If you needed social housing for your family, what’s the first thing you would do to find a home?
Many people would look up their council website as a starting point, only to discover that their council doesn’t have an online registration form. Instead, housing applicants are often directed to collect a paper form from the council offices, as Katrina Heyworth recently discovered when helping a friend, or they may be able to ask for a form to be posted to them. At a time of acute stress, these delays create additional pressure.
Then, when an applicant has completed and returned the paper form, the council acts as a middleman and sends this form on to one or more housing providers from an accredited pool of providers. The applicant doesn’t have any idea who their potential landlord might be and nor do they know to what extent specific requests, such as for certain schools, will be heard and prioritised; they must simply wait for the council to get back in touch.
There is a disconnect here. On the one hand, the government is encouraging social housing residents to speak up and have a voice (damp and mould being an obvious example at the moment), yet the old-fashioned and under-funded processes for social housing applications and their allocation make it difficult for potential tenants to be actively involved.
Here at Housing Insight, we feel that technology has a role to play in helping housing providers and councils to work together better by updating the very old systems that exist between the two. For example, paper forms create a duplication of work that slows the whole process down.
Further delays also accrue because of the need to meet letting standards stipulated by the government. While higher standards are important to protect tenants, addressing those standards has resulted in the average turn-around time for voids doubling from 18 days in 2018 to 40 days in 2023.
While many housing providers are opting to bring their repairs and voids management work in-house, rather than outsourcing it, in order to bring down costs and timescales, we believe that technology can play a greater role in streamlining operations.
Extensive waiting lists
The lettings allocation process has become a bit of a lottery. Regional waiting lists are extensive but are not time-sensitive. Depending on postcode, decisions are prioritised based on a range of factors which may or may not include ethnicity, nationality or disability. In addition, since the choice-based lettings (CBL) pilots were introduced in 2001, applicants have been placed into accommodation bands which aim to reflect their housing needs. Is this process still fit for purpose over 20 years later?
With today’s technology, it is both feasible and more efficient to allow potential tenants to approach their landlord of choice direct. For example, Housing Insight currently offers separate housing application and housing allocation systems for our various customers; linking the two systems would be transformative for potential tenants.
Reduced social housing stock
Additional complications arise because fewer social homes are now available. Since the 1980s, right-to-buy has taken over 200,000 social housing properties out of circulation, with pricing discounts of up to £130,000 making it impossible for councils to replenish their housing stock on a like-for-like basis.
Anecdotally, we know of one tenant in London who bought their three-bedroom council property for £60,000 before selling it to a private landlord who then converted it into six flats, each generating a rental income of £950 per month. Many former council properties are now in the hands of private landlords, with rents going through the roof.
House building for social housing is happening at its lowest rate since 1991, with a net loss of 24,000 homes during this period. During 2021-22, there were only 267 new social lets, and only 11 per cent of all social lettings incorporated a new build or newly-acquired property. Most changes involved tenants moving from one property to another within the existing housing stock.
As a result, because so few alternatives exist, potential tenants often receive a single ‘take it or leave it’ offer. This creates a Catch-22 situation; housing providers want sustainable tenancies because happy tenants are more likely to pay rent and report any issues with their property, but tenants are unlikely to want to stay long-term in a house that doesn’t meet their needs (because there are too few bedrooms for the number of family members, for example).
The current cost-of-living crisis is likely to make matters worse. Rising interest rates will lead to an increase in the number of repossessions over the next few years and therefore greater pressures on our limited social housing stock.
There is also limited mobility within the system. Over time, as family members grow up and leave home, a single parent may end up as the sole occupant of a three-bedroom house. The housing provider might want to facilitate an exchange and swap the three-bedroom house for a more suitable one-bedroom flat because more people will benefit, but the tenant doesn’t have to agree.
On occasion, housing providers can offer financial incentives to encourage tenants to downsize, and the bedroom tax was introduced back in 2013 as a tool to promote this, but the decision is usually up to the tenant. Swap requests from tenants do exist, but they are unevenly balanced in that most tenants want to upsize rather than downsize.
Houses or homes?
Perhaps it’s time to reframe how we view social lettings as a concept. When working well, social accommodation is attractive; it functions like private lettings but with greater security for the tenant. But while it’s important to make tenants feel valued, technically these rentals are not their home.
Maybe our focus should shift away from providing social housing for life and towards a model that builds in a ten-year review or some other fixed term; not to force people out of their homes but to ensure the UK’s limited social housing stock is allocated efficiently in order to help as many people as possible. In supported tenancies, happy tenants who are aware of the review period are more likely to be willing to move because they trust their landlord, so everyone benefits.
And what proportion of that allocation should be given over to supported housing rather than general need? Currently, only 23 per cent of social housing is used for the most vulnerable, which reflects a six per cent decrease since 2022.
In the UK, we still take a very traditional approach to bricks and land, although new technologies such as 3D-printed homes could allow us to be more creative in our thinking. In the same way, we need to look at alternative solutions that use technology to improve not only the bottom line in social lettings but also how the entire process operates.
Katrina Heyworth is the head of sales and Ann Foy is the business development manager at Housing Insight.