Housing associations have to take the long view
"We need to be mindful of our mission and role as anchors in the community. Housing associations are in it for the long run and should be careful about drawing back or retrenching in response to near term challenges."
Chan Kataria, Group Chief Executive
2020 was one of the most challenging years most of us can remember – and we’re not out of the woods yet.
The pandemic will continue to dominate the scene in 2021. This is evident from the increasing numbers of infections, hospitalisations and deaths, not to mention the emergence of new and potentially more threatening strains of the virus.
On a positive note, mass vaccinations are happening at speed and we can see some hope for the future. The biggest hope we have is that as human beings we are good at learning, adapting and transforming. This is as true of the housing sector as it is of us as individuals.
We have seen this adaptability throughout the pandemic with associations continuing to provide essential housing and care services. We have seen our colleagues go the extra mile in making wellbeing calls, delivering food parcels, and participating in community activities to help those most in need. We have continued to develop and sell homes, albeit in reduced numbers, and have strong liquidity to ramp up output when lockdown begins to ease.
This resilience will be crucial going forward. The economic impact of the virus will be harsh, with increasing job losses having damaging consequences for many in our communities. Youth unemployment is particularly high and will have implications for housing need and community cohesion in the years to come. Development sites are open but operating at 50-60% of their normal capacity – a fact that will be of no help to those in housing need.
So where do we go from here?
First and foremost, we need to be mindful of our mission and role as anchors in the community. Housing associations are in it for the long run and should be careful about drawing back or retrenching in response to near term challenges. Our customers will be going through some very difficult times and this is when our interventions in housing, care and employment will make a real difference.
At a time when private businesses are struggling the role of the social economy becomes ever more important in the post pandemic economic and social recovery. This means increasing partnerships and collaboration between housing associations, local authorities and other voluntary sector bodies who share common values.
We have seen some good examples of strong partnerships over the last year, including joint initiatives with local authorities to help the homeless, inter-agency initiatives to address anti-social behavior and local hubs to coordinate care services and supply of PPE.
2021 is also a major milestone for emh group as it will be our 75th anniversary this year. The challenges encountered by our founder, Peter Elderfield, in the aftermath of the war were severe. One in three houses were destroyed by bombings and there were labour and material shortages. Yet, despite this, he doggedly stuck to his vision to build homes and meet the needs of homeless and penniless ex-servicemen.
Of course, we cannot do everything at once and there are trade-offs to be made. Whether this is between investment in existing homes and building new ones or, indeed, between investing in new homes and investing in community initiatives to improve opportunities for people. Choices involve trading off interests of different stakeholders, not least between current and future residents. The choices we make will have long lasting implications for our communities and reputation.
It is vital, therefore, that we address these trade-offs in a way that is transparent and engages key stakeholders – residents, politicians, local authorities and others. As one of our most important partners, local authorities will understand these trade-offs as they have had to make difficult choices in the face of austerity.
This engagement is particularly important when, for instance, housing organisations are choosing to close local offices in favour of remote and agile working arrangements. It is sobering to think how many local businesses rely on our presence in the local communities - from burger vans and local cafes to corner shops and hairdressers. As social businesses integral to those communities we need to explain the rationale behind these decisions.
During this year, more people will lose their jobs and private businesses will struggle to survive. Housing associations are an important part of the social economy and have a strong role to play in helping the country build back stronger.