisy opposition of (usually a small number of) residents. Perhaps a truer measure would be if big bold, regeneration plans that have the support of a community prove too complicated for the planning system to deliver.

The residents of Aberfeldy know what they want. As their banners adorning Jura House called out: “More green spaces”, “better shops”, “new homes, new parks, safer streets and subways”. “Why are we waiting?” asked another. The largest banner, held aloft by two residents stated, “pull us down now”. Jura house residents have told us what they need, and meeting their aspirations successfully and quickly is a test of whether our complicated and labyrinthine planning system is fit for purpose.

The Labour Party created the planning system and continues to defend it against the Conservative plans to overhaul it to make it easier for developers to build. Where we have the power to do so, it is vital Labour demonstrates that the planning system as it is can deliver for communities like Aberfeldy.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Unmesh Desai</span></strong>
Unmesh Desai

Unmesh is the Labour and Co-operative Party London Assembly Member for City & East.

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It is time to end the national scandal of veterans without homes

In the UK today, there are around 320,000 people without a home.

Homelessness comes in many different forms; some people are sleeping rough on the streets while others may be staying on friends’ sofas or staying in a hostel long-term.

Of those without a home, 6000 are men and women who served this country as a member of our armed forces, only to find themselves experiencing some form of homelessness.

The reasons for this are complex, often stemming in a difficulty in adapting to civilian life after years spent with a strict regimented lifestyle.

We know that veterans are disproportionately likely to be impacted by a wide range of challenging and often intersecting issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, drug and/or alcohol misuse, depression and other mental health problems.

These, coupled a difficulty in entering the civilian jobs market are major factors that go some way to explaining veteran homelessness.

Even before the pandemic struck, many veterans were slipping through the net or finding themselves without any form of support. They are often unable to be supported by mainstream homelessness charities not equipped to meet their needs, thus turn to often cash-strapped local councils.

We often think of our armed forces as protecting us from external threats, keeping us safe and secure from those who wish to harm us or our way of life.

Yet as if we needed reminding any more, the Coronavirus pandemic has shown that our armed forces keep us safe in so many more ways than we can even imagine.

It was the armed forces that were deployed to test people at the start of the crisis, who ensured that vital supply chains kept running and who are helping to secure the effective roll-out of the vaccine.

At Community’s biennial delegate conference in 2019, members of the union came together to decide our priorities for the year ahead. Delegates took the decision that ending veteran homelessness should be a priority campaign for us going forward.

We wanted to support those who have given so much to us as a country. We ran, walked and cycled to raise money for a local charity to help end veteran homelessness and between us we raised over £6,000.

We created a bespoke learning and training offer for veterans to improve their employability, and we successfully managed to change Labour Party policy. Our members up and down the country have been collecting warm winter clothes, toiletries and other necessities to support veterans.

We will never be able to thank the servicemen and women who have served us at home and overseas fully. However, the very least we can do is ensure that they have a roof over their head and a bed to sleep in at night.

One way we can all work to end veteran homelessness is to encourage more organisations to sign up to the Armed Forces Covenant. The Covenant is a promise by the employers to ensure that those who serve or who have served in the armed forces, and their families, have equal opportunities including at work, and when applying for jobs.

The government have a key role to play too and they must not miss the opportunity presented by the Armed Forces Bill. They should use the Bill to set measurable, national standards and empower local authorities to deliver including by providing ring fenced funding to councils for specialised mental health and substance misuse support services.

Every government and every political party talk a big game when it comes to supporting our armed forces. Now is the time to deliver, and the time to end this national scandal once and for all.

Melantha Chittenden
Melantha Chittenden

Melantha Chittenden is Head of Communications and Media at Community trade union and leads on the unions priority campaign on ending veteran homelessness. 

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Lessons from Kosovo: Structured Development Payments

Councillor Dave Ward returns from Kosovo with lessons in development finance. He argues that allowing the land and development supply chain to share in the upside of apartment sales can lower the barriers to entry for smaller housebuilders.

I have just returned from Pristina, Kosovo where I got my new apartment ready for a summer rental to a couple of German students who are volunteering there for the summer and needed a place to stay. 

As Chair of Planning at the London Borough of Merton, I am always interested in housing and planning policy, particularly around building new homes and it was very interesting to see and learn about the differences between the UK, specifically London, and Pristina. 

Firstly, the scale is a lot smaller, Pristina is a city of nearly 150,000 people, just over eight per cent of the total 1.8 million population of Kosovo, and growing. This quite closely compares with London’s 7m people, roughly 10% of the total population of the UK. 

So both cities are the centres of government, the financial sector, the media and the headquarters of many national and international businesses and other organisations. As in London this attracts a higher population as people come to the capital for work, which then leads to housing pressures. 

Pristina is in the middle of a housebuilding boom. The block where I now live (for some of the year) is ten storeys, with roughly 60 apartments varying in size from small studios to three-bed apartments. It is one of at least eight similar blocks, either completed or under construction, just within a few hundred metres, in an attractive location just ten minutes walk from the city centre. 

The most interesting thing I discovered about housebuilding in Pristina is they way it is financed which is very different from the UK. Typically a developer will find some land upon which a block could be built, purchase it from the original landowner, pay contractors to build the block, and suppliers for the materials, then when it is complete, sell or rent the homes and try to make a profit, just like here. 

The difference is that the original landowner, contractors and suppliers are often paid, at the end of the project, in completed properties. 

For example, the company which supplies the concrete struts which form the frame of the building might, instead of cash, upon completion of the project receive a floor, 6 or 8 properties which they can sell, keep or rent as they wish. The same for the building contractors, glaziers and anyone else involved in the project. 

I was surprised at this and wanted to know more so, as I was due to meet the owner of the company which built the block I live in, I asked him about it. 

His company usually funds around half of the construction costs of a new development in this way. It is kind of a loan, without interest, but it is more expensive. He estimates that building a new block of apartments would be 5 to 10 per cent cheaper if paid up-front in cash. This is a compensation for the contractors, for instance a building firm. They need to pay their workers, purchase the materials and do their work, paying up-front, on the promise of a number of properties upon completion, not knowing for certain what they will be worth at that stage. They are taking much of the risk, and therefore take a higher return. 

This model is used widely in Kosovo and has been borrowed from nearby Turkey where this has been the norm for development for some time. 

The practical implications of this are that housebuilding is slightly more expensive, but easier to do for those without huge amounts of up-front capital. So building is not dominated by large developers funded by the major banks or the very wealthy. A relatively small company, such as the family firm which built my block, can get into the housebuilding business and deliver new homes from very small beginnings. 

Property prices and rental values in Pristina are, like London, higher than the rest of the country. They are much lower than London in actual terms, but also lower in relative terms compared to average income, wages and cost of living in Pristina. Housing is genuinely affordable for those on modest or low incomes. 

To rent an apartment like mine – 2 bedrooms in the centre of town – a single person would need a salary around the middle range in Pristina. A couple sharing would find it more affordable. This is for a sought-after area near the centre of town. Move a few miles out, a bus ride from the centre and rents and prices become comfortably affordable for the lower paid. 

Could this be replicated in full or in part in the UK? Could we open up housebuilding to smaller entrepreneurs, to housing associations, non-profit organisations, and to Local Authorities to build new housing, without the need for huge amounts of capital up front? 

I think it is worth looking into. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Dave Ward</span></strong>
Dave Ward

Dave is a Labour Councillor in the London Borough of Merton where he is Chair of the Planning Committee. He represents the ward of Colliers Wood.

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Schrödinger’s Shared Ownership Flat and the Cladding Scandal

Since 72 people lost their lives in the Grenfell tragedy on 14 June 2017, the cladding and building safety crisis has spiralled.  Estimates vary as to how many households are affected. The End Our Cladding Scandal (EOCS) campaign believes that up to 11 million people are now caught up in the scandal. Luxury flats and social housing alike are affected. This article examines the impact of the cladding and building safety crisis on shared owners, and asks whether it lays bare fundamental flaws in the shared ownership model.

The building safety crisis has thrown into stark relief that affordability claims for shared ownership are not only ill-defined at best, but a false promise with no legal or ethical basis. This week Inside Housing reported that Irwell Valley Homes are planning to push £100,000 bills onto leaseholders and shared owners living in one of its blocks in Salford. The journalist, Jack Simpson, adds: ‘a number of housing associations are now looking to pass bills for remedial works on to leaseholders’.

June 5th saw a National Day of Developer Protests outside new home sales offices, organised by local campaigners and supported by the national End Our Cladding Scandal (EOCS) campaign. The protests will be followed next month by a Leaseholders Together rally – planned in collaboration with the National Leasehold Campaign (NLC).

How long will it be before the spotlight shifts from developers to housing associations? How long before mass protests are taking place outside housing association offices and first-time buyer events?

What has gone so wrong that shared owners who placed trust in the promise of ‘affordable homes’ now face crippling bills? What are housing associations doing to support shared owners facing life-changing building safety remediation costs? Is it enough? What lessons may be learned, and what more can be done immediately to help shared owners and leaseholders in dire situations?

The Affordable Homes Promise: What’s Gone Wrong?

Schrödinger’s Flat

Shared ownership has been described as ‘Schrödinger’s flat’; it is simultaneously affordable and unaffordable. Housing associations define affordability by way of contrast to short-term costs of buying outright or renting, or accessibility of a mortgage deposit and loan. But these definitions oversimplify and distort understanding by failing to specify timescales of comparison, and by conveniently overlooking financial obligations imposed by leasehold contracts – such as indexed annual rent increases – and costs not referenced in lease terms, including lease extension. A rent that is often set initially as a percentage of the unsold share of the property, typically 3%.

A 2019 Savills Spotlight report explains one aspect of the problem: ‘…as the rent portion of shared ownership costs rises at a premium to inflation, monthly costs will rise faster than for full ownership. This ultimately leads to shared ownership becoming more expensive than full home ownership by the end of the mortgage term’.

Neither Shared Nor Ownership

Shared ownership is not ‘ownership’; it is an assured tenancy. And given that shared owners are liable for 100% of all maintenance and repair costs, on top of service and administration charges, and are now expected to pay for building safety remediation works too, it is clearly not ‘shared’ either.

The National Housing Federation chirpy marketing campaigns reassure first-time buyers shared ownership doesn’t mean sharing their home with a stranger but fail to explain clearly the risks arising from 100% liability for all costs. In fact, sponsored content encourages first-time buyers to believe ‘there’s no catch’. Not true! Something that the devastating cladding scandal has brought into stark relief. Problems for shared owners are complex and inter-related, full stop. Building safety issues massively compound inherent flaws and contradictions in the shared ownership model.

Risk and Outcomes

Shared ownership is heavily promoted as a ‘foot on the property ladder’. But commentators, including the London Assembly and academic researchers, have drawn attention to a lack of data on the outcomes of shared ownership schemes, questioning whether it is a viable route to home ownership and whether it is appropriately classified as affordable housing.

Staircasing rates were already dismally low: a mere 2.3% staircased to 100% in 2018-19. (It’s worth noting that this percentage is not analysed between staircasing to 100% to achieve full ‘ownership’, and a simultaneous sale and staircasing transaction undertaken purely in order to sell – a crucial distinction). The building safety crisis means any shared owners who planned to staircase to 100% are now likely to be unable to obtain mortgages to do so.

Shared owners who are unable to staircase to 100% have no statutory rights to lease extension. All things being equal, the cost of lease extension increases year on year. Particularly once the all-important 80-year threshold has been breached. And, in the absence of lease extension, shared owners’ homes will devalue dramatically over time (a separate issue from the nil valuations arising from building safety issues).

Indexed annual rent increases prescribed in the Homes England shared ownership model lease mean shared owners who can’t staircase to 100% find their disposable income eroded year on year, not only by building safety charges, but also by higher than RPI rent increases on as yet un-purchased shares. Both of which make it harder to sell, trapping many shared owners as hostages in increasingly unsuitable homes; unable to start a family, with inadequate space for an existing family, accept jobs in other parts of the country, or even relocate to care for loved ones.

A significant number of shared owners will be trapped in negative equity situations as a direct consequence of building safety remediation charges. Those who purchased smaller shares, say 25%, are particularly disadvantaged. The people suffering the most severe financial distress may be those who had least to lose in the first place.

Even bankruptcy is not necessarily a way out, as bankruptcy does not discharge mortgage debts.

Going back to that £100,000 charge Irwell Valley Homes plan to levy on their shared owners… Although details remain sketchy, the Government has proposed a loan scheme capped at £50 monthly. At £50 per month, £100,000 would take 2,000 months, or 167 years to repay. Such charges are clearly a problem not just for this unfortunate generation of first-time home buyers, but for the next couple of generations too, perpetuating inequalities patently at odds with leveling up agendas.

How are Housing Associations Supporting Shared Owners?

Credit Loans

Some housing associations have obtained authorisation from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to offer interest-free credit to shared owners where recharged building safety remediation costs are unaffordable. Although loans from housing associations have the advantage of being interest-free, unlike bank loans, this option raises a number of troubling questions.

The assured tenancy nature of shared ownership renders shared owners extremely vulnerable to repossession of their home in the event of mortgage or service charge arrears. Given the risks and unavoidable costs the current shared ownership model exposes shared owners to, what confidence can they have that housing associations and lenders have their best interests at heart? Why should they believe housing associations would be flexible as life circumstances change over the potentially life-long timespan of such loans? Additionally, housing associations that have already sold off freeholds may have tied their own hands regarding their ability to assist shared owners facing possession by lenders.

Such concerns are likely to be exacerbated by proposals to sell off shared ownership portfolios to institutional investors, whose primary motivation will be to maximise returns for their own shareholders and clients, not to act in the best interests of shared owners. This not only raises disturbing questions for the future of shared ownership, but also potentially stymies meaningful attempts to fix the broken housing market.

Buyback

Maureen Corcoran – a former board member of one of the largest housing associations in England, a member of the G15, and former Head of Housing in London for the Audit Commission – suggests that: ‘housing associations that sold these properties on a shared ownership basis could buy the shares back from anyone who is struggling and unable to move’. Housing associations counter that they do not have the financial means to do so at scale. Whilst some housing associations express commitment to do so in ‘exceptional circumstances’ it’s not at all clear what would constitute exceptional circumstances.

Where policies subtract the cost of any known or estimated remediation costs from the buyback valuation there may be little benefit of shared owners pursuing buyback as a way out of an impossible situation.

Reverse Staircasing

[Reverse staircasing] may help some residents currently facing financial difficulties, but given the shared owner would remain responsible for 100% of remediation costs, with a smaller share – it is unlikely to be a solution for many”. 

Jamie Ratcliff, Network Homes

Back-to-Back Staircasing to Facilitate Sale

Back to back staircasing (a simultaneous staircasing and sale transaction) is sometimes required due to indexed annual rent increases (RPI plus 0.5%-2%). Where such increases have resulted in rent levels becoming more expensive than local private rents – or even specified rent on local new-build shared ownership properties – the property may become unattractive in the market place. Shared owners may have no other option but to eliminate the specified rent component, regardless of the erosion of any gain by the increased selling costs arising from the staircasing transaction.

Shared owners whose building doesn’t have a satisfactory EWS1 form face additional problems. Potential buyers are not currently able to obtain a mortgage due to nil valuations. To purchase a part share buyers have to meet affordability criteria; something that is highly unlikely to be the case if they are in a position to make a cash offer. Shared owners in this situation may have no alternative to back-to-back staircasing to 100% to facilitate a cash sale on the open market.

Confirmed or potential remediation costs will drastically reduce the purchase price. This is particularly problematic for shared owners whose housing association has a policy requiring shared owners to pay over to them any difference between the valuation and the purchase price.

Subletting

Subletting is generally prohibited on shared ownership properties. This is justified by housing associations on the basis that shared ownership properties are supposed to be the primary residence of the shared owner, and not a source of profit. Such an argument erroneously conflates ‘accidental landlords’ – who may need to relocate temporarily for a variety of reasons – with commercial for-profit operators. The no-gain requirement falls away once (if) a shared owner staircases to 100%, effectively penalising shared owners who can’t afford to staircase. Or, in the case of those whose buildings are found to have safety defects, are unable to staircase due to unavailability of mortgages.

The restriction on making a gain applies only to shared owners themselves and not to housing associations, who benefit from income streams generated from shared ownership homes; nor to institutional investors eyeing up shared ownership portfolios.

When exceptional permission to sublet is given it is on a ‘no gain’ basis; with no acknowledgement of the fact that in real life it is practically impossible for landlords to plan to break-even – not least due to the unpredictable nature of shared ownership service charges (including retrospective annual adjustments). Shared owners seeking to sublet rapidly discover they have taken on all the liabilities of home ownership, with none of the financial benefits and flexibility purchasing a home usually provides.

Are Housing Associations Doing Enough?

There are clear financial challenges for housing associations in addressing the building safety crisis. But growing vocal discontent across social media and elsewhere indicates that shared owners find it hard to accept how little housing associations are doing to support them now they are facing financial ruin. More than a few shared owners now regret the mistake of trusting persuasive marketing rhetoric.

Strong sector leadership is long overdue to protect shared owners from the worst consequences of a shared ownership model that has always exposed them to unlimited risk and costs regardless of affordability claims.

The following is intended to indicate some areas where the current offering could usefully be reviewed, by no means an exhaustive list.

  • Shared owners report that transparency and communication on building safety and related costs is poor. This is unacceptable and should be corrected as a matter of urgency.

“We know a bill is coming… Just not when, or how much…?”

Anonymous Shared Owner
  • UKCAG research has found widespread mental health impacts due to the building safety crisis. UKCAG say: ‘There should be adequate mental health support provided for all those affected. Such support has been provided for those affected by flooding, yet still no equivalent document of support exists for the victims of this scandal. Simply directing leaseholders to LEASE is inadequate and does little to help the anguish leaseholders feel’.
  • A sector-wide review of whether current provision of expert financial advice and debt counselling adequately meets identified need.
  • A sector-wide published commitment to clearly identified policies to support shared owners facing building safety issues, including:
    • Not to initiate possession proceedings for shared owners in arrears due to building safety remediation charges (including waking watch and increased insurance premiums).
    • Not to charge any difference arising between the valuation and the purchase price.
  • Work with mortgage lenders on whatever actions are required to facilitate access to consent to let or buy to let agreements.
  • Work with Government to remove, or apply considerable discretion on application of, restrictive and hard to justify restrictions on subletting, including no gain requirements and time limits.
  • Withdraw any shared ownership properties with potential building safety issues from the market unless it may be evidenced that there are no remediation cost consequences arising for first-time buyers.
  • Review marketing terminology to ensure buyers have full knowledge of exposure to long-term risks and costs. This information should include – but not be restricted to – building safety and defects, and associated costs and obligations. These should be simply, transparently and adequately explained to enable informed decision-making (in compliance with Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008).
  • Review implications of cross-subsidy model for achievement of policy aims for shared ownership (affordability, fairness and transparency), and in relation to potential conflicts of interest.

What Lessons Can Be Learned?

The building safety crisis has bought into sharp focus a number of troubling aspects of the current shared ownership model:

  • a vast discrepancy between expectations created by marketing strategies and real-life outcomes;
  • adverse consequences of a policy and research focus on access to shared ownership rather than on performance of that tenure over the long-term and the success of exit strategies in achieving foot on the housing ladder policy aspirations;
  • adverse consequences of a policy and research focus on financial risks, costs and benefits arising for housing associations and mortgage lenders rather than those arising for first-time buyers;
  • lack of ability and will of housing associations to intervene where required arising from the nature of some partnership arrangements;
  • failure of housing associations to solicit and sincerely take account of the concerns of long-term shared owners and campaigners;
  • the conflict of interests which inevitably arises from the cross-subsidy model; and
  • failure to fulfil fiduciary duties.

These matters should surely be of grave concern for housing association Boards of Trustees and likewise for regulators including the Regulator of Social Housing, the Charity Commission, the Advertising Standards Authority, and the Competition and Marketing Authority.

Thanks are due to Dr Audrey Verma (campaigner), Deepa Mistry (shared owner and campaigner), Dr Alison Bancroft (shared owner and campaigner), Ed Spencer (shared owner and co-founder of One Housing Residents Action Group) and Neil Goodrich (housing professional) for support in writing this article. Any errors are, of course, my responsibility and mine alone. I welcome feedback on the content.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Sue Phillips</span></strong>
Sue Phillips

Sue Phillips is an accountant (ACCA) who spent much of her career working in the not-for-profit sector. She is now semi-retired. She says she never expected to become a housing campaigner! 

She purchased her own flat via a shared ownership scheme in 1999, staircased to 100% in 2013, and completed a lease extension in 2020.

Her own experience of shared ownership led her to start campaigning in 2019, with a particular focus on greater transparency on potential long-term costs and risks of shared ownership. She campaigns under the moniker Shared Ownership Resources.