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Social homes are housing services provided by non-profit organizations that own, let and manage properties (e.g. housing associations). According to Slater (2018), social tenants may also rent their homes form a local council. Also referred to as council housing, there are different types of social homes depending on the type of tenancy agreement signed as well as the kind of tenancy rights held by the tenant. According to Duvier et al (2018), the idea of social housing is that tenants can rent houses at a relatively cheaper price than privately-owned homes while having a longer and more secure tenancy. Consequently, social renters have more control and better rights over their homes.
As the UK generally faces a housing emergency, many people are living without a permanent home or cannot find the help they need to get an affordable home. Yet, social homes are unique because they can provide quality housing to local people that are both secure and genuinely affordable. Therefore, it is important to give equal access to social housing and provide solutions to the issues that cause some people not to face a disadvantage in accessing good housing services from social landlords. The following are some of the factors that need to be addressed.
Social homes are the only types of housing whose rents are linked to local incomes (Santangelo & Tondelli, 2017). However, income inequality still malingers as a significant cause of unequal access to social housing in the UK. In simple terms, those who have lower incomes have less disposable income to acquire better quality social housing than those who have a higher income (Maclennan & Miao, 2017). An increase in income disparity over the years have caused a growing disparity in affordability and accessibility of social housing. In effect, regions with high levels of income inequality end to experience issues of housing overcrowding and deprivation.
Lack of coordination among agencies/landlords
Changes in the composition of the UK’s social housing system implies that low-income households can access long-term housing through various providers including many small community housing agencies, a single public housing agency, a small number of large affordable housing provider or specific housing associations or organizations (Taylor, 2017). However, under the current policy requirements, an individual must make an application to each of these providers because they all have the management of their own applications systems that oversee the registration and assessment of applicants on the waiting list as well as allocating those who are eligible (Oyebanji et al 2017). According to Oyebanji et al (2017), this mode of operation has led to the domination of public housing agencies over other players in the social housing industry.
However, the changing composition of the UK’s social housing market raises questions about why an individual or households must go through an application and assessment process with each social housing agency, providing the same kind of information over and over (Duvier et al, 2018). Upon applying for allocation, households are placed on the waiting list without being aware of another agency for which they can be eligible. A household that has applied for public housing will only be considered for public housing and this limits their options or chances of getting allocations from other agencies (Watt & Smets 2017). In short, there is a lack of coordination among social housing agency on the application and eligibility assessment processes to ensure that an applicant can get allocations from any agency after applying to one agency.
To address the issue of registration duplications, multiple listings and inefficiencies, the Scottish agencies have explored various solutions such as sharing housing and information resources among themselves, developing a single application form that anyone seeing to be a social tenant within a jurisdiction can register their needs and specifications, and a common database for the participating agencies to commonly assess, select and rank tenants based on their eligibility (Hulse et al, 2006).
Inflexibility of allocations
The other issue hindering equal access to social housing is the inflexibility of allocations that hinder sustainable neighborhoods. In areas where public housing is concentrated within older style estates or complexes, various problems such as high turnover, unsustainable tenancies and vacant units emerge (Taylor, 2019). According to Taylor (2019), a lack of systematic evaluation of the effects of targeting on the complexes’ sustainability has partly contributed to the problem. But there is a major concern among policymakers that organizational, community and financial investments in such housing programs might be jeopardised by the lack of sustainability, and that without controlling the allocations, the areas might slide back into being areas of disadvantage. To address the problem of allocations and their impact on social housing sustainability, for example, Australian social landlords adopted have effective allocation approaches and policies that are responsive to the local sub-market, disadvantaged groups and other local conditions that might hinder equal access. Apart from being flexible, the allocations are inclusive and non-discriminatory to ensure that the community’s housing needs are sustainably met (Hulse et al, 2006). For example, anyone who has the right to dispose or sell property must not illegally discriminate upon any buyer or tenant based on protected characteristics.
Hailed as one of the most helpful policy developments in the UK’s social security system, the Universal Credit (UC) is a policy initiative that seeks to simplify the calculation of social benefits by consolidating six different benefits for low income earning households into one payment (Wickham et al, 2020). According to Reeves & Loopstra (2020), the main aim of this consolidation is to ease the adjustment of payments when people come to work and thus easing the economic life for the employed. It also acts as an economic protection program for the unemployed.
Upon its introduction as part of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, the UC implementation has occurred in different stages. It is estimated that upon full implementation, at least seven million households will receive the new benefit, totaling at least 60 billion pounds worth of expenditure per year (House of Commons, 2018). However, despite these expected benefits, several challenges have so far been met by the UK’s welfare system that is attributable to the UC.
Longer waiting periods
A piece of research by The Smith Institute (2017) indicate that UC was associated with increasing rent arrears. In detail, the research showed that on average, tenants accrued rent arrears for the first 13 weeks of the claim before making a down payment (The Smith Institute, 2017). Upon its publication, the results of this study triggered the then UK Prime Minister (Theresa May) to announce major changes and concessions on the UC, changes that came into effect by April 2018.
One of the factors leading to increased rent areas attributable to UC was the five-week waiting period. Ideally, the UC began with a six-week window period before an individual could make a claim and receive their first payment – a phenomenon that left many applicants without payments for one and a half months (Brewer et al, 2020). As part of the approaches to reform the system, this waiting period was reduced to 5 weeks to reduce its impact on personal debts and rent arrears. However, an analysis conducted by Peabody (2019) to see whether this change was effective revealed an average increase in rent arrears of 28% over the initial period after applying for UC- indicating that the rent arrears were not simply as a result of cash-flow problems. Rather, the report by Peabody (2019) showed that the five-week waiting period creates a situation of financial hardship that people may not recover from and may increase their risk of taking more personal debt. Despite the reduction in the waiting period, the amount of rent owed remains elevated in the long-term suggesting that the 5-week waiting period is too long to wait.
After the waiting period is over, the UC claimants must grapple with the challenge of a system marred with communication and administration challenges (Reeves & Loopstra 2020). These challenges make it difficult for the claimants to plan their finances. Particularly, according to Peabody (2019), most of the tenants face the same type of issues namely mi-payments poor communication with the department of work and pension and payment delays – all of which create a situation where the tenants are in rent arrears of over 6 months.
One of the practical measures taken by social landlords to address these challenges is engaging in various pre-tenancy initiatives to ensure that any potential risk of arrears is addressed before it is too late. For instance, Community Housing Cymru (CHU), a social landlord in Wales, delivers various forms of pre-tenancy initiatives including the provision of budgeting advice and developing effective allocation approaches by ensuring that tenants are allocated housing units that they can afford – by considering external support services such as the CU. According to Community Housing Cymru (2019), this has been achieved mainly through specific pre-tenancy teams responsible for conducting individual tenancy assessments, developing tailored action plans and supporting tenants in making their claims.
The other set of tactics set up by some organizations (e.g. Peabody) for addressing the above-mentioned challenges is to develop a strategic rent collection approach that encourages tenants to pay rent in advance, which acts as a buffer and mitigates the waiting time before they receive the Universal credit payments. However, Community Housing Cymru (2019) contend that not all tenants can pay rent in advance, and therefore the social landlords have developed saving models where tenants save a specific amount of money each week to prevent them from being in arrears during the waiting time. Furthermore, the wider use of advanced rent payments has raised a question on whether rents should be charged early.
Writing about citizen involvement in various planning processes, Sherry Arnstein developed and described the ‘ladder of participation, which can be used to explain social tenants’ levels of participation in social housing issues – from high to low participation. The Arnstein’s ladder has been used by a variety of scholars to demonstrate the hierarchical rank of power within the context of decision making (Arnstein, 1969). In this regard, Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation has been in use for so long because people continue to encounter processes that do not consider anything else but the lowest rungs. Below is an illustration of the ladder and what each rung entail:
Manipulation and Therapy
Under both manipulation and therapy, the main aim is to educate or care for the participants while maintain a non-participative environment. Here, all the proposed social housing plans and programs are depicted by landlords as is the best option to solve the problems at hand while participation is only meant to achieve public endorsement through public relations (Arnstein, 1969).
This stage represents the most important step in legitimate participation. Here, the social tenants are informed of their rights, options and responsibilities. However, according to Arnstein, 1969), this stage is often made up of a one-way flow of information, whereby landlords only deliver information to the tenants without taking any feedback. Consequently, according to Arnstein, 1969), the citizens have very little influence on the programs designed for their own benefits. Meanwhile, the most common tools used in this stage include pamphlets, responses to inquiries and posters.
Just like informing the tenants, inviting their opinions can be an important step towards legitimate participation. However, failure to combine the consultation with other forms of participation makes this rung less effective because the tenants are not assured of that their concerns and ideas will be taken into consideration.
Arnstein (1969) argued that it is at this level that the tenants begin to have some meaningful participation, even though there is still an apparent tokenism. An example of placation is to pick a few ‘worthy’ tenants and include them on the board of the housing authorities. If the individuals are not accountable to any constituency within the community nor have most of the votes, they can be outfoxed or outvoted.
Under partnership, according to Arnstein (1969), a negotiation is held between the powerholders (landlords) and the citizens (i.e. tenants) to distribute power among themselves. In the process, they also make an agreement to share the decision-making and planning responsibilities through various structures such as planning committees and joint committee boards. Upon establishing the ground rules (by compromising), those ground rules are not subject to any unilateral changes.
This rung of the ladder is characterised by negotiation between tenants and the landlords that allows the former to have a dominant decision-making power over a program or plan. Here, according to Arnstein (1969), the tenants have a clear majority seats and specified powers that they can genuinely exercise. This level of the ladder is also characterised by tenants who have significant power to ensure that the program is accountable to them. In case of any disagreements or conflict, the landlords must begin a new negotiation process rather than respond to pressure from the tenants (Arnstein, 1969).
This is the last and highest place in the ladder. According to Arnstein (1969), the tenants own the entire process of planning policymaking and program implementation. A typical example of this ladder includes community owned housing program, where the community members govern the programs and are fully in charge of the managerial, policy and resource aspects.
Benefits of resident participation
Resident involvement, in the context of social tenancy, involves different forms of contested definitions. However, according to Murphy (2020), a more specific definition of resident involvement refers to how social tenants and those living around them can influence the various activities initiated by social landlords through participation in decision-making, policy changes, community projects and performance improvement.
Existing research has proven that resident involvement has a business case for both social landlords and tenants. For example, Manzi et al (2014) conducted a study to evaluate the economics of resident involvement and found that some of the cost savings and efficiencies in the housing management process were more attributable to partnerships with residents rather than antagonistic relationships. Whereas other managerial factors such as good teamwork and organizational improvement also played a role, the authors found that involving the residents in governance budgets enabled them to identify issues that they could have taken for granted.
For example, in 2014, the AmicusHorizon residents were involved in the development of new homes and this led to a 96.5% satisfaction rate in the new homes (Manzi et al, 2014). Furthermore, according to Manzi et al (2014), the residents contributed to savings through a Residents Design Forum in which they involved residents in inspecting various home designs and giving feedback for effective development of design standards and polices. Ultimately, Manzi et al (2014) concluded that some of the service delivery efficiencies achieved by AmicusHorizon were as a result of active participation of the residents in determining quality standards and designs of service.
Connected with Arnstein’s theory of citizenship involvement is the idea that tenant involvement and participation in landlords’ strategic priorities is a standard means of enabling tenants to inform various policy contexts and specific managerial decisions, especially when the landlord is experiencing newly arising growth options. Resident involvement also promotes resident oversight and consequent satisfaction over resource allocation and utilization by social landlords. For example, according to Peabody (2019), resident involvement helps the landlords to work with the community towards taking a positive community action by listening to what the tenants or the community wants and providing the necessary support to meet those needs. A typical example of organization that takes this opportunity is Peabody, whose approach to membership involvement ensures that any money spent on various housing interventions go to the right channel and not where the staff want them to be channelled (Peabody, 2019).
Tenancy involvement can have also play an important role in defining the value that social landlords are delivering to their tenants. While ‘value’ is often defined in quantifiable or financial terms, the UK’s Social Value Act obliges the tenants to deliver and measure value in terms of value for money and localism, as well as other forms of value such as social networks, opportunity to engage, and educational opportunities. For example, Sheffield Homes achieved cost savings for its tenants by involving its tenants in the procurement of goods and services (Kelly, 2013).
In conclusion, social housing should be made accessible for anyone who needs it. Currently, the UK laws on social welfare clearly stipulate who is eligible for social housing and who in the waiting list should get preference. However, there are lots of challenges faced by councils in determining who qualifies – creating unequal access to social housing. The millions of citizens currently on the waiting list means that failure to address these challenges – including shortage of social housing, can cause further health and well-being crisis in the UK, especially for the rough sleepers and other homeless groups.
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