Social tenants live increasingly precarious lives in a marginalised social housing sector

The decline of social housing from 1 in 3 of all homes to just 1 in 6 over the last forty years has resulted in a ‘residualised’ sector in England, which caters mostly for a disadvantaged tenant group living increasingly precarious lives.

Our new research, to be published on 15th April, brings together a range of national datasets, plus extensive surveys and focus groups carried out by HCI with almost 7,000 social tenants in recent times.

The research falls into two parts – the first quantifies the ‘precarity’ of the lives of a majority of social tenants; the second seeks to draw on tenants’ views and policy innovations identified elsewhere to recommend what ‘A New Deal for Tenants’ might look like. This blog deals with the first of these. A second will cover recommendations from the report.

The Decline of Social Housing

What cannot be doubted is that social housing has been in long-term decline, with 1979 being the pivotal year. Since then, more than 2m social homes have been sold off in England through various schemes, of which the Right to Buy (RtB) council housing accounts for 9 in 10 of the sold homes.

Decline has been exacerbated over the last decade in the wake of the international financial crisis with a 98% fall in social house-building and the ‘rejuvenation’ of the RtB ensuring an uptick in sales, with most of the sold homes having not been replaced.

The Precarity of Tenants

HCI’s analyses of tenant survey data point to the majority of social tenants now falling into what has been called by academics Guy Standing (2011, 2014) and Mike Savage et. al. (2013, 2015) the ‘precariat’ class. Our research stresses that social housing, like other tenures, does not house an homogenous group. However, the key economic and households characteristics of a large bulk of social tenants do, unfortunately, conform to those of the ‘precariat’.

HCI estimates that around two thirds of social tenants fall into this ‘new’ class. This is not to say that many social tenants are more affluent or successful in employment terms. Nor that social tenants as a whole don’t make significant contributions to their families, communities and localities – as others, including tenant groups, have identified.

However, if the poverty and disadvantage of the majority of social tenants – created mainly by austerity policies, growing inequalities in wealth and incomes, stagnant incomes, the growth of part-time and/or insecure employment, capped welfare benefits, and stalled social mobility – are to be confronted, then a recognition of the nation’s class structure and its pernicious effects have to be acknowledged.

Key Characteristics of the ‘Precariat’

Large majorities of the social tenant group now exhibit characteristics of the ‘precariat’ based on recent dissemination of the nation’s class structure – the elite, the established middle class, the technical middle class, new affluent workers, emergent service workers, the traditional working class and the ‘precariat’.

Socio-Economic Class ~ Based on the NS-SEC, over 56% of social tenants are classified by the as working in (or having worked in) routine or semi-routine occupations, while just 15% are located in higher or lower managerial occupations or the professions. For home owners and private renters, these findings are broadly reversed.

Class Segmentation ~ The ACORN classification system points to 50% of social tenants living in ‘urban diversity’ (home owners = 9% and private renters = 22%) and a further 37% being ‘financially stretched’ (home owners = 16% and private renters = 22%). Only 2% of social tenants are categorised as ‘affluent achievers’ compared with 33% of home owners and 13% of private renters.

Work and Benefits ~ Social tenants are more likely to be unemployed (at 7%) or economically inactive in other ways (at 21%) than other tenures. A further 27% are retired. The rate of employment (at 43%) is lower than for home owners (at 58%) and private renters (at 74%) although part-time working is more common. Two thirds of social tenants are eligible for housing benefit for at least part their rent.

Incomes ~ The average household income of social tenants (at £16,952) is just 45% of that of home owners and 59% that of private renters. Three quarters (75%) of social tenant household incomes are placed in the bottom two fifths of the income distribution (home owners = 30% and private renters = 43%).

Wealth and Assets ~ The average net wealth of outright home owners (at around £475,000) is 37 times that of social tenants (at approximately £13,000). That of mortgagees (at £219,000) is 17 times. Almost 8 in 10 social tenants have no savings; and most of those who do have relatively small amounts.

Declining Prosperity ~ Most social tenants (being located in the bottom two fifths of the income spectrum) are experiencing between a 4 and 10% fall in real incomes between 2010 and 2020, while the incomes of the top fifth (and especially the top 1%) have seen stable or elevated incomes. Similarly with wealth – net wealth at the bottom of the spectrum has fallen in the last decade even as the wealth of the richest has soared.

Geographical Disadvantage ~ Exploring the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IDM) 2015, reveals that 9% of social housing is located in the 1% most deprived of around 33,000 in England. Almost one third is to be found in the 10% most deprived neighbourhoods and 6 in 10 social homes are located in the most deprived 25%.

Rising Insecurity ~ While social tenants do not experience the same levels of insecurity of tenure as private renters, time-limited discretionary tenancies are far more common now in social housing, and the rate of eviction remains high (although lower than in the private rented sector). Alongside, social tenants (especially in London) are more prone to being relocated to make way for gentrifications-regeneration of social housing estates – often termed ‘social cleansing’.

Part two of this blog will explore what social tenants ask for to combat some of these disadvantages; including having a greater say in the management of their homes and neighbourhoods.

Savage M. et. al. (2013) A New Model of Social Class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment. Sociology, 47 (2), pp219-250.
Savage M. et. al. (2015) Social Class in the 21st Century, Penguin Random House. London.
Standing G. (2011) The Precariat – The New Dangerous Class. Bloomsbury Academic. London.
Standing G. (2014) A Precariat Charter – From Denizens to Citizens. Bloomsbury Academic. London.


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