Housing minister Grant Shapps has ignited a huge row this week after criticising some housing association bosses for their “morally wrong” salaries; some pay packets certainly sit uncomfortably alongside figures showing high unemployment among housing association tenants. But, asks Chloe Stothart, can plans for more social mobility schemes in the affordable housing sector really lead tenants into work?
Seaside towns can be a fun, bustling place for a summer break. But after the tourists head home, job opportunities can disappear too. Rosalyn McCrohon, who used to live in Cromer, Norfolk, thought she had little chance of finding work there after being made redundant from her job as a school administrator in October 2009. She decided to move. She choose Norwich, an hour and a half away, where she hoped the job prospects were better and where her children went to school.
It can take a long time for housing association tenants like Rosalyn to find a suitable home to move into. Existing tenants wait for transfers at the back of the queue behind new applicants who are in greater housing need. Falls in housebuilding, sales of social homes and growing waiting lists mean demand for housing is high. People who want to move may wait for a long time, in the meantime they could be living in deprived areas of high unemployment.
However, Rosalyn’s landlord, housing association Peddars Way, is a member of a national home swapping website which is intended to make it easier for tenants to move. The House Exchange scheme has 89,000 tenants registered and is run by housing association Circle Anglia, which has 61,500 homes in the east, south, Midlands and London. On House Exchange, a tenant enters their preferred area and type of home, and several matches come up. A survey of 600 users found 79% moved within six months while 8% waited between one and three years.
Rosalyn moved to Norwich in April six months after advertising her home on the site. Her children now have a much shorter journey to school and she has been offered a job editing a local magazine.
Poor mobility can not only make it harder for tenants to move for work, but it can also stop them moving to care for relatives or to escape overcrowded accommodation. A report commissioned by Circle Anglia from think tank the Human City Institute estimated poor mobility in social housing costs £542m a year. This includes the loss of free care that tenants would provide to sick and elderly relatives if they lived nearby, the increase in earnings tenants would forgo if they could not move for work and – for those who want to transfer to larger properties – the impact of overcrowding on health and educational performance.
Last month the government announced plans for a single national home-swap scheme. Its interest is closely tied to its drive to get more people off benefits and into work. Unemployed social tenants are firmly in its sights because of relatively high rates of worklessness in the sector: of the 9.1 million people who are without work, according to the 2007 government-commissioned Hills report into social housing, nearly a third live in social housing.
But can mobility schemes really reduce tenant unemployment? One look at the evidence, and it seems that Rosalyn’s story is the exception rather than the rule.
In national surveys mentioned in the Human City report, just 2% of tenants want to move for work; 26% want a larger home and 15% want to be nearer to family and friends.
A 2008 study by Sheffield Hallam University also found that few tenants believed moving home would increase their chance of finding employment. Many tenants interviewed had fairly low skills and were looking for low wage manual work, which has little job security. They did not believe there would be more secure or plentiful jobs elsewhere so there was little point in moving. They feared they might be underpaid benefits after getting a new job and might not be able to claim benefits again if they lost the job.
Social housing is not the only type of housing with an unemployment problem.
A Cabinet Office paper found 43% of working-age homeowners were unemployed and 55% were economically inactive in 2000/1 compared with 40% and 32% in social housing.
Perhaps the high rates of unemployment amongst home owners as well as social tenants suggest that there is no clear link between tenure and unemployment?
While an easy to use national mobility scheme will certainly help tenants to move to a home they like – and could help those with skills to move to get work – it is unlikely to have a big impact on unemployment or overcrowding on its own. The root causes of unemployment and overcrowding – such as the lack of appropriate skills, lack of stable jobs locally – are needed to make a real difference to those problems.
A version of this post appeared in the Society Guardian social housing pullout, Building Solutions, earlier this week.