How to put poverty reduction at the heart of social housing

What should be the single biggest priority for social housing providers in 2013? New homes for new residents? Better homes for existing residents? Improved non-housing services that help shape communities and improve the quality of life of all residents?

The ideal is for housing associations to be delivering all three of these objectives. In reality, most will only be able to focus on one or two at best. But poverty reduction should be a priority that cuts across all organisational objectives and activities.

Here are some ways in which this could be achieved:

Developing new homes

Households in new, higher rent properties are less likely to be in poverty than those living in old stock. Developing housing associations must not lose track of what is genuinely affordable, should cross-subsidise lower rent properties in new developments, and use development proceeds to recycle into their existing stock.

Good management of existing homes

In terms of targeting poverty, the management and maintenance of existing stock – including its energy efficiency – must be a priority. With a lower proportion of new homes to be let at social rents, there will be more households living in poverty in existing, ageing stock.

Targeting the most challenging households

NHF estimate that housing associations spend approximately £530m per year on wider, non-housing services. Shared among eight million people, this equates to £60 per person. Is that enough? These services could be more effective by targeting those who need it, not just those who are easiest to reach.

Housing associations have always faced a huge challenge in how to balance their 'social hearts and business mind'. The changing operational context, in terms of welfare reform, and a new and uncertain funding regime, has added to this problem. Housing associations are being asked to deliver more for less and this is forcing them to review their priorities and activities. A key part of this process should be more open discussion and explicit focus around the role of housing providers in addressing poverty.

Housing associations are constantly making trade-offs in their investment decisions. There are no right or wrong decisions. Investment priorities reflect an agreed set of objectives established in an organisation’s business plan and vary from association to association. The thread that ties the sector together is a shared culture based on an underlying social ethos.

Broad consensus remains that housing associations should seek to maximise their social impact. But this culture is evolving and diversifying, so delivering 'social value' means different things to different people. Social impact is a broad and notoriously slippery concept and although new, more sophisticated (and complicated!) attempts at valuing the social impact of housing providers are being developed, there are different approaches and perspectives that are equally valid.

Addressing or alleviating poverty should be an explicit and overarching objective for all providers. Social hearts to be underpinned, not subsumed by business minds. This is the only way to ensure that future housing provision meets the needs of people in poverty.

This blog post first appeared on the New Start website.

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