Dr Kim McKee, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling
Dr Jenny Preece, Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield
Recent research commissioned by the National Housing Federation (2019) shows 8.4 million people in England are directly affected by the housing crisis, with one in seven now living in unaffordable, insecure, overcrowded and unsuitable homes.
As our recent UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence report highlights, the drivers of this housing exclusion are a complex combination of structural, institutional and individual factors. Our qualitative research, with key stakeholders in the social and private rented sectors in England, emphasised that housing exclusion is perceived to be worsening. Growing numbers of households now have limited housing options, and for some, they have no access to decent housing at all.
Crucially, housing exclusion is not felt equally. Young people, BAME groups and low-income households experienced the most constraint over their housing choices. There is also variable geography of exclusion due to diverging policy and practice across the UK. Within England, local housing market contexts continue to shape peoples’ lived experience of housing. This reflects a ‘geography of (un)affordability’ that exists across the country.
The macro-drivers of this exclusion highlighted in our report, mirror findings from the wider housing literature:
- Lack of affordable, appropriate, secure housing which leads to rationing and increased competition (Shelter 2019)
- Long-term changes to the funding for the development of social housing (Adam et al 2015; Preece et al 2019)
- Changes to the welfare system, particularly since 2010, which have restricted access to certain types of housing both in the social and private rental sectors (Powell 2015; Hickman et al 2018).
- Lack of regulation in the private rented sector, and limited regulation in the social rented sector (Wilson et al 2019; Henderson & Oldfield 2019)
- Challenges in accessing appropriate support (St Mungo’s 2018)
- Interaction of housing and immigration policy (McKee et al 2020; Simcock 2019)
Our report also details the diverse mechanisms through which housing exclusion is operationalised across the rental sector – some of these are longstanding whilst others have only emerged more recently:
- Local lettings – nomination arrangements and choice-based lettings (CBL) are critical to how social landlords allocate housing, yet they remain sources of contention. Whilst housing associations (HAs) are required to co-operate with local authority allocation schemes, our stakeholder interviews highlighted negotiations taking place around local housing agreements, with HAs seeking to allocate more of their own properties directly. Frustrations with CBL systems meant that some HAs were even using commercial services such as Rightmove and Zoopla to advertise to a ‘wider pool’ of people in order to allocate their hard-to-let properties
- Accessing local housing registers: CBL systems, in particular, were highlighted as having a disproportionately negative impact on those households who were most in need. This was in part due to the practical complexity of the system, but also reflected an imbalance between supply and demand for social housing.
- Private landlord pre-tenancy checks: designed to help landlords make judgements about tenants’ ability to pay their rent, these checks highlight the power imbalance and profit-motive at the heart of the PRS. Properties are primarily a source of investment, not someone’s home. Yet for those who cannot pass these checks, because of low/insecure incomes, bad debt, or – in some cases – because they are in receipt of welfare benefits, where do they go in a national context in which social housing is scarce and more and more households are renting privately?
- Social landlord pre-tenancy checks: increasingly these checks are also used by landlords in the social sector to assess the affordability of a home, in some cases refusing tenancies where there are affordability concerns. Whilst these subjective assessments operate differently in different organisational contexts, the overall sense from our participants is that assessments are becoming more stringent. This clearly has stark consequences for those in housing need and who may be grappling with debt or financial insecurity. It also reflects the wider financial pressures on social landlords trying to balance their social role alongside the need for ‘sustainable’ tenancies, underpinned by appropriate levels of welfare and/or tenancy support.
- Digital Tech: technological advances are changing the landscape of how landlords make decisions about who they let to. Credit checks are now typically all done online. New financial products are also emerging, such as ‘the credit ladder’, which helps tenants build their credit score by showing they can pay rent on time. This is however of little comfort to those struggling financially and unable to demonstrate ‘good credit’. Instead, the instant nature of these financial products exacerbates the exclusion already being experienced by low-income households. In social housing, digital technologies are also important in accessing housing through the growing use of digital portals. These may however exclude the very people who need housing the most.
- Tenancy conduct: landlord discretion and judgement remain important in other ways, with some landlords (private and social) visiting potential tenants in their current home to assess their lifestyle, housekeeping and property condition. In addition to the financial checks above, these represent further mechanisms of exclusion, which restrict access and undermine the housing safety-net.
In a national context of rising exclusion, the solutions to the housing crisis were clearly articulated by our stakeholders:
- Reform of the private rented sector: this included improved security of tenure and reforms to address the ‘no-fault’ ground for eviction; more enforcement action to help raise minimum standards; and rent controls to address affordability problems
- More social housing: increasing social housing supply at genuinely social rents
- Welfare (re)reform: reversing reforms to Housing Benefit and Local Housing Allowance, which have negatively impacted tenants in the PRS in particular, and ensuring appropriate (funding) support for tenancy sustainment services
Whilst exclusion has been a longstanding interest of housing research, our report underscores not only a worsening situation in the contemporary housing system but also new mechanisms of exclusion and a heightened role for digital technology. It is vital that key stakeholders in the housing sector work together to deliver person-centred approaches to ensure access to appropriate housing across varied local and regional housing markets. But this local level action also needs to be paralleled by the (re)reform of the welfare system which is a key driver of current patterns of exclusion. Everyone deserves a safe, secure and affordable home, but unless we tackle these significant challenges we risk failing to reach this aim.
Dr Kim McKee is a Co-Investigator at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence and Head of Housing at the University of Stirling.
Dr Jenny Preece is a Research Associate at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, based at the University of Sheffield.
This blog was first published on the website of the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence in March 2020.The full report, Forms and mechanisms of exclusion in contemporary housing systems, can be accessed here.