The Future of Work, Community and Social Housing

In the early 20th century, horses had never had it so good. We were largely a horse-drawn society where they were valued as symbols of power and authority. They did the work we didn’t have the strength or the will to do.

Hardly anyone believed that the arrival of the Ford Model T in 1908 would disrupt a relationship that had flourished for thousands of years. No longer the preferred mode of transport, the equine population peaked in 1915. It was all downhill from there.

Sometimes your biggest threat is not the one directly in front of you, but the one at the periphery of your vision. The social housing sector, possibly at the beginning of a decade of disruption, is having to keep a watching brief on all fronts.

The threats of welfare reform, Right to Buy and regulatory changes are the ones grabbing the headlines.

The most potentially devastating — the annual 1% rent cut — has led many to consider the activities they will be able to carry out. According to a survey by Inside Housing, 72% of associations are likely to consider cutting back on ‘non-core’ services. This includes helping people into work, financial inclusion advice and health initiatives.

Fundamental rethink

Before we rush into cutting back services, it’s always useful to look at the bigger picture. Our communities face a rapidly ageing society; a health service seeking £22bn in savings; a pace of technological change with which we are all struggling to keep up with. And then there’s the gradual disappearance of the jobs that employ many tenants. So before we rush into Pay to Stay, homeownership and shared equity models, let’s consider the future of work and its impact on lifestyle and affordability.

We already know that levels of unemployment are disproportionately high among social housing residents. Many of those already in work — often low-paying and part-time — will lose their jobs to automation.

Not that there’s complete agreement on this. The New York TimesJohn Markoff has pointed out how polarising the subject of automation and its effect on employment tends to be. On one side, researchers believe we are on the cusp of the biggest job renaissance in history, on the other, that all human jobs will be obsolete by 2045.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. To paraphrase the management consultant Peter Drucker: “If there is one thing certain under automation, it’s that jobs and communities will change radically and often.” Technology is fuelling the rise of the so-called ‘sharing economy’ and the ability for people to rent or borrow goods rather than buy and own them.

There’s dispute though about whether this trend, exemplified by Uber, is bringing more wage-earning opportunities. It’s inconclusive whether the net effect is the displacement of traditionally secure jobs and the extension of short-term, part-time, low-paid work. What does a homeownership model even look like in a ‘gig economy’, where people are scattered across distances as independent contractors, freelancers, and volunteers?

In the sharing economy, no one’s an employee. And they won’t have the traditional protections to ensure that the rent or mortgage still gets paid.

Looking ahead further — the next 10 years may bring driverless cars and drone deliveries — the potential impact on the jobs of tenants is enormous. But this is not a mainstream topic of conversation.

We need to start to reimagine communities and what meaningful work and play looks like in the future. We should begin long-term planning — building from the skills already in the community. We need to embrace technology and develop local frameworks that enable people to do better things.

Perhaps we need to forget the idea of work in abundance and start an argument for an ‘unconditional basic income’; every citizen, in work or not, getting a flat subsistence allowance, which would be unaffected by any earnings they gained on top of it.

Or we could do nothing, stumbling into a world of disappearing jobs and failing to imagine a better future. We would be left with increasingly marginalised communities with reduced income, less active lifestyles and all the resulting health problems. Let’s see how well we sell our homeownership models there.

Rather than knee-jerking and cutting services that appear non-core, we need a fundamental rethink of our business model and service if we are to exist in five years.

At a time when communities need us the most, we need to think carefully about what ‘core business’ actually is.

Housing associations have spent a long time telling everyone they are ‘more than bricks and mortar’.

By shifting position so quickly and to such an extent, we risk losing any shred of credibility we ever had.

This post originally appeared in Inside Housing