Making room: the social housing dilemma

(Illustration: Juliet Howard/The Organisation)

Older people living alone in social housing are under pressure to move and make way for larger families, prompting the question: whose needs are greatest? Natalie Valios reports below but you can have your say on our CareSpace discussion forum.


The home is not just a physical building: it is an important part of any person’s identity and is an important factor in determining quality of life. For an older person it may be the place where they raised their family, and where they have spent a considerable proportion of their life, and as a result may be full of memories.”

This quote is taken from A Sure Start to Later Life, the government document designed to end inequalities for older people. Over-75s spend about 80% of their time at home, so it’s easy to see why, for them, home is where the heart is. Our homes are filled with memories, so it’s unsurprising that many older people remain in the family home after their children move out.

Yet, when it comes to social housing, there is a huge discrepancy in how older people are treated, compared with those living in the private sector.

Most homeowners take it for granted that they will be able to live where they want until they decide to move. That’s no different for those in social housing who have a secure tenancy – basically their home for life.

But there is a desperate shortage of larger social housing homes for families, resulting in a debate about under-occupancy and overcrowding older people’s rights versus those of children and their families, and what can be done about it.

House building commitment

Recently a parliamentary question revealed that in 2007-8 nearly 88,000 children were living in temporary accommodation in England more than 61,000 of these were in London.

So the solution from most local authorities is to offer older people incentives to move out of their three or four-bedroom property into smaller accommodation. These can range from a £2,000 payment for each bedroom they lose, to providing a personal adviser to help them move and paying the cost of the move itself.

The solution from the government is a commitment in the 2007 housing green paper to build three million homes in England by 2020, including 45,000 new social homes a year. Low rates of social housing building, coupled with the right-to-buy policy, a greater number of single person households and a population that is living for longer have all contributed to the shortage.

Decline in council tenancies

It is a dilemma that James Reilly, director of community services at Hammersmith & Fulham Council in London, knows only too well. The council’s social housing stock stands at just under 18,000 homes. Of these, more than 13,000 are council tenants – the rest are leaseholders who bought their social housing homes. Overall, 33% of households in the borough have either the council or housing associations as their landlord within that, about 1,900 tenants are in sheltered housing.

“In essence, we have had a more or less standstill position,” Reilly says. “We have built quite a lot of housing stock with ­housing associations, but lost stock as tenants bought up their properties. Some areas have had a much more radical loss of council housing stock or registered social landlord stock and haven’t built as much as they have lost.”

In Hammersmith & Fulham, more than 5,000 households have registered to be rehoused in bigger properties.

“This shows that over the years councils and housing associations have built too many one and two-bedroom properties and not enough three and four-bedroom ones,” Reilly says. “So you have overcrowded households living next door to an underoccupied household and they’re saying ‘how can this be fair?’.”

The borough has a team of personal housing advisers to help older people consider the options and support them to move. “Unless you are prepared to have this approach you will not persuade many people to leave,” Reilly says. “There’s a difference between encouraging and supporting people and we are respectful that this is voluntary.

“We want to do what is right for older people but also help families because there are expensive long-term consequences from overcrowding: family breakdown, mental health problems, kids dropping out of school. These are all long-term costs for individuals and the state.

“Why do we put the premium of the emotional attachment to that home on the older person?” says Reilly. “What about the family? Are they not entitled to an emotional experience? Ideally, we would want both and it can’t be easily resolved.”

Sue Adams, director of Care & Repair England, a charity that improves the housing and living conditions of older and disabled people, agrees that the issue needs to be brought into the open – particularly the debate about whether there should be a change to the secure tenancy rules.

“Older people are keen on social housing because they come from a generation that remembers the insecurity of private rented housing,” she says.

Adams, who also co-chairs the government’s advisory committee on housing for older people, says: “I can understand the frustration of social housing providers that don’t have enough housing to meet the need. But the solution that older people should move out because of under-occupancy is too simplistic.

“It’s also divisive because it suggests that older people are in the way of the next generation.”

Pressurised to move

Feedback from calls to the charity about housing options is that older people are starting to feel pressurised to move. “We know of housing officers who are going out to older people to try to encourage them to think about moving and that can be upsetting,” Adams says. “There are as many people under retirement age who count as a single person household but no one is telling them they should move.”

Part of the problem is that the alternative accommodation offered to older people is seldom an attractive option. Adams feels strongly that more aspirational retirement housing needs to be built in the social housing sector.

“Often, all they will be offered is a bedsit or a one-bed property, very often a flat or in sheltered housing. We have to find a middle way.” Older people should not be made to feel so guilty that they take anything that is on offer, she says.

“How much space you have is much more connected to your wealth and status than your age. If you say all older people should move to little boxes, that reflects the status we give them,” she says. “In the private sector there are lovely retirement places that are snapped up, but they haven’t done that in social housing. It shouldn’t be about giving up your home to end your days it should be about somewhere you go for a better life.”

But this could be a long way off, according to Reilly. “Even in an ideal world, we would not want to disrupt the life of older households but still have sufficient housing for those who need it. But it would take us a generation to arrive at that point – with all the right political will and resources. So the question we face is: can we really carry on saying to overcrowded families that we can’t sort this for you for 25 years, so another generation of kids’ lives are blighted?”

Until there is an answer to that question, all the government’s rhetoric on dignity, choice, well-being and equality will remain just that.

More information

A Sure Start to Later Life

● Housing green paper, Homes for the Future: More Affordable, More Sustainable at

● More information on social housing


This article is published in the 26 February issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Neighbours in need

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