November 2015

Politicians and senior housing professionals are locked in debate about who should rent social housing, how much rent we  tenants should pay and what length – or brevity – of tenure we should be granted. We are characterised as subsidised beneficiaries. The latest trend is to discuss what stage of life progression merits tenants losing our homes.
As a voluntary sector manager and HA tenant, I want to advocate a fresh approach. I believe many housing providers need to face up to their own investment in promoting myths about their tenants.What is social housing for?
31 years ago I was in the communal garden of the west London housing co-op where I lived. A girl came walking across the grass.  She was pregnant. She knew from a friend in the co-op that I was part of a babysitting circle there. Would I help her when her baby arrived?
The child was born early and frail. She was a little elf-baby, huge eyed with puzzled eyebrows.  Her mother was seriously depressed after the birth. She and I shared childcare, with the little girl staying with me at weekends. Social Services formalised my role into a respite foster carer.
One day her mother asked me to foster full time for a while. She needed support to get properly back on her feet.
I was expecting my own baby. I took maternity leave and approached a nearby Housing Trust who were happy to help. Within six weeks we’d moved half a mile to Ladbroke Grove to a larger flat.
Thirty years ago this was an exciting vibrant neighbourhood. Renting was just a normal, mainstream way to pay for homes. Tenants didn’t think of ourselves as a separate demographic. We variously worked in skilled manual trades, manufacturing, retail, community development, schools, health, public transport, social care and of course, housing. Some people had disabilities or were very elderly and had adapted flats and some had extra support. Mixed in were writers, artists, musicians and numbers of women of all backgrounds raising children alone.
There was a great swell of social change, discussion and hope in the area at that time. Locals, individually and collectively, created inclusive child-centred playgroups, multi-ethnic arts venues, a glorious wildlife park, women’s refuges, food co-ops and disability support networks.  Vocal pensioners held a forum, marched on the Town Hall and set up a peer-run charity. Every August the sound of steelpans cascaded into the streets, as the various Mas Bands practised for Carnival.
So what does this have to do with social housing today? Well, we are nearly all still here, renting our council or housing association homes. We still work or have retired and live in our area where every walk includes casual greetings to people we’ve known for a lifetime. Many of our adult offspring live with us into their 30’s, as they struggle to save to move out.
In recent years, we average earners are now clinging on as our area is sold street by street to millionaires. We no longer feel welcome here. Property, in this once very mixed neighbourhood, is a wonderful investment opportunity for the extremely wealthy. Even the local launderette is now an estate agent. The library is being leased to a private school. Commercial housing developments are springing up on “regenerated” estates, with starting prices of £600,000 for a one bed flat.

My Housing Association landlord’s costs are met in full through rents and service charges. In the past 30 years I have spent far, far, more in rent than our home owning neighbours paid to buy when the area was cheap.  They paid their mortgages years ago; we of course will continue to pay rent for life.

The gravy train has screeched to a halt for social landlords. We need solutions that enable tenants to have some choice and control, such as ceding clusters of social housing to be locally run as co-ops.  Solutions including housing associations reviewing director’s pay of £200,000plus and rationalising their expenditure back to realistic levels.
I am terrified that instead they’ll increasingly misrepresent tenants as needy miscreants. If we need managing, ordering, containing, patronising, that justifies their expensive unwieldy hierarchies. It also ensures tenants have no input into any proposed strategic change.
I have spent my whole adult life in community work. At 61, I now work part time,partly living on my retirement savings as my pension has been put back by 5.5 years. My landlord had our flat valued in 2012 at £995,000 so RTB is risibly irrelevant to me.The 1% rent decrease would have been a boon. But my son and I together earn £41k so soon we’ll be hit by Pay to Stay.

I am so scared about the future.

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