by Paul Bevan
Deciding who is allocated a home goes right to the heart of debates about the purpose of social housing. It begs the question ‘who is social housing for’? In a time of an undersupply of affordable social housing is it for everyone, is it for people in the most desperate need of housing or is it for a mix of people somewhere in between? We all need somewhere to live, but how do we define need and how do we decide that one person’s need is a higher priority than someone else’s?
Shelter Cymru’s new report Allocation of Social Housing in Swansea adds to this debate. Based on research before the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were introduced in March 2020, it remains relevant in Swansea and may apply to other areas of Wales.
During the research we interviewed staff in the four main social landlords covering Swansea – the council, Coastal, Family and Pobl housing associations – and shadowed staff in their daily work. We observed as people applied for housing and we interviewed applicants to learn about their experience.
Swansea is one of the only local authorities in Wales without a common housing register. Each landlord has a different system for applying for and deciding who gets a home. Depending on where people want to live, they need to apply to one, two, three or all four landlords, completing up to four applications and making follow-up enquiries with each one. Some people applying for a home told us that the system is difficult to understand and complicated. This made us question whether some people lose out because of this.
All of the landlords require people to be in housing need, but have different ways of prioritising applicants. Two give priority to people in the greatest need through giving them points or putting them in a category of need; one prioritises people who have waited the longest, and one matches people based on the value they bring to the community and the value that the property and community bring to them. Three landlords operate a waiting list, and the fourth has a choice based approach where people can apply for individual homes that they view on line.
All take a person’s former tenant history into account when deciding whether to offer a home – such as any former rent arrears, damage to a property or ‘anti social’ behaviour. The landlords consider each person on a case by case basis and are flexible on implementing their policy. But some applicants told us that former rent arrears are still an obstacle to getting a home. Getting the balance right is not easy, but we all need a home irrespective of what has happened in the past.
The landlords want people to be ready and able to manage in their new homes and to settle well into their communities. If people need help, all of the landlords have contacts with support providers; some offer support themselves. Some people, particularly in supported housing, told us that having to demonstrate they are ‘tenancy-ready’ caused delays. Being able to manage is important, but if people can get the support they need in their new homes, this could reduce their wait and help them to manage well.
Deciding the right approach to allocations is difficult. Swansea needs much more housing that is affordable, of the right type in the right areas. To help people more now, the landlords need to remove any unnecessary obstacles to ensuring that homeless people and others in the most need of a home are housed quickly and with the right support.