Written by:
Nannette Youssef

Social housing: chronic failures and misguided reforms

Read time:
5 minutes

Social housing: chronic failures and misguided reforms

The UK is in a social housing crisis but proposed government reforms threaten to make a dire situation even worse, particularly for people of colour. What we need instead is action to address structural inequalities and a commitment to build more quality social housing stock in line with demand, writes the Runnymede Trust’s Nannette Youssef.

Data from Shelter shows that social housing in England is at its lowest rate in decades. Since 1991, there has been an average annual net loss of 24,000 social homes in England. Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme, which allowed social housing tenants to buy the homes they were renting at large discounts, decimated England’s social housing stock. 

Between 1980 and 1984, nearly half a million social rent homes were sold. To date, over 2 million social homes have been sold, but only 4 per cent of them have been replaced. This points to the chronic failure of successive governments to improve the supply of social homes in line with demand over the years.  

People of colour are more likely to need and live in social housing in the UK. Black people in England and Wales are three times as likely to live in social housing than their white counterparts. Yet people of colour are also more likely to face additional barriers to social housing and are often funnelled into the poorest quality and least desirable properties. 

This is having devastating consequences on the families who live in these homes. The 2020 death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak due to damp and mould in his family’s socially rented flat brought greater public awareness to these conditions. Testimonies from many other families confirm that this was by no means an isolated case.

‘The real problem is the failure of successive governments to build adequate stock in line with demand’

Under proposed reforms, however, access to social housing for people of colour is likely to become hugely more difficult. The government has just closed a consultation into reforms to social housing allocations, under the banner ‘British Homes for British People’. These proposals include the introduction of a UK connection test, whereby a person must demonstrate their links to the UK before they can be allocated social housing either by being a British citizen, Irish citizen, Commonwealth citizen with a right of abode, European Economic Area or Swiss citizen with equal treatment rights, or by being a lawful resident in the UK for 10 years. In essence this will mean that all recently arrived migrants will be ineligible for social housing, the majority of whom are people of colour. 

It is highly concerning that this consultation and the accompanying government rhetoric seek to misleadingly conflate shortages in access to social housing with the presence of migrants in the UK. Government data in fact shows that there is no ‘direct relationship between population change (as a result of migration) and housing demand’. Indeed, organisations such as Shelter have demonstrated that the real problem is the failure of successive governments to build adequate stock in line with demand. 

Another concerning proposal included in the consultation are plans to mandate a new qualification test that would disqualify social housing applicants who have unspent anti-social behaviour convictions or civil sanctions in the area the anti-social behaviour was committed. It is highly likely that this would disproportionately impact people of colour; for example, behavioural control orders are used disproportionately against people of colour. 

Again, this occurs in a context of significant racial disproportionalities within the criminal justice system that influence arrest rates and charging decisions against people of colour. Considering these inequalities, introducing social housing sanctions against those with civil orders against them is likely to be highly discriminatory. 

Instead of introducing new, punitive and discriminatory measures to control who has access to social housing, the government must act instead to solve structural inequalities in social housing allocation by committing to building more good quality social housing in line with demand, suspending the No Recourse to Public Funds condition with immediate effect, repealing the statutory framework for the discriminatory Right to Rent scheme and commissioning an audit into the lettings policies of local authorities to identify and address racial discrimination in social housing. 

Nannette Youssef is the Runnymede Trust’s policy manager.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

Join the fight for racial justice: support the Runnymede Trust’s work by making a donation.

Photo: A social housing block in Pimlico, London © Nirian/iStock

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