Welfare reform could price tenants out of social housing

A social housing block in London. (Not one of Flagship's.) Image: Getty.

Flagship Homes, a social housing provider working in the East of England, has been researching its tenants finances. These are the results.

House prices are increasing in comparison to wages, meaning it’s harder and harder to afford a home. Currently, in the East of England, someone wanting to own their own home has to spend or borrow over nine times their salary – a figure that’s predicted to increase to over 10 times by 2020.

Estimates put the need for new homes in England at between 230,000 and 300,000 per year – yet last year only 140 thousand were completed. At the same time, the supply of social housing is reducing and the unregulated private rental market is booming: for the first time since the 1960s, there are more people in England renting from private landlords than from councils or housing associations. And to top it all off, in the last 12 months, private rental prices increased across the country.

The second largest rental price increase was in the East of England – the region that, outside London, is projected to see the fastest population growth over the next 10 years.

Our purpose – the reason we exist at Flagship – is to provide homes for people in need. And in such a fragile operating environment, it seemed appropriate to understand whether the homes we provide are affordable, for those that need them.

So, in 2015, we commissioned Sheffield Hallam University to assess the affordability of our housing products. We had a fantastic customer response – more than 2,600, which is about a 13 per cent response rate.

We took a truly unique approach to this research. Whilst traditional affordability studies focus purely on the financials – income vs expenditure – we examined people’s perceptions of what they could afford, and what they could not.

There were six key findings from the research:

Our rents are set at appropriate levels for most customers. The cost of rent was not a common reason for difficulties in paying rent – although this is to be expected with roughly half of customers who are in receipt of either full or partial housing benefit. It was clear that unexpected expenses, increases in outgoings and decreases in income were the main reasons why customers experience financial difficulty.

Just 6 per cent of our customers had a rent that they couldn’t afford – but a further 32 per cent were at risk of not being able to afford their rent. Being in the "at risk" group means that any negative change to financial circumstances, such as further welfare reforms, or unexpected expenses, would mean that rent would become unaffordable.

When customers run out of money, the most common reaction is to cut back on spending. Only 13 per cent of customers said they could manage using existing income if their expenses were to increase by £10 per week. Interestingly, money management skills were not the cause of unaffordable rent for most customers: the majority reported being very organised at managing their money.

Our customers prioritise paying their rent over paying other bills – their rent is the last bastion of their financial stewardship. So once our customers are in arrears, this is a sign that something is wrong with all their finances, not just their rent.

There's little demand for right to buy. Results from the survey suggest that only 3 per cent (600) of Flagship customers are likely to take up the voluntary Right to Buy.

The research gave an insight into which of our customers would be affected by forthcoming welfare reforms – for example, the cap in social housing and tax credits reforms. Working age households who have no adults in full time work are likely to be the most affected.

What now?

We previously had limited information on how affordable our products were. The data has confirmed to us that some of our customers have real affordability issues, and these are only going to get worse as welfare reforms start to bite.

This research has equipped us with a fantastic array of raw data from which to work with. It’s helped us understand the socio-demographic makeup of our customers in more detail than ever before, and has aided us in modelling the impact of recent policy changes, such as pay to stay.

We are also using Microsoft’s power BI, essentially a simple way of displaying data so that it makes sense to create a tool for our housing officers to identify potentially vulnerable customers – with the intention of catching any financial difficulty before it becomes a problem.

It was important for us that the research was an independent analysis of how affordable our housing products are. It contains six recommendations from the team at Sheffield Hallam – these are now being considered by Flagship’s in-house welfare reform and universal credit action group.

We’re already trialling an affordability calculator with new customers, to ensure they have sufficient income to afford the property allocated to them, and we continue to signpost to support agencies where appropriate.

Sam Greenacre is head of communication at Flagship Housing.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.