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Opinion: What do the terms 'affordable' and 'social' housing actually mean?

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Opinion: What do the terms 'affordable' and 'social' housing actually mean?

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Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Housing

Opinion: What do the terms 'affordable' and 'social' housing actually mean? Opinion: What do the terms 'affordable' and 'social' housing actually mean?

Housing consultant Colin Wiles, who has recently helped to launch the Social Housing Under Threat (SHOUT) campaign, says issues surrounding the terms 'affordable' and 'social' housing are hampering the sector's ability to get a simple message across.

At the recent NHF communications’ conference several speakers lamented the fact that our sector has failed to present its case or to explain what we do to politicians and the wider public. It’s a message I’ve been hearing for decades from all parts of the housing sector. So what’s to be done?

Could part of the reason be down to confusion over how we define and describe our own products?

For example, how would you define social housing or affordable housing? Ask these questions of anyone in our sector and you would probably receive half a dozen conflicting answers. If we don’t know the answers how can we expect the wider public to have a clue either?

The Shelter website answers the question, “What is social housing” as follows: “Social housing is let at low rents on a secure basis to those who are most in need or struggling with their housing costs.”

That sounds reasonable, but then look at the legal definition in the 2008 Housing Act (it’s a little long-winded so I will paraphrase):
• “…social housing means…low cost rental accommodation and (my emphasis) low cost home ownership accommodation.
• Accommodation is low cost rental accommodation if...it is made available for rent (and) the rent is below the market rate, and...the accommodation is made available…to people whose needs are not adequately served by the commercial housing market.
• Accommodation is low cost home ownership accommodation if …
• the accommodation (comprises)...shared ownership...equity percentage or shared ownership trusts…made available…to people whose needs are not adequately served by the commercial housing market.

I take this legal definition to embrace almost anything let or sold at below the market price, even if the rent is only 99 percent of the market rate.

Moving on, the CLG website describes housing associations as bodies that offer “low-cost (my emphasis) social housing for people in housing need on a non-profit-making basis".

Under the confusing heading “Social and affordable housing” the CLG provides definitions for a number of terms:
• “Affordable housing is social rented, affordable rented and intermediate housing, provided to eligible households whose needs are not met by the market. Eligibility is determined with regard to local incomes and local house prices.
• “Social rented housing (has) guideline target rents… determined through the national rent regime.
• “Affordable Rent is subject to rent controls that require a rent of no more than 80 per cent of the local market rent (including service charges, where applicable).
• Intermediate housing is homes for sale and rent provided at a cost above social rent, but below market levels subject to the criteria in the Affordable Housing definition above. These can include shared equity (shared ownership and equity loans), other low cost homes for sale and intermediate rent, but not affordable rented housing.

I take this to mean that “affordable housing” can therefore include properties let at rents at up to 99 percent of market rents, as for the definition of social housing above.

The National Planning Policy Framework also defines affordable housing as “Social rented, affordable rented and intermediate housing, provided to eligible households whose needs are not met by the market. Eligibility is determined with regard to local incomes and local house prices.”

This is all very confusing and highlights the fact that certain words – “social”, “affordable” and “low-cost” – have become almost meaningless in the context of English housing policy, simply because they have no legal definition. Personally, I have always disliked the term “social housing” because of its word association with social workers, social security, anti-social behaviour, social problems etc. Isn’t it time that we had a major re-think about these words and their meanings?

For example, the words “affordable housing” could be linked to the living wage or average incomes, as it is under Scottish housing policy. After all, words and labels are desperately important. Take the community charge and the spare room subsidy - as soon as they became labelled as the poll tax and the bedroom tax the arguments in their favour were lost.

If we can’t adequately define what we are selling how can we possibly sell ourselves to others?

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