Lorraine Hart

Devolving ownership of assets in ways that maximise the potential of both buildings and tenants

Description: Thinking about both buildings and tenants as assets and then auditing both provides the starting point to think about how to maximise the potential of both. Taking this potential and using it to drive an approach focused on devolution / localisation / decentralisation of control of the physical structures that includes ownership by tenants. In parallel to the audit a small number of pilots would be conducted where tenant ‘sweat equity’ can be used, at least in part, to both maximise value and as payment for asset transfer (to communities or individuals).

Improvement: All assets, physical and human, maximised with their ownership and management devolved to individuals or communities, depending on interest, need and capacity. Potentially harnessing the Right To Buy legislation to maximise asset based community development.

Lorraine Hart’s contribution to Rental Matters

A Framework for Looking at Possibilities or Combinations of Possibilities

It seems to me that an organisation that provides rented accommodation (particularly one that is tied to housing people in housing need as RPs are through tenant nomination) has three things to consider to look at properties:

  1. Their own mission and the legal basis on which they can pursue it – charitable status and the way a housing provider gets free capital to build housing can be a help and a hindrance to pursing a wider set of objectives generated by knowing people who are in housing need and the ethical and practical housing management/maintenance issues (and their cost) that may flow from it.
  2. Paying for the structures and their upkeep – bearing in mind that the initial cost to build them is the smaller cost (though the costs of financing the capital may complicate this). The cost of looking after them into a 20-30 year future adds up to a lot more.
  3. Dealing with the housing needs of tenants – forget for a moment all the other needs they are likely to have, being in all likelihood at least the following:

Money Poor – no power as consumers or tax payers

Education/Experience Poor – limited ability to deal with powerful people and organisations (including health, housing and education providers), limited knowledge and fear about alternative choices they may have.

Justice poor – some of which may come from some of the other types of poverty but some resulting from discrimination based on racial, sexual, gender, age or cultural difference.

But my view is that at core there are two sets of assets available to an RHP when considering how to set rents:

  • Housing assets – the buildings and the land they are on
  • Tenant assets – the people who live in the housing assets.

I like this approach because it is not based on a deficit model (e.g. “oh dear our tenants are so poor and have so many problems” or “our stock is so old and unfit for purpose”) and it is a bit old school thrifty and reformist – “work with and make the best of what you have got”. This is an approach based on “asset based community development”[1] – actively based on asking questions rather than giving answers which invites stronger participation. It is particularly relevant when it involves buildings like houses/flats because they are physical assets that everyone needs.

I have to say though that all bets are off in relation to treating tenants as assets if central government go with a plan to make all tenancies fixed term (5 years) “no social housing/council tenancy for life”. The current PM said this in 2010, who knows if they are still working on it. This would create chaos obviously, but that does not mean they will not do it. Maybe means tested renting would satisfy them.

The other thing about this approach is that it provides a basis for a bespoke approach to both sets of assets – where possibilities for action are driven by looking at the way both assets interact. Given that both buildings and people are difficult to change this seems to me the least wasteful (and top down) way to go about it.

Just to talk about “top down” a minute I think that the number of external pushes and pulls on both sets of assets means that any strategy has got to be aimed in the end at devolution, localisation, decentralisation (I don’t really care what it is called) of control of the physical structures that should include ownership by tenants. Ownership is 10 tenths of the law really and is about power. It is not always possible to consider this as an option financially, but its possibility has got to be considered. That way those who think that ownership of the housing we live in is some kind of Holy Grail (I don’t) can also be appeased. That means the government – they want RHPs to sell their stock to tenants anyway, but if this can be pre-empted and control taken of the process (the how) of doing it, it seems to me to be worthwhile and at least tenants interests (long and short term) will have been taken into account.

So here is a little matrix of an approach which is based on maximising the potential of both building and tenant assets (some would call it “sweating”) that would be a basis for a strategic take on rent setting, devolution of management, change of ownership or all three.

Tenants as Assets Possibilities Links to THT Vision and Purpose
Money – income and savings 1.    Rent relief in return for taking over responsibility for costs currently included in rent/service charges (including the costs to the landlord of managing such an arrangement).2.    Possibility to service debt/invest in home improvement3.    Possibility for rent relief in return for improvement of housing asset performance (e.g. energy efficiency)4.    Possibility for acquisition/part acquisition/reduced rental costs of their property as part of a longer term proposals for ownership via an asset- locked organisation (a co-op a Community Land Trust etc.) People have information to make choicesFreedom from poverty 

Freedom from inequality

 

 

Inspirational

 

People take responsibility

Aspirations for life improvement to pursue education (formal or informal) Rent relief in return for defined progress and a commitment to provide acquired skills and knowledge to the landlord or the wider community (Relief set to include the costs to the landlord of managing such an arrangement) Freedom from povertyInspirational 
Knowledge or skills of value to the landlord Rent relief via tied employmentRent relief to barter for skills/knowledge (administration, knowledge of other tenants, maintenance, cleaning, gardening) 

Skills used for self-building to drive down costs of new construction or existing home improvement

Freedom from povertyInspirational
Knowledge or skills of value to the wider neighbourhood Rent relief to barter for skills – advice, social care, educationRent relief in return for a commitment from an employer to cover it. Freedom from povertyInspirationalFreedom from inequalityFreedom from injustice
Networks/Contacts they are a part of (or can be introduced to) to help them implement their choices Work with other self-builders/community land trusts/coops to take over/improve their home if the features of the housing asset they occupy allow it. InspirationalPeople have information to make choices 

 

Housing Assets Possibilities Links to THT vision and purpose
Size/type/locationSelf-contained?Development possibilities? (adjacent land, communal areas capable of development) Capable of being made self-contained for the purposes of acquisition by a group of tenants with a land endowment to fund repairs/maintenance back log InspirationalPeople have information to make choices 

 

ConditionWhat are the costs of improving the property to improve performance and condition and facilitate in terms of configuration, transfer of ownership of management? Relevant to all possibilities in terms of driving down costs in use and making acquisition or self-management financially viable and sustainable for tenants in terms of skills knowledge and ongoing governance. InspirationalPeople have information to make choices 

 

PerformanceHas it been made as efficient as it can be in terms of costs in use to tenants/owners (energy/costs of upkeep of communal areas/facilities)? 

Has it been sweated to generate income and drive down costs? (energy generation/efficiency, water-harvesting)

Capable of being transferred in a self-management arrangement at minimal cost so driving down costs to tenants. InspirationalPeople have information to make choices 

 

 

First steps to an asset based approach

The possibilities included in the matrix are possible only if some of the possibilities included in the invitation to contribute are interrogated and looked at in feasibility terms to see if they can really be included to deliver THT vision and purpose.

This approach would need good data about both asset types which will take time to gather (especially for tenants assets) I would not like to even try to put a timeline on it but those in THT who are familiar with their assets could probably immediately identify a potential place to start.

Some of these ideas have some traction for me and others none at all. Those that I think have some potential (subject to my commentary above) are included in what I have set out here as a framework for looking at, and most importantly testing (via research or feasibility work to rule them out or practical pilots to see whether they work). This approach is based on the assumption that until it is done, unintended consequences based on either creative undermining of the intention of the idea by tenants or practical difficulties in its implementation, no-one will know if it works.

Overall I applaud the idea of looking at all options given that it is unlikely that the current political climate will be helpful. Until there is some commitment to ideas like Living Rents (see the JRF blog about this http://www.jrf.org.uk/blog/2015/06/living-rents) a structural solution to problems of affordability and the link between housing costs and poverty is, I think, unlikely.

The invitation to contribute put together a bunch of ideas about the subject which I have commented on in turn as a starting point for further work to inform parallel processes of rent setting and ownership that starts with the assets as a logical and practical first step.

  • Not charging any rent at all to tenants – certainly different!       All I can say about this is who is going to meet the cost of this and why? What possible circumstances could exist that a tenant is so valuable or needy in some way that they should get a basic need met for free? Even if someone is very “needy” (unless they are ill) to give them rent free accommodation is surely writing them off? They have to give something in exchange. I am open to suggestions or a different point of view – I may just lack imagination or experience.
  • Getting someone else to pay for peoples rent because they are doing something else of value to them. I could imagine that good local employer might do this if a tenant’s skills were invaluable to them or they wanted to give an apprentice a subsidy so they can study as well as work (housing benefit subsidy is not available to most full time students I think unless they are disabled or a lone parent?). How it might affect a tenant’s income and whether it would be worth it for them and what happens when it comes to an end – again all unknowns for me. I do not know either how this would work in terms of tax – both for the employer and employee. A bit of practical feasibility work (or someone who knows the nuts and bolts better than me) would bottom this out perhaps.
  • Bartering with tenants for services/goods instead of rent – it seems to me that this is part of a continuum with at one end tied employment, and at the other tenants’ control of management and maintenance where they provide services and products to the landlord. This is different to what tenants might be able to provide as a service/product that is useful to the neighbourhood or individuals in the neighbourhood. In the latter it seems to me that this would have to be a measurable benefit and policing/enforcing it might be costly if the value of the rent “relief” was to be transparent. The tax/benefits issues for tenants would also need bottoming out. For both types of bartering there is an assumption that tenants actually have something to offer – this might be quite a       big assumption given the tenant profile of the average Registered Housing Provider (though this has changed in recent years and tenant profiles are a bit more mixed).
  • “Staging” rent for tenancies – up front, on departure –again different but I cannot imagine any circumstances when this would make sense to a landlord and how the costs to a landlord might be covered of doing this.
  • Means tested rent setting –I believe www.dolphinliving.com has already done this but they are currently small. But at a larger scale I think that this might mean a shortfall in covering costs for any landlord to cover. This will depend on just how costly it is to look after an RHP’s stock and how much debt they are servicing. It will also depend on the tenant profile – how many are in work, how well paid they are and so on. I guess each RHP could find out and decide whether to do it. Or chose specific groups of properties.
  • Tenancies tied to employment – the only circumstance in which I can imagine that this would be ethical (and not just shift a problem of a tenants housing needs to another provider) is if a tenant had a skill set that was useful (and usually had a cost that would otherwise have to be met) to the landlord and if the term of the tenancy was short so that the probability of life changes that would change housing needs (ill health, age, becoming a parent or carer) was minimised.       That would mean this would only be available to single, young households.

A little bit about me

I think this is important for you to know – ideas and thinking don’t appear from thin air, they come from people and the experiences they have. I know you probably know this, in which case you might be interested in where mine come from.

  • I come from a poor background in the east end of London – I know what it is like to be poor and have a tendency to be very forgiving of people whose lives are blighted by lack of money and opportunity because of where they were born – even if they behave fecklessly and incomprehensively to my now educated and better off eyes.
  • I have some prejudices about the way that the Housing Association sector has changed – though recognise that this is mainly driven by central government policy and changes in the financing of housing development.
  • I am not a rented housing expert. I moved out of a housing association property when the people in my block had so many problems I could not live with them anymore and I had no more energy as Secretary of the Tenants Association to influence this.
  • I do have experience of housing development, community development, town planning and the use of property by voluntary and community organisations and some bits of local government (parks and open spaces, property assets managers) to generate revenue so that they can pursue their missions without having to deliver the agenda of a funder (central/local government, grant giving charities, lottery (government really, let’s be honest!).

About Lorraine Hart

Lorraine Hart is a registered town planner and researcher who has spent 25 years in the voluntary sector as a facilitator, planning aid provider, organizational development and capacity building advisor. She has specialized in working on land and building improvements for public benefit, particularly through the use of Community Rights created under the Localism Act to provide more power to communities and the Housing and Regeneration Act which created the Community Land Trust model.

She has specialised in work with professional teams that have improved hundreds of sites with community input – from an award winning green homes programme to the transformation of Mile End Park in London for the Millennium. She has shared her knowledge and experience as a writer, facilitator and trainer with local Councils for Voluntary service in London, and national organisations – Locality, Community Matters and the Community Land Trust Network – to promote the public benefits of the transfer and development of land and building assets.

You can contact Lorraine at lorraine@communitylanduse.org.

[1] This is the origins of community organising see www.abcdinstitute.org