The council’s announcement said 75% of the 275 new homes will be let to council tenants with an excellent tenancy record (there will be house and garden inspections) from local wards. It goes on: “The remaining quarter will be let to people with a local connection who are in employment; training as a keyworker, or living in high rise flats with children. We’ll also prioritise overcrowded households and members or former members of the armed forces and their partners.”
I used to work in housing. Although I never collected a rent or let a property, I worked closely with people who did. New properties to let always presented issues. What is the fairest way to deal with people on the waiting list, existing tenants wanting to transfer and the community within which the housing sits?
Back in the 1980s councils were told to stop building new houses, so the only new social housing was built by housing associations. Councils often had ‘nomination rights’, they told the housing association which applicants from the council’s waiting list were to be housed. The biggest pressure on the council was the legal duty to house homeless people, so it tended to be these families that became the first tenants of the shiny new houses.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except that the new tenants were often in crisis and brought those pressures to the new estate. People are rarely just homeless, there’s either a back story that led to losing a home, or homelessness has caused other problems. I’m talking about stress, anxiety, alcoholism, domestic violence, leaving care or prison, unemployment, mental health issues. The list goes on.
By the way, when I say ‘homeless’ I don’t just mean destitute people living on the street. I mean the ‘sofa-surfers’ put up by friends, grown up children living in overcrowded homes, people in hostels – the so-called ‘hidden homeless’ too.
Of course a new home is a new beginning, a stable base on which to put your life back together, it’s a good thing that people in these circumstances need. But if you fill a whole estate with households grappling with these issues you get a very unbalanced and needy community. So housing associations started negotiating with their local councils and coming up with schemes to let to other applicants with different housing needs to try and rebalance these communities.
Hang on, I hear some of you saying, this smacks of social engineering. Surely people at the top of the list should get priority. We’ll come back to the list, but any lettings policy is ‘social engineering’ as is leaving it to the market. In the 80s and 90s the cycle of decline on Beeston Hill led to established owner occupiers moving out, selling to landlords which in tern caused more home owners to sell. Today the market is producing ‘Poor Doors’.
Getting back to the council’s policy, I broadly support it. It seems unbalanced in the opposite direction, isn’t there any room for homeless families? But I expect they would argue that with three quarters of the lets being transfers from other council properties, these can be re-let to the homeless. What I find really interesting about the policy is that takes us back to the 1950s and 60s when your interview with the housing officer wasn’t to establish how bad your circumstances were, but how respectable you were. Of course the difference then was that councils were building thousands of new homes each year.
Which brings us back to the list. When you’ve got 26,000 people on the housing waiting list in Leeds, it really matters how you prioritise and who gets to the top of the list. If the list was shorter it becomes a matter of how long you have to wait, rather than will you ever get a house. Still important, but less pressured.
I’ll be back in next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.