Social Enterprise Is the Long-Term Solution to Our Housing Crisis

Posted: 29 December 2017, in Blog

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Scotsman newspaper on Friday 29 December 2017:


Social enterprise is the long-term solution to our housing crisis

Housing is an issue that affects every one of us, regardless of our circumstances. Whether you’re a home owner, living in social housing or in the private rented sector, we all have a stake in quality, safe and secure homes.

Unfortunately poor housing and homelessness is still a stark reality for too many people in Scotland. From homeless people on the street, to dodgy landlords, insecure tenancies and homes in disrepair, there are significant issues to confront.

Public policy and campaigning around housing provision is certainly going in the right direction in many ways. However, we still have a tendency to see mortgages (including the mythical ‘housing ladder’ and buy-to-let) as the only viable model of housing. In fact while there are around 27-34,000 privately owned long-term empty homes in Scotland there’s an almost identical number of people who are homeless. Bizarre facts like this point to a much more fundamental housing issue caused by outdated and disjointed thinking. The current system simply isn’t working.

In a reactionary move the policy alternative is now increasingly seen as a reformed private rented sector. We should warmly welcome and continue these reforms – and ensure that more social enterprises operate in this space too. However, until this includes bigger reforms like the option of lifetime tenure, tough rent controls and rent-free tenancies for long-term residents beyond retirement age, this can never be an effective long-term solution.

Fortunately there are positive alternatives that are already helping solve our housing crisis. Housing associations and co-operatives have a long history in Scotland. The existence of the vital, quality, affordable housing they provide is something to be celebrated.

These registered social landlords have a clear and positive social purpose. They do their very best to supply a good standard of housing for tenants. They don’t have shareholders to answer to, so they can genuinely put people and planet first. They must be viable businesses – but they aren’t driven by profiteering or short-term gains, the very nature of the traditional private rented sector. They genuinely understand the need for security, sustainability and community.

Housing associations and co-operatives exist across Scotland and are growing and thriving, alongside council housing, self-build and flat pack housing and other innovations. They’re at the forefront of transformations in how we provide good housing for people of all backgrounds and incomes, not just those in most need.

Lister Housing Co-operative Ltd is in Edinburgh and owns its properties outright. Since it was founded 40 years ago it’s been managed by the tenants who live there. Like other social enterprise housing providers all the profit goes back to benefit tenants and their properties.

Alistair Cant is the Director: “Lister Housing Co-operative is a successful social enterprise providing 185 good quality affordable flats to rent in central Edinburgh. It’s controlled by tenants, staffed by experienced staff and also cares for its Georgian tenements lovingly. Housing co-operatives and associations are a genuine Scottish success story.”

Social enterprises are also gradually moving into the territory of the private rented sector too, with organisations like Places for People providing affordable, quality, mid-market properties for long-term rent.

Susan Aktemel is Director of Homes for Good. Based in Glasgow, it’s Scotland’s first ever social enterprise letting agent, operating in a market dominated by private landlords and letting agents:

“Over the last four years Homes for Good has proven that letting agents can and do behave ethically for tenants and landlords. It also proves that you can balance the supply of quality, affordable homes for people who need them with a financial return for landlords. Alongside Homes for Good Investments, we’ve created a much needed and substantial supply of properties for people on benefits and low incomes, which offer our investors both social and financial returns.

“Increased housing supply is urgently required across Scotland and across all tenures. Social businesses like Homes for Good have a key role in developing  innovative alternatives that complement the main private rented sector markets, social housing from councils and housing associations and home ownership, to ensure there are homes for all needs and budgets.”

Social enterprise housing providers operate across every urban and rural community. Some of the biggest ones, such as Link Group Ltd, have been around for many years. They innovate by also providing care and support services to tenants, as well as admin and funding support to local community projects.

Craig Sanderson, Chief Executive of Link Group Ltd says: “Link is a group of registered social landlords (housing associations), charities and social enterprises serving 15,000 customers throughout Scotland. We’ve been around since 1962. We have an impressive track record in developing high quality homes for affordable rent and sale, having delivered more than 200 during each of the previous six years and intending to build 3200 more during the next five.

“But that is a means to an end. Everything we do is with the aim of trying to close the ever-growing inequality gap, the biggest threat to health and well-being. We deliver new homes at ‘social’ rents that people on relatively low incomes can afford, we create jobs, we pay at least the real Scottish Living Wage, we improve the environment and amenity space and we enhance health and wellbeing – all in the interests of greater equality in our society. 

“A sufficient supply of good housing, especially for social rent, helps to dampen excessive house prices and aids flexibility of labour movement. Housing Associations are a perfect example of the social enterprise business model – where all profits are re-invested in the business itself or in the communities it serves.”

There are many big, established Housing Associations operating within the broad social enterprise housing scene, including Wheatley Group, Albyn Housing and Bield Housing and Care. In addition we have social enterprises like Glasgow Together CIC, creating full-time, real Living Wage jobs for ex-offenders in the construction space and The Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust that works with communities to provide affordable housing.  We also now have exciting developments like the new homeless village in Edinburgh from Social Bite, using homes from Tiny House Scotland.

It’s worth paying recognition to the organisations working hard to facilitate improvements in housing and homelessness in Scotland, most notably the private rented sector tenants’ union Living Rent, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA) and Shelter Scotland. They work to improve access to good housing across the country and we should celebrate the work they’ve done and continue to do around changes to the law and the culture of the housing sector.

We’re in a strong position in Scotland in terms of the trajectory of our social and affordable housing provision, though the sector is still relatively small compared to the mortgage and rental markets. Public awareness of alternative options is still a big challenge and we need to encourage more people to pro-actively choose social enterprise housing models.

The real challenge is to go beyond our British/Scottish obsession with mortgages and to stop seeing narrow individual ownership as the only option. We need to learn to let go of outdated models and outmoded beliefs about the meaning of ‘home’. Housing should be seen as a human right, not as a profit-making venture.

We still have a long way to go to make social enterprise housing the mainstream option for most people. However, this variety of innovative and inclusive housing is the only long-term solution to provide good housing for everyone.