We had no idea we could get social housing, but it has changed our lives | Nicholas Fearn

My partner and I needed affordable, secure accommodation at a hard time. Too many are missing out due to shortages and stigma

After living in a cramped bedroom at my parents’ house during the difficult months of lockdown, my partner and I decided we wanted to get a place of our own in early 2021. But, as is the case for so many other young people, there was no way we’d be able to get a mortgage and buy our own property. Neither of us had savings or great credit scores, and I was constantly in and out of work due to poor mental health. When many banks decided to scrap mortgages with 5% deposits owing to economic turmoil, saving up for a deposit became impossible.

At the time, our only viable option seemed to be privately renting, but finding a place wasn’t easy – properties were snapped up before we could make an offer, and the prices were steep. And as someone with autism and anxiety disorder, the possibility of finding the perfect place and then being asked by the landlord to move out caused my anxiety to spiral.

There was a third option – just not one we thought we could access. Given that I work part-time and I’m freelance, we assumed we wouldn’t be eligible for social housing. But deciding we had nothing to lose, we applied to get on the waiting list of one of the local housing associations. To our surprise, we got on it within weeks and began bidding on properties. A few months later, we were offered a two-bedroom flat.

The rules for getting on the housing register so you can bid for council housing (where the council is your landlord) and social housing (generally where a housing association registered with the council runs the property) vary from local authority to local authority. While those with the highest needs are prioritised first by law, others might be eligible too, depending on availability of housing – and it turned out we qualified.

We moved into our flat in June 2021, and adore living there. The great thing about social housing is that we can live here for the rest of our lives, and that we’ve been able to decorate the property to suit our tastes. This is in drastic contrast to many privately rented properties, where you wouldn’t be able to drill into the walls to hang pictures, let alone paint.

Margaret Thatcher in 1978 with Christine Greensmith, who bought her council house in south London.
‘Only a few thousand social homes are built annually.’ Margaret Thatcher with Christine Greensmith, a beneficiary of council housing sell-offs. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

We aren’t the only ones who were unaware we could be entitled to social housing. Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who, yet again, had been asked to move out of a privately rented home as her landlord decided to sell the property. Like me, she struggles with mental health problems, so this has been a very stressful time for her. When I suggested that my friend look into social housing as I thought she might be eligible, she genuinely didn’t think it would be an option. Her reply was: “It’s not that we can’t afford housing.”

That stigma is widespread – and it is leading to people missing out on secure and affordable homes. The common assumption is that social housing is only an option for those who don’t work, or who live on benefits. And there have been times when I thought people might look down on me for living in a social home.

But that narrative – begun by Margaret Thatcher’s sell-off of council housing in the 1980s, and turbocharged by rightwing rhetoric about benefits scroungers – is nonsense. My partner and I needed affordable, secure accommodation at a hard time, and social housing was the best option for us.

None of this is helped by the fact that we currently face a chronic shortage of social housing – in 2021, 29,000 social homes were sold or demolished in England, while fewer than 7,000 were built. England has 1.4 million fewer households in social housing than in 1980. Thatcher’s housing policies glorified the idea that social homeowners should aim to buy their property instead of renting it, and that owning should be the ultimate goal. And yes, I’d like to think that, one day, my partner and I can save up enough money to get a mortgage. In turn, our social flat would go to someone else in need. However, this isn’t within everyone’s reach.

Today, the government’s stance on social housing hasn’t really changed. In England, people living in council houses can still buy their property through the archaic “right to buy” scheme”. This summer, Boris Johnson declared that “no generation should be locked out of home ownership because of when they were born” and announced plans to extend Thatcher’s right to buy scheme to housing association tenants – though there’s been no further information about this plan.

More than a million people are on waiting lists for social housing while only a few thousand social homes are built annually. This means a million – if not more – people left without affordable housing during the cost-of-living crisis. This, to me, is a continuing scandal.

  • Nicholas Fearn is a freelance journalist


Nicholas Fearn

The GuardianTramp

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