Nikki Bond, Research Assistant, Money and Mental Health

The social housing green paper - a vision for change

29 August 2018

Last September, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the government committed to publishing a wide ranging, top to bottom review of issues facing the social housing sector. The green paper promised to be ‘the most substantial report of its kind for a generation’. With such ambitious aims, and having launched our own report on social housing, rent arrears and mental health earlier this year, we were keen to see what plans the government had made for vulnerable social housing tenants.

Published last week, the green paper includes a number of welcome commitments for improving tenants rights and housing standards. But in focusing on principles of wider reform, key opportunities have been missed to make provision for, and attend to the needs of, social housing tenants experiencing mental health problems.

Balancing empowerment, personal responsibility and support

The government’s plan for transformation centres on a new vision for social housing – one where tenants are empowered as consumers, landlords are encouraged to improve services, and being a social housing tenant becomes less socially stigmatised. These are all worthy aims. However for some people, particularly those experiencing mental health problems, being an active consumer can be very difficult. For social housing tenants, being in control of rent isn’t always experienced as empowering, but instead puts people at greater risk of missed payments and arrears.  

Managing transition to Universal Credit

People with mental health problems are one and a half times more likely to be struggling with housing costs. People experiencing mental health problems can face difficulties paying their rent, including issues with memory, planning and concentration. These challenge can be compounded when people are reliant on navigating the benefit system to meet their housing costs.

The change from housing benefit to Universal Credit (UC), which requires claimants to pay rent directly to landlords themselves, has proven particularly difficult for some people with mental health problems. Such efforts to increase personal responsibility – aligning benefits with the world of work – need to be carefully balanced with care and support, ensuring people have the capabilities to apply for benefit, budget and pay rent.

“I was mentally ill, experiencing memory problems and very low motivation, and I forgot about filling in the annual form for housing benefit. As a result my rent wasn’t paid and accrued an outstanding debt.”

During our research we heard from social housing staff, who told us about tenants experiencing mental health problems who were accruing significant arrears and at risk of eviction. There are processes in place to apply for payments to be made directly to landlords, however these can typically only be utilised after arrears have been incurred. Often, it’s too little, too late.

It is difficult for tenants to embrace being an empowered consumer and challenging poor services, whilst simultaneously being reliant on a welfare system which can all too often lead to rent arrears and fears of homelessness.

“Work that has been promised by the landlord isn’t carried out. I feel unable to raise this issue whilst I am behind with the rent.  This makes me feel even more worthless than I already am and what is the point of life if it’s always going to be this struggle.”

An opportunity for meaningful change

The renewed focus on social housing is a real opportunity to meet the needs of the most vulnerable tenants who rely on this important resource. Part of this focus must absolutely be on amplifying tenants’ voices, holding landlords to account and improving housing standards. However, the government must not only look at what social housing providers and the regulator can do, but also consider what they can do too.

To serve social housing tenants properly the government needs to look again at Universal Credit, consider how this is driving rent arrears, and act to rectify this. To this end, we are calling on government to make it easier for UC claimants to have the housing element of their award paid directly to landlords, by targeting support to tenants who may benefit from this approach. Making this small change, which the Chancellor already committed to in the Autumn 2017 Budget, would make a significant difference to the lives of social housing tenants.