Scotland's housing crisis needs urgent action and the staff who deliver the service agree.
UNISON Scotland has published a survey of Scotland’s housing staff today. It has exposed the reality of frontline staff trying to cope with the huge scale of Scotland’s housing crisis. 'Open the door: housing staff on the homes we have and the homes we need' – looks at the real experiences of members involved in all aspects of providing housing services: housing officers, housing assistants and lettings officers.
The majority of those surveyed (68 per cent) said funding for their service had gone down, negatively impacting on the quality of service they can provide. Three quarters of respondents said changes in welfare and benefit legislation has contributed to the problem. At its bluntest, welfare changes have made life more difficult for tenants and this in turn has created problems for housing staff.
While numbers matter, the best part of these surveys for me is the comments from staff. They tell real members stories in their own words. Here are a few examples from this survey:
"I work with homeless people. The pressure is increasing relentlessly. Demand is increasing as resources dwindle."
"[Benefit changes] have impacted massively and it will only get worse. Rent arrears have risen and you cannot take what people don’t have."
"Due to bedroom tax and direct payments of housing benefit to tenants we are seeing an increase in rent arrears and homeless rising due to more evictions."
"How is it possible for them to provide for the future of their housing with less staff and more homelessness. It’s not possible."
More than half of respondents (55 per cent) said they regularly work over their contracted hours while 58 per cent said staff numbers are in decline, meaning they don’t have as much time to spend with clients. Like other workers in public services, housing staff have been experiencing years of zero or minimal pay. Almost 70 per cent of workers said their standard of living had dropped in the previous three or four years, with many struggling to make ends meet.
For those who like the numbers, they paint an equally depressing picture. Scotland has 179,954 households with outstanding applications for social housing; of these some 29,500 are households on transfer lists meaning 150,000 households are waiting to enter social housing. The response to this in terms of house building is woefully inadequate. Only 10,686 dwellings were built between March 2013-14 by the private sector, 2,911 dwellings built by housing associations and 974 dwellings built by local authorities.
Allied to this are issues around the quality of housing. 349,000 homes in Scotland are affected by dampness or condensation. 647,000 households are in fuel poverty in Scotland. A total of 54 per cent of Scotland’s social housing currently falls beneath the Scottish Housing Quality Standard. 65,000 households are overcrowded in Scotland.
UNISON hasn't just outlined the inadequacy of current approaches. In our paper 'Making Homes for a Fairer Scotland' we outlined a new housing programme for Scotland. Equally importantly, we also showed how this could be funded, using some of the assets represented by public sector pension funds in our publication, 'Funding and Building the Homes Scotland Needs'. This would put these funds to a socially (and literally) constructive use in building a fairer Scotland. Alex Rowley MSP helpfully highlighted this plan in the recent debate on housing in the Scottish Parliament.
We also need to devolve Housing Benefit. Responsibility for housing policy without the main benefit makes no sense. This appears to have welcome cross party support, so should be one of the easier issues for Lord Smith's commission to agree on. We need to do this quickly before Universal Credit is rolled out in Scotland and the experienced council staff transfer or leave the service.
We have a crisis with the availability, the cost and the quality of our housing and we urgently need large scale investment to reverse Scotland’s housing crisis. Any plan for social justice in Scotland has to put housing at its core.