David Bookbinder: Social housing rents – let’s keep things in perspective

Rents matter – a lot. But things might be getting a bit out of proportion, writes David Bookbinder.

David Bookbinder: Social housing rents – let’s keep things in perspective

David Bookbinder

Keeping rents as affordable as possible, and providing as much new social housing as we can for years into the future, are the most critical contributions our sector can make to helping tackle poverty. We must sustain the trend – outlined in the recent Joseph Rowntree report – that lower housing costs in Scotland are the primary reason for poverty growing less quickly here than elsewhere in the UK.

In the current climate of austerity, no social landlord in Scotland will be complacent about its rent levels. But there’s a growing sense of unease among our member associations that the debate may be getting skewed.

The Scottish Housing Regulator (SHR) is perfectly entitled to keep us on our toes about rents, but this is a complex issue. Recent blogs and speeches from SHR have suggested that because many tenants struggle to pay their rent, the rent is too high. Similarly, SHR says that because rent arrears are going up, this too indicates that the rent may be too high.

The main reason people are struggling with rent is a tough, unfair benefits system and insecure, low paid work or unemployment.

And arrears are going up – scarily fast for some landlords – primarily because of Universal Credit (UC) and, in particular, the 6-12 week delay at the outset before a landlord sees any UC coming through. But the answer to rising arrears isn’t to reduce the rent: almost certainly it’s the opposite if an association wants to stay in business. And yes, that means some tenants effectively covering for others.

The pressures on associations (and on council housing departments) are immense at the moment. If a cash-strapped council can’t empty the bins on time or deal with bulk uplift, our tenants tell us they want us to do it.

Building new homes almost always means committing something from reserves, and certainly commits a lot of staff time no longer covered by the allowances of the past.

Some of our members work hard with their local authority partners to address disrepair in private tenement blocks which is threatening the wellbeing of the whole area. We could walk away – nothing to do with us – but we don’t.

The focus on how we prevent and tackle homelessness is sharper than ever before. We’re rightly asked to go easy on rent in advance, and in Glasgow some of our members have been asked to start tenancies with rent-free weeks to help address the Universal Credit issue.

We have ever-changing energy efficiency standards to meet, and only this week SHR says we need to do better on electrical safety. But SHR probably won’t comment on who covers the cost of breaking down doors to get access where tenants persistently refuse to let us in.

From various quarters we are – rightly – urged to ensure that our staff are properly trained on equalities and human rights, mental health, domestic abuse, adverse childhood experiences, dealing with dementia etc. – all really important, as are complying with GDPR and, now, Freedom of Information. All these have a cost.

Not to mention all the things we do as community anchor organisations to give local people greater opportunities to flourish and make our communities better places to live.

Inflation and rent assumptions in the business plan can of course be reviewed year on year, but start freezing the rent and you’ve got some serious challenges on interest and asset cover, and the lenders will soon come knocking (as, ironically, will SHR).

Rents will always be the subject of serious consideration in our sector, and where we can save money without reducing quality, we should. But with private rented sector rents high and service quality at best variable, providing a good home for £81 a week and doing emergency repairs in 2.4 hours aren’t things we should be getting beaten around the head for.

  • David Bookbinder is the director of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations
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