Social housing: Who has the right to live in the city?

Selling social rented homes in high-value areas would raise funds quickly, says Kathleen Kelly, but is it sustainable?

The lack of available homes is a serious problem, particularly in London and the southeast of England. However, we need to think very carefully about the long-term consequences for the housing system, labour market and communities before rushing to sell off valuable housing assets.

Of course, selling social rented homes in high-value areas would raise funds quickly but is it sustainable? In London and other high-pressure housing markets, selling stock doesn't solve the complex problem of providing social housing for people on low incomes. Finding sites to build new homes to replace the lost stock is a key problem. Without this there are unlikely to be many net additions to the affordable housing stock and waiting lists will continue to grow.

To build affordable homes housing associations have to raise private finance. Selling off the assets to enable this risks pushing development of new social housing out of the capital and other high-pressure areas altogether.

Limiting the value of social homes to the regional median of house prices would also lead to pricing out of family-sized social homes in high-cost locations. Coupled with wider welfare reform that will see maximum benefit caps and the gap between rents and benefits grow wider in the private rented sector, those on low incomes will be forced to move out of high-cost areas.

Why communities matter

Those in low-paid and insecure work are important to the competitiveness of our cities, including London. Low-cost housing close to labour markets helps people to take these jobs, mitigating low wages and part-time work, as well as providing valuable stability during periods of unemployment.

More stable communities help too. Moving people away from community ties will make it harder for them to work. Low-paid workers often rely on a mix of informal and formal support mechanisms to make work possible. Family and friends looking after children help to accommodate shiftwork, for example. While it's true that people don't necessarily drink in the same pubs as neighbours on different incomes, they do use the same parks and libraries. Mixed communities help increase the viability of important public facilities like these.

Exacerbating inequality

Social inequality in Britain is growing – it is foolish to think mixed-income communities or housing policy alone will solve this problem. But their absence can make it worse. Other countries with more mixed-income social sectors have both less social inequality and more housing supply. Neither luxury is available to Britain's policymakers.

Finally, the costs associated with the negative side-effects of concentrated poverty are a clear argument against dismantling mixed communities. We shouldn't fool ourselves – shunting people in poverty around will eventually increase costs by escalating pressure on already stretched public services.

Selling off high-value social homes won't solve the housing crisis. It just shifts debate away from housing's role in alleviating poverty to a focus on thwarted middle-class aspirations to live in high-cost areas. Housing associations already provide various housing options including low-cost home-ownership and rent-to-buy schemes. This needs to be encouraged.

More than anything, what we need is a more stable housing market to limit house price booms and make housing more affordable for all of us.

This post first appeared on the Guardian's Housing Network Blog © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011