No room at the inn

It has been a damaging few weeks for the social housing sector,
which has finally been called to account for its failure to meet
the needs of some of the most vulnerable groups in society.

First, the Audit Commission is to investigate the allocations
policies of the housing associations after claims they are
“covertly excluding some vulnerable groups” – notably ex-offenders
and young people with chaotic lives.

Second, homelessness charity Centrepoint has claimed thousands of
homeless 16-17 year olds are being placed “at serious risk of
abuse” in bed and breakfast hotels. Government figures show that,
as new targets which prevent families staying more than six weeks
in B&B start to bite, desperate councils have simply moved the
families out and replaced them with vulnerable teenagers.

And third, the Housing Corporation – the quango which funds housing
associations – has just come under fire from an influential
parliamentary committee for having “lost its vision” and for
failing to champion the cause of social housing.

Twenty years ago, councils could allocate their own housing on the
basis of need. Today, social landlords are expected to be “in
business for neighbourhoods”, and their business-like finances
don’t leave much room for vulnerable people. Landlords won’t risk
troublesome teenagers frightening other residents away. They seek
reliable tenants who pay the rent, keep their gardens tidy, and get
on with the neighbours. The result may well be sustainable
communities, rather than ghettoes of deprivation, crime and
poverty. But where does this leave those most in need –
ex-offenders, young homeless people, and those struggling with drug
or alcohol problems?

It is time for the government to redefine – unambiguously – what
and who social housing is for, and how it should work. It should
issue firm guidance to social landlords and social care providers
on how to work together, and end anomalies that allow housing
departments to send a homeless 16 year old back to social services
as “a child in need” while social services tell them “you’re
homeless, go to the housing department”. And it should address the
chronic shortage of affordable housing of all kinds.

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