Squeezed out?

Last week I met a young woman who was proud of her home and her child. She was on her own and had been through a difficult time when pregnant, living in a one-room studio with a couple who were drinking heavily. She had gone to the local council (in London) for help as homeless and had been given a bedsit temporarily, then offered a housing association tenancy on a new development. She knew she was lucky, she realised that few people were offered a brand new home that no-one else had ever lived in, and she'd used the stability and security her new home gave her to keep her job, be promoted, make plans to go to college, and become an active contributor to her community. She exemplified why we need a housing safety net.

The English Homeless legislation has changed, and people in the same situation as this young woman would, from last week, not be offered a social housing tenancy. Instead, the law now stipulates that the local authority will only need to find them a tenancy in the private rented sector. Reform has been promoted as a way to boost the social sustainability of the council and housing association-owned estates and developments where homeless people have, until now, been offered long-term housing.

Eligibility for help as homeless is tight, and has become more stringent over the years. Only families with children, and vulnerable adults, who can show they lost their home through no fault of their own and who have no other alternatives, now quality for help. The cumulative impact of the change to the homelessness legislation, plus new housing benefit regulations means (as many have noted over the last few weeks) that families and vulnerable people who find themselves homeless are likely to find themselves moved to low rent areas if they go to their local authority for help. This could mean moving away from inner London to Stoke on Trent, or Basildon, even Merthyr Tydfil according to one recent report. All these are places where the privately rented housing is available, and cheap, often reflecting a wider decline in the local economy.

So - is this a social sustainability issue? The charge is that housing vulnerable people in social housing will continue to perpetuate damaging concentrations of disadvantage on social housing estates. Apart from the fact that in practice the most unstable and transient residents on housing estates are people renting from right-to-buy owners, this raises the question, where should homeless people live if they are so damaging to the wider community? And, if this is right, then what will be the impact of moving significant numbers of homeless households away from high rent areas on the lower rent areas where they end up? What effect will an influx of people with high levels of need have on places and communities that are already economically marginalized? It seems like we are going to find out the answer to this over the next few years.

"Social sustainability" has a proud pedigree within broader discussions of sustainability. It is a concept that captures the strength of community and its capacity to support the people who live there. Social sustainability is strongly associated with a fair distribution of local resources and, more broadly, the concept of inclusion and the notion that communities that are mixed are better at supporting us all to thrive than those that are segregated.

Mixed tenure developments became the norm in housing policy in the last two decades, putting into practice Nye Bevan's "living tapestry of a mixed community" where "the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street".

Although some of the evidence about mixed communities is not as compelling as its advocates would like, the possibility that people from vastly different life experience can live in close proximity is modeled in our big cities like London, where an enormous diversity of people and extremes of income coexist (the majority of the time) peacefully.

"Social sustainability" should not be used as a justification for moving some of the most vulnerable people away from their support networks, including moving children away from schools, in order to maintain community stability for everyone else.

The changes to the homelessness legislation make the housing of homeless people a zero sum game. One community's gain becomes another's loss. A more constructive approach, which really could boost social sustainability, would be to build on the experience and knowledge amongst people who manage social housing, and within the wider voluntary sector, about how to support people to thrive and move on from bad times, and how to manage the wide mix of families and individuals who live in low cost housing.

Underneath all of this, the elephant in the corner, is the problem of the shortages of decent quality, stable, affordable housing. When there is so much pressure on the housing system, it is inevitable that the people with the least power will be the most tightly squeezed, which is why we need to continue to have a housing safety net that works.

This post was written by Nicola Bacon