1. Governance
October 27, 2016updated 04 Aug 2023 8:32am

Welfare reform could price tenants out of social housing

By Sam Greenacre

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.

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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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