How can housing associations chart a course out of this crisis?

Will Jeffwitz, 27 April 2020

At the NHF, we’re developing a significant new project with our members that will understand and shape the next few months, and years, as the country emerges from this crisis.

There will be no rapid return to ‘normal’ from this crisis. The physical restrictions needed to control the spread of coronavirus will be with us for months if not years. And the knock-on effect across society and the economy will last far longer. This crisis began just as the decade did, and will profoundly shape the 2020s.  

Looking back – what have we learnt so far?

Recent weeks have exposed the inequalities that already existed and reinforced what we already knew - that ‘normal’ wasn’t always working well anyway, particularly for the communities which housing associations serve.

The crisis has shown the vast disparity in access to green space, security of tenure, and a decent quality spacious home. It has shown the inequality that BAME communities face with distressingly stark consequences now. It has exposed our reliance on workers in jobs like social care, food delivery, or cleaning who are paid poorly and often badly housed, but taking the biggest risks now on our behalf. It has shone a light on how inadequate our social security provision had become.

But recent weeks have also shown that determined, swift and compassionate action can achieve more than we ever thought plausible or possible. Ninety percent of rough sleepers were helped off the streets in two weeks. Millions of people have self-organised to help their neighbours. Housing associations alongside charities, civil society and businesses have reoriented themselves completely to support communities at incredible speed.

So looking ahead isn’t about the ‘recovery’ or about ‘returning to normal’ – it means thinking again about our ambitions for the 2020s given what we’ve learned in the decade’s horrific first few months.

Looking ahead – and starting with simple but ambitious goals

Looking ahead should start with a simple but ambitious goal – that the people and communities housing associations serve emerge socially and economically stronger than before. We’ll be exploring what this means with our members over the next few weeks. But we propose some immediate priorities now.

  1. Where we have made progress, we cannot row back now. Most immediately around rough sleeping, which has almost been ended overnight. It would be unconscionable to reverse this. Housing associations are already working hard with partners across the sector and with government to ensure permanent homes for everyone helped off the streets. This is just the first important step towards ending homelessness more widely.

  2. An affordable, good quality home for everyone is more important than ever. There is a newfound appreciation for the vital contribution low paid key workers make to society, and a widening understanding of what jobs really count as ‘essential’. It is wrong that millions of people keeping society going are living in insecure, expensive, overcrowded and poor quality homes. We must do better for the heroes of this crisis by providing good quality homes they can afford to own or rent. But we can’t stop there. Poor housing is no more defensible just because its residents aren’t providing frontline response to a pandemic. We still need to be building 145,000 affordable homes to own and rent each year. Many of their inhabitants will be key workers. All of them have a right to a decent home.

  3. Affordable housing is quick and low risk to build. Working with the government we can get residential construction back up and running within weeks, saving jobs and SME firms. If done as part of a long-term strategy for affordable housebuilding it could unlock wider benefits across the construction sector: unleashing the potential for modern methods of construction, which would deliver a new generation of skilled workers and improve productivity.

  4. We cannot let the immediate crisis dent our ambition to solve longer term but even greater challenges, particularly around climate change. Housing associations, the government and industry can work together to develop and implement the technology and workforce needed to retrofit our existing homes to low carbon standards, paving the way for the private residential sector, and boosting local economies across the country.

  5. The impact of this crisis will be felt differently across communities, so our response must reflect this. The economic impacts of the coronavirus crisis will be hardest felt in the midlands and the north – we must double down on levelling up. With unemployment rising steeply, housing associations can help people find work. As anchor institutions embedded in communities, housing associations will help chart a course out of this crisis for places across the country.  

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen how housing associations have stepped up in incredibly difficult circumstances to support communities and residents deal with the impact of this crisis. I know we can also step up to lead the way out of it.

Over the next few weeks we will be working closely with our members, other partners and with the government to understand how we can deliver on these and other priorities. To find out more, get in touch.