Helen Evans: Housing associations need to work with the Government to boost oportunities for home ownership

15 Sep

Helen Evans is the Chief Executive of Network Homes and the Chair of the G15 group of London’s largest housing associations.

Housing associations have offered the opportunity of home ownership to hundreds of thousands of people in recent years. Many people working in the housing association sector bought their first home through shared ownership and they are passionate about extending this opportunity to many others.

Everyone needs a safe, secure, and affordable home of their own and this means there is a need for a balance of different housing options to support a broad range of people. I strongly welcome government’s recognition of that with an investment programme balanced between affordable homes to buy and rent.

Working with a broad coalition of manufacturers, architects, investors, other housing associations, and leading figures from the housing industry, we supported a call for Homes for Heroes over the summer. This recognised that many of the essential workers who kept the country alive and functioning during the coronavirus crisis live in unsuitable, unaffordable, or insecure housing. Many essential workers are on minimum wage, or slightly above, and in London and other high value areas that means the only affordable option is likely to be social rented housing. Indeed it is notable that one-third of London’s ‘blue-light’ workforce currently live in social housing. For people on moderate incomes – for example a Band 5 nurse – we found that a discounted rent product, around 60 per cent of the market rate in outer London, would be affordable. For essential workers on higher incomes, or dual-income households, shared ownership offers an attractive and affordable route into home ownership. We found very few essential workers who would be able to buy a new home with just a 30 per cent discount.

We proposed a delivery programme of 100,000 well-designed, beautiful, affordable homes for essential workers, manufactured in innovation hubs in the Northern Powerhouse and enabled by planning flexibilities. This call was endorsed by a wide range of bodies including the Local Government Association and the Greater London Authority. We are now working with investors and architects to explore how the homes could be delivered at minimum cost to the public purse.

The current economic situation casts a shadow across much of our work and we are acutely aware of the challenges that this will bring to the powerful role housing associations could play in supporting the social and economic recovery of the country. On a practical level, most housing associations are keen to get their people back in the office and working together in a safe way. We are doing this first through encouragement; at Network Homes we have asked all staff to come into the office two days a week. I believe that face-to-face contact is essential for collaboration, innovation, building relationships, and supporting new and junior staff to learn and progress. Many people report to feeling similarly productive whilst working from home, but an organisation has to be more than the sum of its parts, we are not just a collection of individuals. Housing associations are community-based organisations, with a range of functions (e.g. servicing boilers) that require physical attendance; for me it is important that this principle applies to all my colleagues so we can work together as a single coherent organisation.

I also recognise the moral duty of housing associations to support economic activity through our work and workforce. Having more people in our offices in the centre of cities will help this. I care deeply about London and its success and I am keen to do all I can to help get the city moving again.

This is not without its challenges, including significant challenges in relation to building safety which face us and the people who have bought homes from us in taller buildings. Hundreds of our leaseholders, and thousands more in the private sector, have already discovered that they are stuck by lending and valuation processes which I think are going to need government action to resolve – this needs urgent attention if the issue is not to grow rapidly.

The new model of shared ownership proposed by government, subject to a coming consultation, also raises important practical and philosophical questions in relation to home ownership. Whilst the Government’s manifesto commitments to simplify shared ownership and make it fairer are understandable, these latest changes risk making it more complicated and reducing supply. Simply put, housing associations facing the current housing market uncertainties may reduce the volumes they can deliver of this new, untested product. It is proposed that housing associations will carry out any repairs and maintenance for new shared owners for the first ten years. If this extends into people’s homes then it will inevitably limit their ability to customise – a fundamental tenet of home ownership. If we are to be responsible for internal health and safety then there are legal challenges of whether courts will grant us access into people’s homes to service their boilers. They have been reluctant to do so to date in relation to fire safety issues affecting leaseholders.

I am keen to work with a wide range of partners, including all levels of government, to overcome these challenges and to provide the firm foundation of a home of their own, to the maximum number of people.