Wednesday, 18 April 2012

How Would You Choose Between Tenants?

So, Frank Field is off down a familiar path, gaining attention and headlines for his views about the purpose of social housing. People who have paid their “rent and taxes” should be prioritised he says, thereby excluding in one sweeping statement all those philanthropists who have the marginal tax rate of a gnat who are currently seeking a social housing home. But I somehow feel that his comments are driven rather more by his concerns over immigrants than by my concerns about the future of charitable giving. It's funny, we seem to have a Government intent on demonising both immigrants and philanthropists, when in fact they both serve useful, indeed arguably, essential, purposes.

It is perhaps predictable that some quarters have poured scorn on Mr Field’s ideas, but I can’t help thinking that there is a good case to look much more closely at the methods used to prioritise social housing – not least as the Localism Act and the changed regulatory environment allows providers much more scope. It's always been something of a puzzle to me that government policy should focus so much more on the provision of new housing than the better use of existing stock. New lettings made in existing stock accommodate far more people each year than first lettings in new stock. It is those re-lets that shape the current state and future projections for the character of an area – the more so where social housing is the majority tenure. Add to that the impact that welfare reform will have on the housing choices made by Universal Credit dependent people of working age and there has never been more opportunity (and need) for the sector to think differently.
Who should decide on who gets housing? And how?

Mr Field’s ideas of a “good citizen test” to sit alongside (or even ahead of) tests of housing need is only one idea about how to change the way we prioritise our housing. At Trafford Housing Trust we are just starting our own exercise to look, from scratch, at who we aim to house and why. It's an exercise that asks some searching questions: should we move away from our council heritage as a “universal landlord” and more actively seek a particular type of tenant – perhaps those who are actively seeking to get, or get back into employment? Should we take more notice of prospective tenants ability to pay? Should we prioritise the needs of our existing customers over the needs of those we do not yet provide a home for? What part should people currently living in the area play in determining who their new neighbours should be?

The mechanics of the process need looking at too. I’m incredulous that even under our Choice Based bidding system, where prospective tenants bid for a home, we still get people turning it down when they are offered the very home they’ve bid for. I know that time-wasters are a regular problem for eBay sellers, but, really, for a new home? Landlords also generally use some variant of a process designed to allocate a  scarce public resource to choose between potential tenants – something more redolent of the ration queues of wartime than the consumer-driven world of today.

In amongst all of the changes that are going on in housing I hear more discussion, and more passion, about how the development of new homes can be continued than about how they should be let and re-let once built. We need to pay more attention to the lettings question and ensure it is properly aired at local and national level. Hats off to Mr Field for continually raising this issue, but if his is the only voice in that debate we are likely to end up with the wrong outcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment