'We must take care to define who and what social housing is for.'
Who and what social housing is for may seem obvious, but we must take care in how we explore these fundamental questions, says Dr Chris Foye, in the latest of our Rethinking social housing comment pieces.
What is social housing for? And who is social housing for? These are two of the main questions that Rethinking social housing project by the Chartered Institute of Housing seeks to answer. At face-value, they may seem simple, perhaps even simplistic, but as many housing practitioners will know, these are complex questions, and they are complex partly because they rely on value-based judgements.
Imagine you are in charge of allocating social housing in a local authority in central London, and there are three adults – Maria, Bob and Carla – on the list for one prime-located social house. Maria, a recent immigrant, claims the social house on the grounds that she is the only one of the three who works in central London and whose family are based in the area, so it is she who would derive the most happiness from the house. Bob argues that he has been long-term unemployed so it is he who should have the social house, as the other two earn substantially more than him and could afford to rent somewhere (albeit small and on the outskirts) privately. Carla protests though - she has worked in London all her life, paid her council taxes, volunteered in the local youth group, and therefore she deserves it more than Maria or Bob.
There are two main lessons to draw from the example above. The first is that because there are many ‘goods’ which we have reason to value (happiness, equality, liberty…), and because these goods often conflict, there may not always be one ‘correct’ value based judgement. All three claims have serious arguments in favour of them, and we may not be able to decide who gets the house without being arbitrary. For some of us the main purpose of social housing should be to provide housing for those most in need; but for others, it maybe to provide housing to those who have made a sustained contribution to their local community, but cannot afford somewhere decent at market rents – are both not reasonable?
However, just because there maybe more than one reasonable value-based judgement, this does not mean that there is no such thing as an unreasonable value-based judgement. If a fourth person, James, advanced a claim to the house on the basis that he is the only white one of the four, then we should reject this as unreasonable. The allocation of social housing should not be based on skin colour.
But how can we identify which judgements are unreasonable? The most effective way is surely through public reasoning. Getting people from diverse positions in society to talk to each other can help us see the reason in other people’s judgements, but it also can expose the lack of reason where there is none: James would find it much more difficult to justify his claim to a group of people of other skin colours.
The two lessons above imply that we should be both ambitious and modest when defining who and what social housing is for. We should be ambitious, because there are answers to these questions that could yield a more just housing policy and society, and which public reasoning can help reveal. But we should also be modest, because there is unlikely to be only one reasonable answer, but several. Still, it is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong.
Dr Chris Foye is knowledge exchange associate for the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.