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Guilt by Associations

Leading housing associations are losing their integrity as charitable organisations. They continue to trade on a set of myths about the sector that no longer hold true – writes Suz Muna.

Housing Associations Build Social Housing

Associations are increasingly indistinguishable from private developers and landlords, and their activities are increasingly focussed on market-level rents and sales. The result is that the interests of tenants and leaseholders trail in the wake of the board’s need to generate large surpluses and satisfy their lenders.

Associations generate larger profit margins by developing for market sale and rent than from any other activity. Inevitably, the profits are greatest in London where house prices are higher. The boards of Associations increasingly gravitate towards construction, and especially in the South East. They are aided and abetted by government policy, regulatory institutions and finance houses.

Analysis of the sector shows that there has been a considerable shift in its stock profile over the last few years. For example, in 2019 the category of housing with the largest percentage of growth was in market sale (non-social leasehold), jumping almost 16% (8,500 units) on the previous year.

The change in profile over a seven year period spanning 2012 and 2019 illustrates a sharp jump in Low Cost Home Ownership (LCHO) units, and a corresponding decline in supported housing. The ring-fencing of grants under the Supporting People programme ended in 2009.

Stock profile changes include conversions from the more secure types of tenancy with cheaper rents attached such as social rent which is capped at 50% of market rents. Often these are converted to less secure tenancies with higher rents.

Property lawyers Savills captured this trend in May 2019 when they noted that “the amount housing associations generated from new open market home sales increased 16% (£221 million) to £1.61 billion between 2016/17 and 2017/18, with 37,000 homes for sale contractually committed to be built in the 18 months from December 2018”.

Housing Associations Fund Their Activities from Rents

This is a myth that should be busted, not least because it implies a stability that is absent. In fact, house building in particular is funded through debt leveraged on existing homes. The Regulator for Social Housing anticipates that debt of £42 billion will be added to the sector’s debts over the next five years. And ratings agency Standard & Poor predicted that the need for housing associations to rely on debt to fund their activities will increase not decline in the future.

Housing Associations are Governed by People with a Commitment to Social Housing

One trend drives another. The focus on development means that associations deliberately attract board members with backgrounds in equity and finance, squeezing out those with any genuine commitment to, or experience of, social housing. The exceptions are occasional hand-picked and often financially reimbursed ‘tenant board members’ with no democratic mandate.

Many housing associations publish brief biographies for their board members. What these show is just how widespread board-level involvement has become by people whose careers span financial services, planning, development, property markets, private finance initiatives, and insurance industries.

There also exists a golden circle whereby the housing association and housing sector institutions populate each others’ boards. One Housing Group, St Mungos, Clarion, Paradigm, and Onward Housing for example, are all led by ex-employees of the Regulator of Social Housing. The Chair of Peabody’s board, Lord Kerslake, previously headed the Homes and Communities Agency.

The corporate plans developed by associations inevitably reflect the highly commercial interests of its board members, and the vicious circle is complete.

Associations Have Inclusive Cultures

An inclusive culture would in fact be a terrible hindrance to an ambitious housing association, and frowned upon by its institutional backers. To help ensure that associations are unchecked in their commercial direction of travel, they are moving away from democratic influence by tenants and residents, preferring methods of engagement over which the landlord has almost exclusive control.

Tenant and Resident Associations (TRAs), the most democratic of engagement models, are being replaced by Tenant Scrutiny Panels whose members are appointed by the landlord. This is akin to the derecognition of a trade union in favour of an employer appointed staff council – something that many associations also seek to do.

The Greater London Assembly noted in 2018 that the Grenfell Tower fire had “brought into sharp focus the lack of effective mechanisms for social housing residents to have their concerns addressed and to hold their landlords accountable for property standards and management.” The Assembly also noted that TRAs were being actively undermined by having recognition by the landlord made contingent on adoption of the association’s model constitution.

What these trends produce for tenants is inadequate repairs and maintenance services, high rents and service charges, anti-social behaviour problems, discrimination against those with disabilities, unsafe homes, and the cladding scandal. Despite huge leaps forward in communication technology, alerting the landlord to a problem is becoming increasingly difficult, and attempts to find a resolution too often feel like a war of attrition.

It Doesn’t Have to be Like This

It is all too clear to the tenants, residents and staff of housing associations that this sector has undergone a fundamental transformation, but that public perception has yet to catch up. It is wealthy, powerful and almost wholly unaccountable. Remedy is needed in the shape of much firmer, independent scrutiny and regulation, rent controls, and a supply of genuinely affordable housing through local authorities.

The Social Housing Action Campaign (SHAC) is a democratic, voluntary network of tenants, residents, and workers in housing associations and cooperatives. It campaigns to improve the lives of those who live in HA accommodation and reduce the commercialisation of the sector. SHAC is keen to build links with Labour councillors and MPs with an interest in housing. It is developing a political representatives network and would welcome contact via shac.action@gmail.com.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Suzanne Muna</span></strong>
Suzanne Muna

Suzanne Muna has worked in housing for the last 20 years, serving continuously as a trade union representative alongside her paid work. She is secretary of the Social Housing Action Campaign, a trustee of the Public Interest Law Centre, and a member of the Unite Housing Workers branch committee

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Shared ownership – affordable housing or overpriced?

With property prices for first time buyers increasing 69% over the past 10 years[1] and an average deposit of £47,059 needed it is no surprise that shared ownership is thought to be a good option for first time buyers.

The part-rent part-buy properties are mainly developed by housing associations as “low cost home ownership” and so can qualify as the affordable housing needed to secure planning for new developments.

But does it really represent good value for money for the purchaser and the wider public?

There is a lot to love in shared ownership if you are fed up with paying rent to a buy to let landlord.  You don’t have to have keep paying out management fees, deposits and all the other costs associated with renting. You also benefit from rising house prices.  

With shared ownership only have to save for a 5% the deposit on the proportion of the property value that you are buying – if you are buying 25% of a £400,000 property the minimum deposit is £5,000. If you buy in the open market you need a £40,000 deposit for a property of the same value because mortgage lenders require a 10% deposit.

The downside is that you are responsible any repairs and maintenance – your shower breaks down; you must pay the plumber. Even if you only own 25% of the property, you’re responsible for 100% of the cost of new doors to meet changing fire regulations.

It can be expensive buying additional shares in the property, especially if you repeatedly buy small shares. If you want to buy any part of the remaining portion there will be legal, valuation, stamp duty land tax and mortgage fees to pay. If house prices are rising you will be paying more for property as the cost is based on current market value, not the price you originally bought it for.

Another drawback is that most shared ownership is on leasehold flats so that on top of the rent, owners must pay service charges and ground rent. Nor can shared ownership residents exercise the “right to manage”, so you will be stuck with your managing agent even if they are useless. 

But the main problem is down to the so-called new build premium – a term used to describe the fact that most new build properties cost more than otherwise similar homes. In 2019 Zoopla found that on average a new build was £65,000 more than a similar older home in the same location. It is tempting to buy a property that has a dishwasher in the fitted kitchen, and a 10-year guarantee against major property defects. But is it worth £65,000?

All the aspirational property TV programmes focus on the “potential” in buildings – essentially buying something run down, making improvements with new kitchens and bathrooms, and creating additional value. So why is shared ownership restricted to properties which have no room for improvement, and where the main beneficiaries appear to be large scale builders who get their planning permission for large blocks through low cost home ownership and not true social, affordable housing?

The first two homes I owned were wrecks, cheaper than new builds and I was able to put in central heating, double glazing, and new kitchens over time. Just the sort of properties that are snapped up by buy to let portfolio landlords today. Why can’t subsidies be directed to people who are happy to take on a project and use local builders to make improvements rather than hand profit directly to the large-scale building developers?

In England there have been some co-operative shared ownership schemes, but these have mainly been based on a new development rather than benefit from the lower prices in the second-hand market.  A number of housing associations work with disability charities to provide adapted housing through the government-backed HOLD (housing for people with long term disabilities) scheme in England.

Qualifying people can buy any home for sale on a shared ownership basis (part-rent/part-buy) and this model works well for people who have received compensation for an accident and qualify for long term disability benefits. 

To assist people to buy their first home I think there needs to be a second-hand market option, backed by a housing association to manage the rental element and ensure the finances are in order.  We don’t have to look far for a model – based in Belfast the Co-Ownership Housing Association[2] is enabling first time buyers to part-rent and part-buy in the second-hand housing market across Northern Ireland.

Since 1978 more than 29,000 people have been assisted to buy their first home and currently 9,000 people are currently co-owners.  A 50% own/50% rent is cheaper than private renting and normally no deposit is needed. The home owner is able to choose the property they want to part-rent part-buy in the open market and, subject to valuation the housing association will buy 50% of the property and charge rent based on 2.5% of the value of the rented portion.

This will require a new way of thinking for housing associations and there will need to be some seed funding but rental incomes and purchases of additional portions of the property should make the scheme sustainable in the long term. If we want sustainable communities, we need to have a variety of tenures and affordable homes, and shared ownership can help achieve that.

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

Sue Rossiter is the Chair of Bethnal Green and Bow CLP and is an expert in mortgage policy with more than 20 years experience of regulatory policy development.


[1] Halifax House Price Index September 2020

[2] www.co-ownership.org