Sharing ownership

Shared ownership has a crucial part to play in addressing housing need, but how can we ensure that it is fit for the future?

Dave Smith is External Affairs Manager for London

Dave Smith is External Affairs Manager for London

14 March 2017

“Who do I have to share it with?” was the first question that came back to me when I tried to explain the concept of shared ownership to a friend of mine recently. Well-educated, mid-thirties, decent job – she’s exactly the kind of person who shared-ownership was made for. “With a housing association”, I explained. “They own the unbought equity.” Already I had lost her – just three minutes in. “And do they, like, put council housing people in the other rooms?” came the reply.

This short piece is intended to be nothing less than a full-blown, passionate defence of shared-ownership. The GLA has secured funding for 58,500 new starts in London before 2021. And as somebody who has experienced, first-hand, the life changing impact it can have on your happiness, your independence, your sense of belonging, I think it is essential that housing associations continue to conceive of it as a vital part of our mission and our success. 

But it also feels like the time is now right for us to create a frank, wide-ranging and honest conversation about where it should go next. 

For example, how can we continue to build it in areas (like 17 of London’s boroughs) where the average house price is now over 15 times the average salary – meaning that people are unlikely to ever be able to staircase to 100%?

Should we always continue to link this affordable product to a percentage of the open market rate, rather than – say – a figure based upon average local wages? (With unbought equity rising faster than many incomes, how do we prevent the unenviable position arising whereby people might be priced-out of their own homes!?)

And what about the consumer experience? Because, ultimately, this might be the first (and if we do it badly, last) interaction some people ever have of housing associations. I know a friend who recently had to sit up until midnight, trying to time her email to perfection so that her application would arrive at precisely 00:01am, vesting all her home-owning ambitions in the accuracy of the clock on their email server. Such are the logical but thoroughly unintended consequences of a ‘first come first served’ allocations process in the capital. She didn’t get the property and is uninclined to try again. 

Collectively – we need to think this through.

None of this is to say that some excellent work is not already being done. The people who work on shared ownership within housing associations, day in day out, are helping to keep cities like mine more affordable to people like me. But is it doing enough? Is it fit for the future? And how can we organise the residents’ journey so that it reflects deservedly well upon the sector as a whole?   

For I would argue that it is because demand for shared ownership has become so huge in the South East, we have been able to survive for quite a while with some fairly inconsistent processes and set of messages. Because in London at least, if not in Iowa, ‘If you build it they will come’. And this arguably masks an even greater level of interest and demand. How many more people could we get to see housing associations as something with a daily and valuable relevance to their lives if, unlike Kevin Costner’s parable, you could get your head round it on the first viewing?

These are just thoughts at this stage, which I might very well be wrong about. But what I am sure of, is that we as a sector stand to benefit hugely for a new and emboldened conversation about what our offer around shared ownership is, and what it should look like across the board.

And so I return to where I started this, sitting across from my friend in what I now proudly call MY north London home. It is tiny. (My colleagues often accuse me of “whinging” about this, but that is just my false modesty.) It is beautiful. And it is mine. 

There is a nation of similarly wanting-to-be-homeowners out there. Let’s see this demand as an opportunity, not as a cause for comfort.  Because if nothing else, as mother is fond of saying, “started is half-done” and “a small bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing.”

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