Every time I hear the term “affordable housing” being used – whether in a conversation with friends, family, Shelter clients or in a focus group – the same comment is always made: “yes, but affordable for who…?”* Usually, the phrase is accompanied by a rolling of the eyes, or a shaking of the head.
Most of us who care about housing would agree with the sentiment that a lot of so-called “affordable” homes just aren’t. However it’s also vital that we also properly understand what most people mean by this so we can engage fully with their concerns and hopes, rather than retreat to talk only to ourselves.
First, we need to understand that when a lot of people say or hear the term “affordable housing”, they are thinking about whether they can afford to buy a home in their area. They are not even remotely thinking about social housing.
In a workshop recently, someone described an “affordable home” as being: “like the one they always find at the end of Location, Location, Location”. They meant that part of the show where the couple gives up on what they really want, settles for a compromise and therefore can just afford it. Social housing wasn’t even remotely connected to “affordable housing” in their mind. I’ve heard lots of other people talk about the issue similarly.
This should create a pause for thought for housing campaigners. If we think that more low cost homes to rent are vital, then should we use the term “affordable housing” when many people associate it with finding a bargain in the property market?
Now clearly the public aren’t of one mind. Lots of other people I’ve heard in focus groups have linked the phrase “affordable housing” with what they call “schemes”. When asked for more detail, they tend to mean shared ownership or Help to Buy, rather than rented housing schemes.
Most of the time, people are negative about these “schemes” – especially in London. Crucially though, this isn’t because they disagree with what the scheme is trying to do but because it doesn’t work for them. Again this is vital for housing campaigners to bear in mind. People want any help they can get to rent or (preferably) buy a home – but will get angry, very quickly if “schemes” don’t work for them.
The public don’t disagree with the intention of a lot of the schemes out there, but they’re mightily annoyed about the price tag. Even schemes which require lower levels of savings to access are seen as impossible for private renters who can’t afford to save more than £50 per month.
So, how should we respond to what people really think about “affordable housing”?
I’d recommend three things for housing campaigners to do:
- Use clear language which resonates. ‘Social housing’ is a clear phrase, but also comes with negative associations for a lot of people. ‘Rent to Buy’ is a phrase that we know from our research resonates, but most people won’t be clear about what it means. What I think we need is a name for what people want (low rents, secure contract, route towards homeownership) which resonates and is immediately clear. For example I like the name “Living Rents”, which to me clearly conveys a rent that is low enough to allow working people to live happily and start saving. The Mayor of London is starting to use this but I think it’s important that the name fits the product. For example it seems obvious to me that a “Living Rent” should work for people earning the Living Wage or other low wages. Otherwise it may feel like a “con” – another word that comes up often when the public discuss housing schemes.
- Be specific. Most people are only really interested in whether housing schemes will work for them. When you say “affordable to the average family”, they get annoyed. Who is this average family and what do they earn? We should say things like “Let’s build homes that someone earning the minimum wage can afford to rent”. Or, “let’s build homes that two teachers with a joint income of £50,000 can afford to buy”. We should be way more personal and human in how we talk about new homes.
- Focus on the affordability of government “schemes”, not the macro impacts. If we think it justified to criticise an affordable housing scheme, then let’s do so in a way that resonates. The Help to Buy scheme was unaffected by most of the sector’s attacks on it – because they focused on the macro impact on house prices. For most people, this is a second order concern compared to “does it work for me”. However the justified focus on Starter Homes hit home because it focused on the price tag for buyers and who would be excluded.
Ultimately I think we need to find a better language to campaign on this issue. This must be rooted how most people talk and think about housing, rather than how we in the sector do. The aim must be to find words and phrases which both capture what we know is needed and resonate. It might be hard but it’s essential.
Until then, we all might be snorting with derision when we hear the phrase “affordable housing” being used – but it will be for very different reasons.
*Yes I know that the correct grammar would be “affordable for whom”, but it’s what people say. Please just leave it…