Housing in 2040
by Sally Thomas
Reflections from the 2019 annual conference of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA)
Our annual conference looked at the future of housing, focusing on our tenants, homes, communities and social housing providers. Discussions took inspiration from Abraham Lincoln, who said:
‘The best way to predict the future is to create it.’
Before we can think about the future, however, we first have to take stock of where we are now – the challenges, pressures, and inevitable hurdles we face alongside the opportunities, possibilities and choices that lie ahead of us.
Happily, our sector is in an increasingly strong position, bigger than ever in scale, scope and status. It provides nearly half of all the affordable homes in the country to more than half a million people. It has a total capital asset base of £50bn, an annual turnover of £1.5bn, and more than doubles the Scottish government’s investment through private investment from £3.2bn to £7bn.
What this shows is that we have a voice that’s getting stronger and an impact that’s getting bigger. But we also have an increasing responsibility to put that strength to work.
However, there are serious problems to face – taking us way beyond regulatory compliance, policy delivery and financial strength. The conference looked at three important ones: poverty, climate change and homelessness.
There is no more pressing social issue than poverty – just as it was back in the 1960s when most housing associations were set up. Back then, the key issues were acute homelessness and the dearth of affordable housing.
A torrent of recent reports across the political spectrum – from JRF, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the Future of Civil Society, the UN Special Rapporteur, and the Nuffield Foundation – show that poverty is getting worse. Children are most seriously affected. In Scotland, 43% of children in socially rented homes now live in relative poverty, with 25% in absolute poverty.
Finding work is no longer a route out of poverty. More than half (57%) of working age adults in poverty live in families where at least one adult is in work. Income inequality across the board is increasing and slows no signs of slowing down.
Every housing association in the country does great work – day in day out – to tackle the poverty amongst their tenants and in their communities. However, to address the problem at scale and sustain it requires coherence, focus and a systematic approach.
We can learn from what they are doing in Canada. According to recently released data, between 2015 and 2017 Canada reduced its official poverty rate by around 20%. Roughly 825,000 Canadians were lifted out of poverty in those years, giving the country today its lowest poverty rate in history.
How did Canada do it? While the overall economy has been doing well, it is not enough to explain these striking figures. The difference has been that Canadians have organised their communities differently, and adopted a specific methodology to fight poverty.
About 15 years ago, a disparate group of Canadians realised that a problem as complex as poverty can only be addressed through a multisector, comprehensive approach. They understood that poverty was not going to be reduced by some amazing new programme that no one had thought of before. It was going to be addressed through making existing systems mutually supporting and designed to enact change on a broad level.
They began building community and city wide structures, by gathering 100 people from a single community. Around a quarter lived with poverty, the rest were from non-profits, business and local government. They spent a year learning about poverty in their area by talking with the community. The aim was to move people out of poverty, then eradicate it, by creating a vibrant community in which everybody’s basic needs are met.
After a year they came up with a town plan, based on local collaboration, policy change at the local political level and a clear agenda for change at the national level.
By the time Canada’s national government swung into action, the whole country had a base of knowledge and experience, a wealth of connections and a sense of what needed to be done. The two biggest changes were huge efforts to raise the minimum wage and the expansion of national child benefit.
What started 15 years ago in 6 cities now amounts 72 regional networks covering hundreds of towns and cities. It has resulted in the past few years in that 20% reduction in the national poverty rate.
This story struck me, not because it’s so much more different and better than what we do, but because it’s a systematic approach to create community-wide collective impact structures that can be replicated at scale. The process not only changes lives but also attitudes towards poverty.
Talking about attitudes, these are changing on the environment. Climate change is the top concern for young people in a recent YouGov poll.
Renewables, mainly wind and solar power, are providing about a third of our electricity right now. By 2032, the Scottish government aims to have 35% of domestic buildings and 70% of non-domestic buildings heated through low carbon technology. The Committee for Climate Change for Scotland is calling for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 (five years earlier than the rest of UK).
As a sector, we are looking at all many ways of making this happen – heat networks (a single energy source to a number of buildings), electric storage, air source heat pumps, infra-red heating and wind turbines.
The costs to the consumer will be cheaper. This is a critical factor if we are going to see the reductions in fuel poverty we need, because consumers are sensitive to the price of fuel. Fuel poverty is a big issue for our constituency. Our recent member survey revealed shocking statistics, with 73% of those responding reporting an increase in the number of tenants experiencing or at risk of fuel poverty. Almost two-thirds (64%) report an increase in rent arrears for those living with fuel poverty.
Our sector is leading the way on measures to tackle energy efficiency. We have the most energy efficient homes in Scotland, but more needs to be done. We have to take our tenants, customers, communities, partners and government with us on it – just as we have to do in tackling homelessness.
Most social housing providers grew out of the homelessness crises of the 1960s and 70s. Providing homes and support for those most in need continues to be at the heart of what we do. Homelessness is on the rise again.
Finland has long been held up as an example of success in addressing homelessness, with rough sleeping eradicated in the capital, Helsinki, and long-term homelessness reduced by more than 35%. It’s the only EU country where homelessness is falling.
In Finland, they got rid of night shelters and short-term hostels, increased house building and took a ‘housing first’ approach – a home without any conditions, without the need to solve any problems first or go into temporary accommodation first.
It’s taken over 10 years and money in support services and – most important – new homes, but a recent study showed the savings in emergency healthcare, social services and the justice system.
The big picture
This ‘big picture’ for housing policy is the sector’s emerging vision for 2040.
SFHA is already working on an analysis of what future housing need, demand and aspiration look like and we welcome the Scottish government’s work to consult on housing beyond the next election in 2021, to 2040.
We will not just make the case for continuing investment, we will also be working to demonstrate the social, economic and environmental benefits of all that housing associations do.
The current housing system is on its knees, with economic uncertainty, shifting aspirations and social change all playing a part. We can either just watch and react as this happens or be on the front foot, with a positive reframing of the system through the lens of social justice; one which puts social housing on equal terms with all other options – not as a last resort but part of the mainstream, along with private rent and homeownership.
We need to move on from a broken housing ladder to a property democracy, a level playing field of housing options and choices with tenure neutrality in standard and quality, public perception and access.
Our vision is for social housing as a positive and equal choice in a re-balanced and mature housing system. This will be provided by organisations on the front line with social purpose at their heart, with the experience, expertise and values to tackle some of the biggest challenges of our time, including poverty, climate change and homelessness.
Canada and Finland have shown large-scale and sustainable change takes time and a system-wide approach, attitudinal change and collective endeavour on a continuous and consistent basis. Challenges of the scale we are talking about just don’t fit political cycles – which the Scottish government has clearly recognised in defining housing as national infrastructure and a human right.
There is so much we can’t control, but so much we can. What can appear as control by or dependency on government, regulation, and the financial industry are actually inter-dependencies. They all rely just as much on us, for the homes we provide, the delivery of social policy objectives, our economic contribution, and for the environmental difference we make, as we do on them.
We can be done to, or we can set the agenda. Our collective purpose is to house Scotland and together we can do that.
We can simply try to predict the future, or we can create it.
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