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Rethinking allocations: how local authorities and housing associations in England allocate social homes

Guest author, Faye Greaves, gives an overview of the recent Rethinking allocations study carried out by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH). 

In September this year, we published the findings from our Rethinking allocations study of how local authorities and housing associations in England allocate social homes. The project naturally progressed from our Rethinking social housing report, published last year. That research asked some fundamental questions about what social housing is, what it does, its role and purpose, and who it should be for.

Rethinking social housing revealed that, as things stand, social housing is for people who need it – addressing issues of unaffordability and homelessness, for example. It also set out the long view for social housing. Ultimately, it should be available for more people, not just those in urgent housing need. It should be treasured and valued in the same way we see our universal free education and our NHS, and it should also be at the centre of any government plan to tackle our housing crisis. But we aren’t there yet. It’s widely acknowledged that in the current environment, while we don’t have enough genuinely affordable supply, there will be some form of rationing to target the homes we have.

However, there continues to be widespread concern about how such rationing processes can create barriers for groups of people that need access to homes the most – people who are homeless and people with support needs who would find it particularly difficult to access and manage a tenancy in the private rented sector, for example.

Rethinking allocations sought to explore the topic in more detail – we wanted to understand:

  • How homes are being allocated at the moment.
  • The factors influencing practice in this area and what that looks like.
  • How policies and practice, related to social housing allocation, could be improved.

To help us do this we ran a survey of local authorities and housing associations in England and then ran five workshops across the country to explore the survey findings in more detail. We also ran a survey of people who had applied for help with accessing social housing. What we found was both unsurprising and revealing.

Providing homes to people who need them the most was considered very important for 88 per cent of our sector survey respondents. This was followed by making best use of stock, at 75 per cent. Making sure people can afford their tenancies and supporting people into sustainable tenancies was also considered as very important for many respondents – 73 per cent and 70 per cent respectively. However, our workshop discussions highlighted how the wider policy environment is driving behaviour that means activity to ensure tenancies are affordable and sustainable can conflict with efforts to prioritise those who need homes the most.

Picture source: UK Housing Review Autumn Briefing Paper, 2019

Our welfare system is no longer fit for purpose, there is a severe undersupply of genuinely affordable housing and we continue to lose homes through the right to buy and the rise of the affordable rent product – which is far from affordable for many low-income households. In addition, local authorities across England have experienced significant cuts to funding they receive from central government. All of these issues, combined, are creating a perverse scenario where the people most likely to face barriers to accessing homes are those in most need of them. And the reasons are often the very things that present as obstacles to getting the homes they desperately need.

While national policy drivers are strong, however, much of the system is still within the control of local authorities and housing associations. They have a lot of flexibility when it comes to making decisions about who gets access to homes. While the overriding concern in recent literature appears to focus on social landlords’ use of pre-tenancy assessments, including affordability tests, we identified three stages where barriers to access exist:

  1. Getting on the list – qualifying criteria
  2. Being prioritised – having individual circumstances considered to judge housing need
  3. Getting the keys – pre-tenancy assessments and consideration of ‘tenancy readiness’

Processes are an understandable part of this complex system, and criteria can help ensure fairness, equity, and transparency. But the overriding theme to emerge from our research is that ultimately people must come before process, that is, systems for allocating social housing must be people-led, not process led.

Local authorities and housing associations should not rely on criteria that generate decisions without allowing for individual circumstances and people’s unique housing histories. For example, having criteria that says someone who hasn’t lived in the area for x amount of years can’t qualify to join the housing list, or if someone has previous rent arrears, having a policy that says such applicants are not permitted to join the list or if they are, their application is suspended, or downgraded in some way. Simply making these decisions without taking the time to find out more fails to recognise that urgency of housing need and the consequences of not meeting it can’t be accounted for in rigid sets of criteria.

And pre-tenancy assessments have a place in the system, there’s no doubting that, but it is more about how they are used rather that the fact that they are used. Our conclusion on the use of these assessments is that there is evidence of providers using them with the sole aim of supporting people into sustainable tenancies and this is the kind of practice we would like to become mainstream, rather than the more cynical aim of using them to avoid, or screen out risk.

The argument of not wanting to set people up to fail is strong, until the realisation sets in that the only other alternative is often homelessness – that’s when the decision becomes a moral one.

Faye Greaves is Policy and Practice Officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH).

 
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Date: November 14, 2019 9:00 am

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