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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

‘Who is and isn’t getting access to social housing, and why?’


Keeping the debate on rethinking allocations live is policy and practice officer Faye Greaves.

There’s nothing like a good Twitter debate to test your typing skills. I found this out when I took part in our #rethinkingallocations discussion earlier this month. Me, my colleagues and fellow tweeps all got stuck in to share our views on what has become one of the hot housing topic of the moment – who is and isn’t getting access to social housing, and why?

The debate followed the launch of our Rethinking allocations survey – part of a larger piece of work that seeks to understand how social rented homes are being allocated across England and to what extent practice is being influenced by external factors or internal decision making.

Rethinking allocations provides us with an opportunity to take a closer look at some of the key messages we uncovered during our influential Rethinking social housing (RSH) project. RSH points to evidence highlighted in the annual homelessness monitor England (2018) about the impact of a serious shortage of affordable housing options on many local authorities’ ability to meet their statutory obligations to people in housing need – 70 per cent of councils across England find it difficult to help people access social housing to prevent or relieve homelessness. RSH also revealed a consensus that some form of ‘rationing’ is inevitable when we consider the serious shortage of genuinely affordable housing to rent in large parts of the country.

Allocation schemes or policies are the main mechanism used by housing providers and local authorities to control the distribution of this scarce resource and we recognise that approaches vary across the country but how they vary and for what reasons is not so clear. Without understanding the current picture we can’t say with any level of certainty what ‘good’ looks like in any given context.

We want to know how housing need is determined and how this effects how people are prioritised from one policy to the next. We also want to know more about the use of pre-tenancy assessments and shed some much-needed light on their potential to support access to sustainable tenancies, if done right.

The use of pre-tenancy – or affordability – assessments is by far one of the most contentious issues for debate at the minute. I’ve had many discussions, on and offline, about how affordability assessments are considered as the biggest barrier to accessing social rented tenancies for people who can’t afford any other type of housing. But to balance this debate, I’ve also had many conversations with people working in this area who can’t see how they can allocate a tenancy to someone they know isn’t going to be able to afford it, no matter what support they offer.

I understand both sides of this debate and I recognise that pre-tenancy assessments can consider more than just affordability. However, my reasoning always leads me back to the same baffling question: How can it be that someone needs an assessment to check they can afford ‘affordable’ housing? And I’m reminded of what RSH told us about the role and purpose of social housing.

80 per cent of people who took part in our RSH workshops or completing the online survey felt that meeting need and being affordable were key features of social housing. This was a view supported by our Ipsos MORI polling of almost 1700 members of the public in England, where 78 per cent agreed that social housing should be available to people who cannot afford the cost of renting privately, as well as the most ‘vulnerable’.

The use of this ‘v’ word takes me back to the Twitter debate and the issue of stigma in social housing. As highlighted by RSH and then featuring prominently in the social housing green paper we know we need to address the issue of stigmatisation if we’re going recognise social housing’s true value and see it being “celebrated in the same way that we celebrate the NHS”. One small thing we could all do to help things along is to be more careful about how and when we use the ‘v’ word. Are we talking about people who need a bit of support? If so, why not just say that. This may well be another debate in itself but it’s just one of the many areas we hope to explore in our new Rethinking allocations project.

We’ll be running some roundtables in the new year to get more people involved in the discussion, including tenants and people who are waiting for social housing, so please keep an eye out for more on this. In the meantime, if you work for a social housing provider or a local authority with the strategic housing allocation function it would be great if you could take part in our survey – the link is here.

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