Is it time for a Right to Affordable Housing?

Following the recent CaCHE reports on housing affordability and the impact of welfare reforms on housing associations, Research Associate, Dr Jenny Preece, asks whether it’s time for a Right to Affordable Housing. 

There have been a number of recent reports and blogs[1] from the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence exploring issues of housing affordability. Whilst we are perhaps more used to thinking of affordability as a relationship between house prices and incomes, Geoff Meen has highlighted that we need much more nuanced measures to really understand affordability for different groups in society. In particular, thinking about affordability for low-income renters is an important step forward. This connects with our scoping study into the impact of welfare reforms on housing associations, in which we found increasing use of affordability assessments for prospective tenants. These could create barriers to accessing some social housing tenancies (especially Affordable Rent properties, which are typically let at a higher rate than social rents), on the grounds that prospective tenants may not be able to afford the level of rent.

Through our conversations with housing associations and stakeholders, we started to question whether – in a context of welfare retrenchment and increasing supply of mid-market rental products – affordable housing is really affordable for everyone. And if housing that is oriented towards those who are excluded from housing markets is not affordable, what does this mean for access to housing? This year, the UN Special Rapporteur on housing argued for a right to adequate, safe and affordable housing, with social and economic situation recognised as prohibited grounds of discrimination in the housing system. Discrimination in access to housing is more usually constructed around protected characteristics such as ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, but is there scope to start thinking about protection from discrimination on economic grounds – on the basis of ability to pay? Should housing policy seek to deliver a right to affordable housing?

As Meen points out, housing problems are not only about housing policy, but also the wider macroeconomy and labour markets – and securing a right to affordable housing certainly involves commitments far beyond housing policy. Article 11 of the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires governments to maximise resources to make affordable and decent accommodation accessible to everyone, but not to provide housing at no cost. It could be argued that the financial implications alone of guaranteeing access to affordable housing for all condemns the idea to the realms of rhetoric, rather than being a practical policy option.

Yet, a sufficiently generous welfare safety net would enable people to meet housing costs across varied local housing markets, providing a foundation from which other benefits – economic and otherwise – may flow. Housing Benefit is designed to bridge the gap between rents and people’s incomes. However, a number of reforms to the welfare system have created the potential for a shortfall between the rent due and the benefits that support people to meet those costs. Why should housing associations be expected to absorb all the costs (and the risks) of the gap between sub-market rents and people’s incomes (whether derived from employment, welfare support, or – as is increasingly the case for those in in-work poverty – a mix of the two)? As one practitioner pointed out, ‘there’s only so much that we can do…is this a high rent problem or is it a low wage problem?’ (HA2R1).

There were important examples of housing associations seeking to influence people’s labour market experiences, whether through the provision of employment support, or in their role as living wage employers. But a number of participants came back to the same point: ‘unless we restore some kind of link between the amount of Housing Benefit that people get and the costs of housing, then I don’t think anything’s going to get any better’ (S5R1). The welfare settlement is the route through which people can fulfil a right to housing. This is forms part of the broader right to the city; what is sought need not be an unobtainable utopia, but is about supporting a right to belong in a place. Eroding the means through which people can meet housing costs moves us further away from the aim of providing adequate, safe and affordable housing for all.

Dr Jenny Preece is a Research Associate for the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, based at the University of Sheffield. 

[1] Blogs:
We need more ambition to make housing affordable for everyone, by John Myers
Affordability and the policy implications: a third measure, by Ian Mulheirn
Moving beyond averages and aggregates, by Neal Hudson


Date: October 12, 2018 9:00 am


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