Understanding housing aspirations and choice: expectation and choice

Knowledge Exchange Broker, Joe Frey, reflects on the CIH Homes and Communities Conference which took place in Dundalk on 20-21 September 2018. 

CaCHE’s Northern Ireland Knowledge Exchange Hub held the first of its planned wider stakeholder engagement events on 20 September at the Chartered Institute of Housing’s Housing and Communities Conference. Stakeholder engagement lies at the heart of CaCHE’s Knowledge Exchange role of providing a bridge between the academic world and policymakers and practitioners on the ground. CIH in Northern Ireland has been very supportive of CaCHE and kindly agreed to facilitate an hour-long breakout session that provided an opportunity to present findings from one of CaCHE’s most advanced exemplar projects. One of the original overarching objectives of the Housing Aspirations exemplar project was to “engage with non-academic stakeholders about how housing policy and practice should respond to the findings”. This breakout session was designed to do just this, as well as fulfil a partnership commitment with the Department for Communities (NI) to sense test findings in the context of Northern Ireland.

The breakout session was filled to capacity and included 20 minutes of lively interaction with the audience. Following an introductory welcome by Justin Cartwright, CIH’s Policy and Public Affairs Manager, I briefly provided some background on the role and aims of CaCHE before introducing the main speaker, Emma Bimpson, a researcher based at Sheffield University, and a recent addition to the CaCHE team. Emma delivered a thoroughly insightful summary of the key findings that quite rightly focussed on the implications for policy makers and practitioners, rather than the conceptual issues that were somewhat more prominent in the original research paper (Preece, J., Crawford, J., Flint, J., Robinson, D. & McKee, K. : Understanding Changing Housing Aspirations: A review of the evidence; forthcoming).  Understanding housing aspirations is fundamental. Aspirations are linked to changes in the housing system as well as underlying political and economic forces that have resulted in more diverse housing pathways.

A number of things in the presentation stood out for me:

  • The importance of conceptual clarity in relation to housing aspirations: vis-a-vis other related concepts such as preferences, expectations and choices. In recent years I have also been aware of some confusion with regard to the difference between housing need (determined by social norms and policy) and housing aspirations – a position that can in some instances lead key players in the housing market to underestimate the real scale of housing need.
  • Acceptance of the growth and long-term inevitability of a sizeable private rented sector as an axiom: This is clearly reflected in the research findings in the shift away from homeownership as the ultimate housing aspiration and the need to move away from tenure as the defining characteristic of aspiration to, for example, more emphasis on providing a combination of flexibility and security in the private rented sector. Although this, in turn, may bring with it the risk of diminishing the need for social housing.
  • The “thinking outside the box” encapsulated by the examples of some very distinctive approaches taken by providers that have responded to changing needs and aspirations: The Collective, SharedLIvesPlus, etc., and we considered how these examples might have wider impacts, for example, on housing space standards. I was hoping that in the post-presentation discussion members of the audience might provide examples of this from across the island of Ireland. We heard about other research around housing expectations and choices, but we need to try and find out more about how housing providers are responding to shifting aspirations.

Justin Cartwright launched the discussion in his own inimitable way with some anecdotal comparative evidence from his native Australia, characterised by a “hyper-charged home ownership culture”,  where social housing in the state of Victoria comprises merely 3.5% of the total stock and a classic response to anyone in housing need is “get a job – get more money”! On a more serious note, Justin acknowledged the importance of the new research findings and emphasised the importance of meeting the varied and longer-term aspirations of tenants within the private sector – reflected in Northern Ireland, for example, in the predominance of shorter tenancies, often driven by tenant choice rather than landlord terminations.

David Silke, provided a useful overview of relevant parallel work being carried out by the Housing Agency in Dublin on tenants’ satisfaction levels, aspirations and perceptions as well as the focus on more specific questions such as how tenants balance expenditure on housing with other financial commitments. David’s colleague in the Housing Agency, Roslyn Molloy also drew attention to the importance of proximity to family as a key factor in shaping housing choice and aspirations.

Much of the post-presentation discussion centred around the critical question raised by CIH vice president Jim Strang, who asked how could CaCHE ensure that its valuable collaborative research is reflected in the policy decisions made by politicians rather than ending up gathering dust on the shelf. The nodding heads in the audience reflected the general awareness of the size of this challenge facing both CaCHE’s academic and knowledge exchange teams. Emma and I responded jointly to this by outlining the experience of CaCHE so far in making connections in key political and policy circles and in holding stakeholder engagement events. Last but not least we emphasised the importance of patience by reiterating one of the key messages given by Lord Kerslake at a CaCHE event in Sheffield almost a year ago when he told the audience that the impact of new housing research may not immediately be reflected in policy, but that it would over the course of a number of years through patient collaborative work often bear fruit. Ulster University’s Paddy Gray reinforced this by reminding us of the huge impact that the original report on the private rented sector by Julie Rugg had on Government policy.

The discussion concluded on a cautionary note from the Housing Executive’s Catherine Blease, who correctly reminded us that research designed to underpin future housing requirements should not just focus on replicating more of the past through ‘predict and provide’, but should try to help shape the underlying drivers as well – a point that could be reflected in CaCHE’s future research into what a “fixed” broken housing market ideally, but realistically looks like.

Thanks once again to CIH for facilitating the event and to all the delegates who came along, and in particular to those who provided valuable feedback and additional insights.

Joe Frey is Knowledge Exchange Broker for the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, based at the Univesity of Ulster. 


Date: September 27, 2018 4:16 pm


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