Yesterday was an eye opening day. I glimpsed a new take on a problem that the social housing sector has been tackling for the past two years. The problem was around encouraging residents to down size in order to avoid The Bedroom Tax, and ultimately reduce the chance of falling into rent arrears. The sub-set of the problem is often referred to as rising resident expectations within the sector (RRE).
It’s widely known that the bedroom tax financially penalises people for under-occupying a social property. The amount of housing benefit that the claimant is eligible for is cut at source by a variable % dependent on the scenario. This is specifically designed as a push factor. It pushes people into looking for a smaller property in order to have their rent fully covered by housing benefit.
The problem is that this isn’t the only factor at play. Residents have often spent years in their previous residence. It’s more than a home by name, it’s their home in their heart. It’s often been decorated to their taste and their standard at their expense. They may have saved for a long time to put their touch upon the property. To say they shouldn’t have done this as it was never their property, and those that did should have known that their investment was at risk is to deny what is human about making a home. These people have built nests in the same way that owner occupiers feather theirs.
Yesterday, when speaking with housing officers and scheme managers we discussed the thoughts of residents being shown potential properties that they could move into in order to downsize. I learnt that the tenants often refer to the standard of the property they are viewing. They are adults – they can appreciate by the nature of the situation that it’s likely to be a smaller property, but what many find challenging is that they’ll have to give up a unit that they have poured love into in exchange for one that may require a lot of superficial work.
I can appreciate this, as a financial modeller by trade, I can imagine myself thinking that bedroom tax may cost me £x per month, but to make the new unit my home, I’d also need to spend £Y per month over the next year. I may not have £Y per month which would result in me living in a place I don’t feel comfortable with. Weather this is ethically correct is not what I’m trying to make a stand for, I’m trying to highlight what happens at a human level.
The innovative, if not unilateral solution housing officers have come up with is to have two un-official lists. The first list contains newly refurbished homes and these should be shown to downsizers as a priority, in an attempt to alleviate their concerns about having to invest in order to make the place look nice. The 2nd list contains units that the housing officers described as “scruffier”. The phrase, “don’t waste your best units on the homeless” was banded about a few times and I understand their logic. Housing officers clearly appreciate the differing expectations of their clients / residents.
Going back to my routes as a financial modeller, I approach the problem from a cause and effect stance. Either the penalty of a bedroom tax has to be increased to a level where the push factors out ways the stay-put factors or there needs to be another pull factor introduced. This pull factor may take the form of decorating funds / vouchers. I’d need to understand the sums involved and discuss the ethical principles – but we shouldn’t avoid what is a difficult subject. Housing officers aren’t avoiding the difficult subject they are attempting to tackle it and so should government and executive management.
To conclude, I don’t know if this is right. I haven’t truly had time for this to sink in, but it is a great example of the complexity of housing policy and the increasing prevalence of expectation management within social housing. This should not be a taboo subject and it needs to be discussed.