How can social landlords help to tackle poverty?

17th Sep 2015

As a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation looks at how landlords address poverty, John Hocking explains how JRHT is responding to the challenge.

As a social landlord, it seems to me that in the past it was simple (or relatively so). We built good-quality houses and let them on secure tenancies at low rents to those in need. For the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust it’s a model that goes back over 100 years to our founder declaring that “rents should be as low as possible while representing a return of capital invested of 3 per cent”, which we have maintained to the present day.

In recent times, though, changes to funding, regulation and rents, plus ongoing welfare reforms, have made things a lot more challenging. As social landlords, we’ve all responded slightly differently.

Cuts to housing grants mean most housing associations are now building ‘Affordable Rented’ housing rather than low-rent social housing. We know from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s previous research that the higher cost of these rents is likely to push an extra 1.3 – 1.5 million people into poverty by 2040.

Social landlords told the researchers they shared JRF’s concerns over affordability. But they felt they had little choice – to do otherwise would entail too large a reduction in development, which would restrict supply and make it harder for those on low incomes to access social housing. The operating environment has tipped the balance away from affordability and towards supply, and social landlords have responded.

Some housing associations have introduced affordability tests for these properties – they want to make sure that tenants can pay the rent, either with their wages or through full Housing Benefit. But tests like that risk restricting access to social housing to a smaller group, leaving others behind.

This was part of a wider shift that seems to be occurring in the way social housing is allocated. Whilst the report found that some social landlords had responded to changed circumstances by re-emphasising their traditional role of housing those on low incomes, others were choosing to house a much wider range of people. It’s a debate that has gathered pace since the research was completed in April, and as Julia Unwin has written (login required for full article), it is a fundamental debate about the sector’s role and purpose.

Which brings me to perhaps the report’s most interesting finding – that poverty is rarely mentioned when social landlords set out their priorities. Most, though, have a mission that includes housing low-income groups and addressing disadvantage. That separates us from private landlords, who – the report finds – rarely share this focus and prefer to let to working households who don’t rely on Housing Benefit.

With the operating environment looking as challenging as ever, as social landlords we need to be clearer about our core purpose, and where we see tackling poverty within that, otherwise we risk not only losing our purpose but our relevance.

At the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, we’re aiming to be an anti-poverty landlord. For us, that means continuing to keep rents as low as possible and developing additional services that could help tenants to manage their money. We’re not there yet, but we’re learning all the time, and I hope there’ll be plenty of others joining us on this journey.