To address the big questions of the next decade, housing associations must restructure and rethink their purpose

How housing associations can seed the civic economy

To address the big questions of the next decade, housing associations must restructure and rethink their purpose

  • Jas Bains
  • Guardian Professional, Tuesday 16 August 2011 08.30 BST
  • Article history
  • Derelict boarded up terraced housing in Manchester.
    Derelict boarded up terraced housing in Manchester. Photograph: Don Mcphee

    If you question what housing associations are for, you are likely to hear to a wide range of different answers across the sector, mirroring the diverse history and roots of social landlords and the political context in which they work. Yet, all those differences pale in comparison with the challenges that await us on the horizon.

    These challenges are not just the current policy hot topics – welfare reform and regional growth, though these are important – but the fundamental issues that will drive prosperity over the coming decades. Headlines show us these challenges include the potential doubling of global food prices by 2030 and price hikes for fuel and electricity, which will affect transport and household budgets. There is also the increasing recognition that the very structure of the UK economy, heavily reliant on a few core sectors, is fundamentally vulnerable.

    More than the government policies of the next years, it is those structural issues that will inevitably shape the context in which housing associations operate. So what does this mean for social landlords?

    It is my view that any housing association which takes its duties seriously should look far beyond its role as a landlord and engage with these long-term risks and trends. For some housing associations this may mean stepping back and thinking about whether their current balance of activity (and indeed their organisational structure and skills profile) is the right one for the new environment. 

    Housing must consider whether new homes should be prioritised above all else, or whether a more balanced investment in communities might be more appropriate. If chief executives are increasingly drawn from development and finance teams, might there now be a need to invest in growing the community development side of the businesses? And would this help to grow leaders capable of delivering social innovation as much as financial engineering and mixed use development?

    In the wake of the financial crash, banks underwent “stress tests” to how their assets and liabilities would fare under different economic, political and environmental scenarios. If, as a sector, we did something similar to analyse the neighbourhoods in which we operate and the assets we own in them, we would have to reflect hard on our liabilities and risks.

    First and foremost we should invest in order to grow the resilience of communities. Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen argues that it is the conditions for independent human flourishing that policy in general should focus on. That is a shared task, but housing associations need to play their part. This does take us quite beyond the role of landlord.

    This is a space in which many housing associations already operate: combating fuel poverty, investing in skills, aspirations and self confidence, focusing on health and wellbeing. But I believe we can go further. Housing associations need to play a role in unleashing residents’ creativity, energy and drive, beginning with their strengths, not just their needs.

    We need to go further because, as delegates as the SoCap social investment conference in Amsterdam revealed, countries such as Britain are now getting less impact investment than the developing world. This is not because their need is greater but because we have no pipeline of civic impact propositions that are suitable for investment.

    Put simply: only if we actually innovate more will there be investment. Is there less thirst here to make a difference in our most deprived neighbourhoods, less confidence to address the challenges and the solutions? Or do we have an ill-informed idea that making money out of good and deeply valuable propositions is somehow wrong? I don’t know, but if the neighbourhoods where we operate are going to be sustainable and worth living in, we need entrepreneurialism and inventiveness, and the self-confidence to think big.

    Our role is changing. For a long time perhaps it was not necessary for housing associations to have an economic theory as it was a question of redistributing wealth generated elsewhere, but today our model cannot be left the economists. As housing associations we need a model that activates people, taps into passions and aspirations, and focuses both on the mavericks and those who will take time to find purpose.

    At Asram we are to build an investment fund to grow the entrepreneurialism of our neighbourhoods for true civic impact, whether economically, socially or environmentally. This fund will focus on building the capabilities, aspirations, financial literacy and entrepreneurial spirit of young people. We aim to work with colleges, social ventures, and others as we build a local neighbourhood seed fund to support ideas.

    It’s early days, but we feel that this is the right track, as we move from a notion of regeneration that was too often obsessed with physical makeovers to one that unleashes the capabilities of our tenants. This is not about saying that everyone needs to become a business entrepreneur, it is about liberating people’s strengths to enable them to make an impact where they choose.

    Some would argue that people and communities can only empower themselves, and that seeking to empower others sends out contradictory message; housing associations should stick to what they do best – being landlords. But our business should be to increase people’s freedom and capabilities so that they can choose whether to be our tenants or not. Unfortunately most of our tenants do not have this choice. We need to put our money where our mouth is: invest, take risk and build a new purpose together.

    Jas Bains is chief executive of Ashram Housing Association