Poverty raises critical questions for housing providers about their role and purpose in society. In response, some organisations are moving beyond the simple provision of homes to tackle the issue head on
“I strongly believe that, if housing associations don’t tackle the issue of poverty, no one will.” – Henry Terefenko
THE number of people living in poverty continues to rise in the North, but with political and economic uncertainties contributing to an unpredictable landscape in the UK, it begs an urgent question for housing providers – just what role should they play in tackling impoverishment in their local communities?
According to recent research from thinktank IPPR, the North has seen a £3.6 billion cut in public spending since 2010, compared with a rise of £4 billion in the south. With weekly pay increases lower for people in the North than their southern counterparts, and 37,000 fewer public sector jobs in the North than 10 years ago, the picture of rising poverty is an all too common one in our communities.
In response to this increase in numbers of local people living in hardship, many landlords are changing their focus to include tackling poverty as part of their business plans. But the question remains, should this be their priority? Is it really the role of housing associations to try to put an end to poverty in their areas?
The level of responsibility housing providers should take when it comes to tackling poverty is a long-standing debate.
As increasing numbers of services are cut, landlords are often left running the only community provisions remaining in the area, plugging the gaps and fulfilling services previously carried out by local authorities, emergency services or charities.
There to build and manage homes, many landlords are also evolving their business model by adapting their plans and redistributing their own services to better serve and improve the urgent needs of the most vulnerable people in their communities. They are innovating and rethinking their core purpose to embrace the changing needs of the local population.
The scale of poverty in some areas is moving so fast that it’s reaching critical levels. Just over five years after the launch of the Northern Powerhouse, for example, more than 200,000 additional children in the North of England are now in poverty.
But, with limited money and resources, the role housing providers can – and should – play is called into question, with many different responses and approaches across the sector.
ForHousing, part of the ForViva Group, owns and manages 24,000 homes across the North West. It has made tackling poverty a major strategic focus and a central part of its business. Henry Terefenko, ForHousing’s chief executive, has driven forward this approach since taking charge in April 2019.
“At ForHousing we want to improve lives and enable possibilities,” he said. “I strongly believe that, if housing associations don’t tackle the issue of poverty, no one will.
“Cuts on local authority spending have led to a reduction in mental health services and a rise in social isolation. Progressive landlords like ours are perfectly placed to address these issues at grass root level to not only improve the lives of tenants, but also those of people in the wider area, as the positive effects of services become engrained in local communities too.”
The organisation’s projects aimed at tackling poverty are wide ranging. Last year its pioneering Skills Centre, which was set up to create new possibilities for people who otherwise might find it hard to find jobs or get qualifications, celebrated its 10th anniversary by welcoming its 400th apprentice.
Meanwhile, its Do Your Own Thing programme helps people fuel their potential and develop ideas before taking steps into self-employment. A social prescribing project in Ellesmere Port is connecting people going to see their GPs with non-clinical support services, such as gardening clubs and budgeting advice, to improve dignity, wellbeing, self-worth and life outcomes.
“The success we’ve had to date has been really encouraging and is a result, I believe, of a strategy we’ve embedded across the whole of ForHousing,” Terefenko added. “It’s driven by the senior leadership team and integrated across all of our service areas, and that has enabled us to build a truly community-focussed voice, listening to people to ensure we are delivering against the objectives and requirements tenants want.
“It’s our responsibility as landlords to invest in services that empower tenants and residents to enable more possibilities for more people. That’s the only way to enable true change.”
There are plenty in the sector who have argued that the role of housing associations has become too broad. That landlords should focus on the delivery and management of homes. That this is the best use of finances and resources.
But Terefenko warns that whilst understanding and controlling service costs is key to future success, ultimately, alleviating the threat of poverty is the greatest purpose for housing associations.
“Homes need to be fit for purpose, not just to meet current needs, but future requirements too,” he said. “They need to be the building blocks for a better future, the foundations that people can use as a springboard for years to come. That, in turn, empowers people and also enables a step-change in progress when it comes to tackling poverty across communities.”
As rising poverty begins to impact complete neighbourhoods, housing providers like ForHousing are increasingly investing in services that not only benefit their own tenants, but that provide an advantage for the wider community too.
The decision on the level of support, and what interventions should look like locally, is very much dependent on the area the landlord serves and the specific needs of the population.
For example, First Choice Homes Oldham (FCHO) has made “fighting poverty” one of its key priorities.
“Services in some of our communities can no longer keep pace,” said Vinny Roche, the organisation’s chief executive. “Poverty is destroying neighbourhoods. We simply have to act.
“We have to accept that funding levels for public services have gone for at least a generation, probably forever. We have to change our approach. We have to focus our resources on people that are falling through the safety net.”
FCHO’s approach to tackling poverty head-on has evolved with the launch of its innovative new Community Impact Team. The team now has 13 full-time officers whose sole purpose is to increase the disposable income of customers who are in or at risk of poverty.
Their interventions range from employment support, welfare benefits checks, energy “switching” to the provision of an affordable food offer.
Clare Budden from North Wales-based landlord ClwydAlyn feels that is a small price to pay to create happier, healthier communities which also benefits the business.
“It’s wrong that people’s life chances should be so dramatically different depending on their postcode,” she said. “That’s why it is now more vital than ever that housing providers step up to the challenge and invest in tackling poverty.
“This is where our work can make the biggest difference. Focusing resources on projects that help people access more disposable income will provide more opportunities for healthier, happier and more fulfilled lives.
“Enabling more tenants to be better able to pay and keep up with their rent means less property turnover, fewer voids, less antisocial behaviour and stronger communities. It’s good business sense.”
The extent of responsibility housing providers should take for helping to end poverty is a complex question, of course, and not one with a simple solution But, as neighbourhoods get poorer, and inequality in health, life expectancy and other social inequities prevail, it’s clear that the services many landlords are providing beyond the walls of their tenants are already having real impacts on their communities.
The future remains uncertain, but by investing more resources, and delivering a strategic approach to tackling poverty, housing providers are breaking down traditional practices, and – most importantly – making a tangible difference to the lives of people across the North.
This article first appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing magazine, #7 March 2020