This session looked at new research for The Smith Institute, exploring “vacancy chains” in London’s social housing. We heard how a change in approach – and better collaboration across the sector – could alleviate housing pressures.
- Leo Pollak, Councillor, LB Southwark and report author
- Becky Utuka, Director of Development and Sales, Gateway Housing Association
The desperate need for more social housing
Becky kicked off the discussion with a reminder of the desperate need for more affordable housing – particularly social housing – in London. Around 250,000 Londoners are on waiting lists for council housing and 165,000 homeless people in temporary accommodation, according to London Councils.
The good news is that the supply of social housing is increasing. Almost every London council is now directly engaged in social house building, with significant contributions from housing associations.
Starts and completions for social rent homes in London have risen sharply since the Mayor of London’s Affordable Homes Programme increased grant funding in 2016.
But house building is still not keeping pace with the need for affordable housing. Overall social housing lets in London have been steadily falling over the past decade.
Can we use new and existing social homes to rehouse more people?
Creating more homes at social rents is widely recognised as essential to tackling acute housing needs. But little attention has been given to maximising the re-housing impact from new social homes, as well as from letting of existing stock.
Leo has reviewed the allocation of social housing by local authorities across London . When a new home is built or an existing home is re-let, housing teams often offer that home to the household at the top of the list. Their top priority is tackling overcrowding and moving people out of temporary accommodation.
Instead, Leo suggests that councils should use their existing stock and rehouse more people by linking a ‘vacancy chain’ of households in that area that all need to move for different reasons.
“Vacancy chain” refers to the overall sequences of homes made available for social housing as one household vacates an existing social home and subsequently re-lets then rehouses another household, until no new social housing vacancy is formed.
Leo used a case study of Welsford Street in Bermondsey to explain how chains can work. Ten new council homes could simply be used to rehouse ten households in temporary accommodation or at risk of homelessness.
But a ‘chain maximising approach’ could typically rehouse over 20 households, by connecting the needs of different households to make the most of under-used capacity.
How can vacancy chains be used more widely?
Allocations teams should incentivise under-occupiers to downsize and free up larger properties.
But Leo also pointed out that planning policies need to meet the housing type needed in a particular area – such as large family homes or sheltered accommodation. Without tailoring supply to demand, new social housing may not have the impact that local authorities want.
To do both of these things well, local authorities need better data on existing housing stock and, crucially, the wants and needs of existing tenants. Housing teams need to work much more collaboratively and think about how they finance new developments in a much more holistic way.
Finance officers, for example, often look at the ‘cost per unit’. On paper, this means that a development of 100 one and two-bed flats might seem like better value for money than 50 three-bed flats. But savings larger flats could be greater if they enable people to move out of expensive temporary accommodation.
Rising construction costs are making it harder to deliver new housing. Now is the time for finance teams, development teams and allocations teams to work together to tackle the housing crisis by making sure that both new and existing homes house as many people as possible.
Affordable Housing: Overcoming crisis through collaboration is a cross-sector research and events programme that aims to make practical recommendations.
Contact Anna Odedun, Head of Knowledge, to get involved. Thanks to project sponsors Countryside, Montagu Evans, Pollard Thomas Edwards, Potter Raper and Trowers and Hamlins, and our conference sponsors Altair, Inner Circle Consulting and Big Society Capital.