Want to solve the affordable housing crisis? Let housing associations build

An east London housing association estate. Image: Getty.

The chief executive of a housing association writes.

Everybody is talking about the housing crisis and how the market is in urgent need of reform. As well as a general shortage of housing across the board, arguably the biggest issue is the lack of homes that are genuinely affordable for people on modest incomes. The big developers that dominate the market are simply not delivering stock that meets these people’s needs – a problem government now recognises, but policymakers seem to lack an answer to.

The first challenge is to get to the bottom of where exactly we need more new homes to be developed that meet the needs of the majority of people on modest earnings. It isn’t a simple case of trying to shoehorn a bit more affordable development into the more expensive places to live. We need to understand where it is difficult to access affordable housing, but also think about the opportunities the housing needs to provide access to, such as a healthy jobs market, wages that meet the local cost of living and decent state schools. In other words, where is it that families on average incomes are most likely to struggle to simply get on?

This is where this report marks a new and important contribution by creating the first Northern Powerhouse Liveability Index. This unique research creates a new measure of ‘liveability’, which combines the availability of affordable housing with multiple factors that capture the quality of life and opportunity available for average earners. It ranks every local authority in the north of England, giving a new picture that challenges much existing thinking about where we need more affordable housing to be built. 

For example, despite having reputations for below-average housing costs, Bradford, Oldham and Blackburn are among the areas identified as being most difficult to live in for average earners and most in need of new affordable homes. These ‘liveability blackspots’ combine shortages of affordable housing to meet local demand with other pressures, like low employment rates or a lack of good school places that make it difficult for people to build a decent life.

Conversely, areas like South Lakeland in Cumbria and Ribble Valley in Lancashire are renowned for high housing costs – but these are revealed to be some of the best places to live in the north for people on average incomes.

This research thus starts to create a much more real picture of where we most urgently need to build new housing. The question then, of course, is what we do about it once we have that picture. And this is where we need to rethink the housing market itself. 

The handful of large commercial developers that currently build most of the country’s housing simply do not meet the needs of people on modest incomes. Financed by speculators looking for a short-term gain, these providers are the people behind problems like land banking, where land sits for years with planning permission before any building starts, in order that the housing crisis makes the land more and more sought after over time. They also skew the commercial viability tests that accompany new development permissions in order to bias larger houses in more expensive areas where the profit returns are going to be highest.

To his credit, Sajid Javid – until this week the housing secretary – has said that he recognises these issues and wants government to crack down on them. But the problem is that it will take years to unpick all the planning rules to try to change the situation.

This is where we need to look to housing associations to step in and play a major new role. We have good balance sheets, lots of experience managing more affordable housing and the sector is becoming increasingly efficient. Best of all, we are not dependent on developing for-sale housing that delivers a high return in a short period. We typically manage lots of the rented stock people need and do so over a very long time, providing investors with a very steady, long-term return.

This is perfect territory for institutional investors like pension funds and, linking up with housing associations, we could see a really transformative model where new affordable stock could be developed at seriously large scale. The fact that this does not happen already is a classic case of market failure, which government could step in to fix – bringing investors who are unused to working with housing associations together through a new vehicle or framework for big investments in affordable housing for institutional investors.

Such collaboration between the housing association sector and institutional investors could yield substantial gains, potentially creating hundreds of thousands of new and affordable homes right across the country. 

Brian Cronin is the chief executive of Your Housing Group, a housing association with more than 28,000 homes in the midlands and the north.


Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.