by Trevor Morrow, Red Kite Group Chief Executive
Who are we here to house? The role of a modern, innovative housing association
Some would have us believe that it’s all or nothing - either build only social housing, or sell out on your purpose. Some commentators unnecessarily argue this point from political or ideological perspectives, but this hinders the debate rather than moving it on. Ultimately, whatever your opinion, we are all talking about people, their needs and those of their family – not ideology.
I want to be more positive about our sector.
Increasingly, I hear and see other organisations working to help a much wider range of people in the communities they serve by offering a range of housing products. The role of our sector was always to help those in housing need and that definition has to extend to meet our modern day dilemma, which is that more people at all stages of the housing market, are no longer able to afford, nor access suitable housing. Many are also considering the need to create a spectrum of offers, none of which carry a stigma; being a trusted landlord that is fit for our time and how we help our customers fulfil their potential once they have a stable home.
But it’s hard to deliver all this at a time when grant rates are still pitiful and come with too many strings and no real Government drive to put substantial investment into sub-market rents.
There is no single answer to our problem, the needs of the housing market change town to town, so each organisation needs to determine it for themselves, in discussion with their customers, with an eye on the needs of future customers.
For Red Kite, ours has been a long and detailed journey of consideration and planning. In a regulated environment, there are always limits on what you can achieve, so our breakthrough came when the Government introduced de-regulatory measures, particularly asset freedoms. A fundamental element for us was being able to charge a rent based on individual ability to pay, meaning that rents for those on benefits can actually be covered by benefits and for those in work, the rent is set at a level where they are actually better off. Even more crucially, for those that need sub-social rent for key moments in life when they need a safety net but it is no longer there, our approach allows that flexibility. This enables us to continue housing those on benefits but also opens up the potential to house a greater range of people, all still in housing need, but with less subsidy as some will pay more where they can.
Being able to develop a solution that is outside of the regulatory framework will allow us to address the real concerns of our customers, that the current system of tenant protections weighed too much in favour of protecting those who abuse the housing offer made available to them. Most of our tenants want us to have clear red lines for behaviour that if crossed, lead to termination or non-renewal of tenancies. As a trusted and valued landlord, they know this requires re-balancing the type of tenancy offered, which through detailed conversations, they understand and now favour.
This is real tenant empowerment. It addresses what’s really important to them and holds the few who make life difficult for the many, accountable for their choices.
We’re also able to offer tailor-made solutions at each tenancy renewal cycle, that allows us to respond to the needs of each household. For the majority of tenants, they know that their tenancies will be renewed, but are secure in the knowledge that we’ll terminate for those who cross the clear lines they have set. This is about moving to our next level of true tenant empowerment.
By applying the principles of inclusive growth, we link this new approach to our core purpose of helping our customers ‘realise their potential’. Lucky to be located in an area with a strong economy, some tenants however continue to experience barriers to work, whether that be location – skills or otherwise. So we now evaluate all development opportunities to protect against building homes in places that make accessing work difficult. New tenants will also be offered a Community Potential Specialist to help them plan and take the next steps on their personal journey and over time, we’ll provide greater opportunities and help narrow gaps in terms of the starting point for some of our customers in their adult journey.
We’re not waiting for someone to give us the solutions – our business is about finding or creating solutions ourselves, by using new freedoms to pilot different ways of working. Adjusting and learning as we go along, the emphasis will be on the conversations we have with our customers – the true tenant involvement element – so that we can reflect the needs and expectations of our community.
So while what we do will be efficient, using digital channels to the full and recognising the behaviour choices of some tenants, our approach is not driven by what gives the best return financially - rather we look for the best return for our customers and communities. That in our book is taking true social responsibility.