David Orr was our guest to share a lifetime experience in improving communities life around Europe. From his childhood David Orr was educated in a family devoted to encouraging people to achieve things they thought they could never do. With more than 30 years of experience in Chief Executive roles, most recently at the UK National Housing Federation, David still has time to also be in many housing organisations as a volunteer, advisor and board member.
Hugo Gervais: The approach of social housing can vary among countries. For example, the UK is considered as liberal while France might be seen as generous with social benefits. Do you see some difference across countries in the way they approach social housing?
David Orr: There are some quiet substantial differences. I think most social housing providers motives and objectives are very strong and genuine but can in practice be seen as patronising. "Here are we, the middle class people doing something useful and helpful for the poor working class". Such an approach is by no means universal but it can happen everywhere, in the UK as well.
It's important that the community housing associations see their job not just about building homes for people to live in, more about place making and encouraging people to do things they thought that would not be possible.
It was quite early in my time in the National Housing Federation I went to visit a housing association in South Manchester, in a community with big problems, a very difficult place.
Willow Park made two critical decisions: first make it safe. People here need to believe they live in a safe environment.
And, if they wanted to make real change, the decision and investment that they made had to be driven by the people in the local community.
This approach worked. There was a huge growth in community facilities, and even more importantly in community confidence. It became a place where people wanted to live rather than wanting to leave. Eventually, speculative property developers came to say "we are going to build some housing for sale" which, for 10 or 15 years previously would have been regarded as pure fiction.
I strongly believe that every single community and neighborhood has people who encourage change. The difference stands between institutions who create the space for people of this world to be able to make their contribution and to be the positive force for change. In other places they are restricted, because no one is talking to them, no one is listening to them.
Hugo Gervais: It's interesting the empowerment of users because a lot of managers are afraid to give the micromanagement to somebody, probably because of fear about what tenants will say. Have you seen some experience where tenants were engaged in their local neighborhood?
David Orr: I´ve seen places where it doesn't happen.
There are a lot of people in social housing who feel their voices are not heard and their views have no status. Things happen around them but not with their contribution and even more without their consent. So they feel angry.
But when people are involved, it can really drive transformation. You have to find a structure that enables people to make that contribution, that lets them "have agency in my own life".
"There are a lot of people in social housing who feel their voices are not heard and their views have no status"
Hugo Gervais: What is the work that the state and politicians have done to solve the social housing problem?
David Orr: I think in the UK as in many other countries, governments have struggled with social housing.
Their primary concern isn't the delivery of a high quality housing service. The things that drive politicians are getting the vote, so they can get re-elected and that supersedes everything else. Governments and politicians are under investing in social housing instead of improving the quality of the existing housing.
Housing is, by its nature, a long term business which needs both long term strategies and long term investment. Politics, in contrast, is much more short term, so short term considerations drive what should be long term decisions. This has meant that investment in new homes has declined and in publicly owned social housing, decisions are often made for short term political reasons. A rent freeze before an election may seem to be a political priority but it has huge long term costs in repairs, renewals and general maintenance.
A couple of years ago, our politicians decided to impose a 1% per annum rent cut on all social housing providers. Many tenants were unhappy. "This is ridiculous, how can our housing associations protect the long term ability to invest in our
homes and make sure they are not going to fall apart in 20 years”.
Hugo Gervais: When was that episode to cut rent and people said no?
David Orr: It was George Osborne in 2015. The decision was imposed overnight with no consultation. Housing associations and local authorities really struggled for a while. There was some fat in the system and they were able to absorb some of it, but a lot of community projects and support programs closed.
A 1% cut if you rent a 100 pounds is not a fundamental change for you but it makes a huge difference collectively and over the long term of the organisation who is providing your home.
Hugo Gervais: You mention the social housing that could be publicly owned or private, or a mix of both. In France some social housing are managed by local authorities and some which were initiated by large companies to have homes for employees.
Today some cities have 2 social housing associations with 15-20,000 units each. One from the local authorities that end up with the worst neighborhoods, worst assets; and the other one, which is having the middle class and all the best tenants, because, they select and choose the property, the blockment program and they want to invest in it.
Do you see a best approach to run housing associations between public, private or a mix of both?
David Orr: There are no miracle solutions. There is no quick easy way in one constitutional form that will solve all of the problems. A lot of it is about local leadership, the quality of the leadership in the organisation or in the local authorities. And the ability to invest strategically over a long term.
I strongly believe that not for profit housing associations have a critical role to play.
A housing association is a private organisation because it is not owned by the state, but is mission driven and doesn't pay dividends to shareholders, so any profit or surplus will always be reinvested in providing homes and services.
Hugo Gervais: You mentioned previously the objective to let people do things and to improve themselves. You also said you felt very much at ease when you started in social housing. What kind of DNA does it take to have a good fit with the social housing environment?
David Orr: I think there are a range of different skills, backgrounds, abilities, that can make a contribution, but the thing that really makes a difference is whether you are committed to the mission. Housing associations are mission driven organisations and if you don't understand that you are not going to fit in.
Often when services are poor I believe that these organisations lack confidence in themselves. It’s only when you are reasonably confident in yourself as a leader that you feel confident in allowing people to do the things that are capable of doing, not just allowing them but encouraging them to.
Housing associations are fundamentally organisations that exist to help people to improve their lives, that's what we are about. People don't really see them, but they will notice them if they were taken away.
"Housing associations are mission driven organisations and if you don't understand that you are not going to fit in."
Hugo Gervais: What do you think are the main challenges of housing space today?
David Orr: The main challenges are that governments across the world increasingly understand they need a good supply of good quality affordable homes for people on low incomes but they don’t know how to deliver them.
If we were able to resolve that problem there would be consequential benefits for every other part of the economy, of social policy, of health service economics, etc. And this is a problem with clear solutions.
Governments and organisations should invest in social housing because it's economically rational, it helps to drive economic growth, it creates neighbourhood stability.
Housing associations will go to the capital debt markets, bond markets, attracting very low term funding at very low rates, because it is a very safe and secure investment. Using that to build homes not just for rent, to build homes commercially for sale, and make a profit from doing that and use the profit to subsidise the delivery of social rent. This is a model that, working with government and supported by state subsidies, can make a huge difference.
Every time you are able to move someone to affordable homes you improve their ability to benefit from the education system, you reduce their demands on the heath service and it can be sustainable as well.
Hugo Gervais: There are people who can stay for decades in social housing. They need it at a certain point in their life, but it can have some criticisms about whether people need it for such a period of time. What do you see in the UK and in other countries about that?
David Orr: It is a good point and an important, almost philosophical consideration. It's right, people are allocated to social housing at a point in their lives they need, and they may become more economically successful in the future, and so in theory no longer need it. However, for community stability, the idea that you take people and say to them "this is your home, but only as you can't afford it and as soon as you can afford it, we chuck you out" that's not great for community stability, it's also not very good in terms of the motivation of people have to get a good job. Having some people with growing incomes is good for local economic stability and cohesion.
When people have more money, they will in many cases make the decision themselves to move on and choose somewhere else to live.
Hugo Gervais: At last we talked about the main challenges that housing associations must face today to digitise.
David Orr: Across the world, social housing providers have been criminally slow to see the potential on digital. We live in a digital world. If you are a digital landlord and you have people who are not digitally connected, I think the strategy should be "what can we do to help people to become more comfortable in the digital world and to stop being excluded from so much that the world has to offer".
If anything has demonstrated the truth of that it was the COVID pandemic, where some isolated people actually have felt less isolated by being able to stay digitally connected to family and friends.
This is not to say that digital processes should replace direct person to person contact. It is to ensure that as much as possible can be done quickly and easily on digital platforms, giving more resources for direct interaction with people.
Housing associations are getting better about the digital offer, pretty more online, but we need to have much more of it. I think we reach the point where any new home built, for social rent or anything, any new home should be handed over with digital connectivity as well as is handed over with electrical connectivity.
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