Housing associations in the UK are facing increasing pressure from multiple fronts to fulfil their social purpose while maintaining financial sustainability.

With greater demands for affordable housing, constrained government funding, rising building costs and expectations to provide wider community benefits, housing association boards need robust strategic planning more than ever.

Regularly reviewing property portfolios and tenure mixes are therefore fundamental to the effective strategic management required in this complex operating environment. By forensically analysing the location, concentrations and conditions of existing stock alongside accurate projections of market demands and demographic shifts, boards can evaluate if their current assets are optimally aligned with the organisational objectives for long-term viability.

Location Analysis

All housing stock exists within a wider ecosystem, with the micro and macro conditions surrounding properties considerably impacting upon occupancy rates, income generation potential and costs associated with maintenance, community services and redevelopment.

Registered providers should assess if their current stock is truly in high demand areas, and if locations align with other key considerations around transport links, employment opportunities, access to amenities and area deprivation levels. For example, a concentration of hard-to-let high rise flats on the outskirts of a city with declining employment prospects may warrant redeveloping for more suitable housing types or even divesting through sales to fund new developments in growth areas.

Assessing the location of existing properties allows registered providers to:

  • Evaluate property demand and value – because location determines rental demand, pricing power, and potential resale value – key profit drivers. Associations can identify higher value and more desirable areas.
  • Minimise vacancies and maximise occupancy – understanding trends in population shifts, local economic activity, and neighbourhood changes allows properties to be priced appropriately and remain attractive to tenants. This in turn reduces voids.
  • Guide new housing investments – location analysis can influence site selection, and design for new housing projects, ensuring investments target high-demand, strategically valuable areas.
  • Mitigate risk exposure – identifying higher-risk locations allows for mitigating actions like targeted upgrades, stricter tenant qualifications, higher reserves, and segmented financial reporting.

There can exist location-related risk factors which registered providers should bear in mind, such as:

  • Pockets of oversupply and high vacancy rates in newer luxury apartment buildings, especially in the city centre area;
  • Falling demand and affordability issues in localities still impacted by the decline of the area specific industries; and
  • Loss of regional competitiveness (if applicable) which could limit future price appreciation.

Ultimately, providers should turn to robust data analysis exercises, and on-the-ground market insights to pinpoint specific high or underperforming assets in order to customize asset management strategies to much greater effect. This includes considerations like divestment, repositioning, renovations, or enhanced marketing efforts to mitigate location-based risks on a property-by-property basis.

Tenure Profile Alignment

Housing association ownership structures span social rent, affordable rent and shared ownership models and the proportions and attributes need consistent evaluation regarding tenant mix impacts on income, asset management costs and avenues for new supply.

Social rents typically deliver lower operating margins but house those most in need while shared ownership models assist ‘squeezed middle’ first-time buyers unable to access market housing.

Boards must strike the right balance between driving financial surpluses to fund wider social purpose aims versus generating higher margins through affordable rent models potentially pricing out lower income groups also requiring housing. For example, time-limited targets could be set to increase access for specific under-represented demographic groups.

Responding to Demographic Shifts

Associations also need strategic foresight on demographic changes driving local housing needs, such as ageing populations requiring specialist, or supported housing alongside the sustained demand from lower-income families and key workers. Assessments of adaptability within existing assets can therefore highlight investment priorities.

Community Benefits Analysis

Where properties exist within communities, there is a reasonable expectation for housing associations to consider wider community benefits during strategic reviews of stock and tenure. Most pertinently, if retaining or acquiring properties in an area, what are the costs, opportunities and social impacts relating to existing residents plus the surrounding neighbourhoods?

For example, housing vulnerable or elderly social rent tenants may require adapting homes or providing additional support services and therefore, are locations conducive for this, or could vulnerabilities be exacerbated through isolation?

For younger affordable rent tenants, are transport, training and employment opportunities accessible nearby to assist social mobility?

Where community amenities and economic prospects appear limited, boards may determine that divesting assets is preferential for residents, neighbourhoods and the association itself if managing sustained tenancy issues, anti-social behaviour or low occupancy rates.

Conclusion

While thorough strategic stock and tenure analysis is undoubtedly extensive, time-consuming and at times difficult, regular reviews of the portfolio allows housing associations to course-correct asset bases to drive financial, social and community interests with a transparent, balanced methodology.

This upholds resilience against rising external pressures and uncertainty, which could ultimately benefit thousands of affordable housing residents across the UK who rely on the strategic effectiveness of housing association boards directing these vitally important property assets.

To see other articles written by Joanna Lee-Mills, head over to her personal profile.

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Published: 15th February 2024
Area: Social Housing

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Joanna heads up our social housing development team. Her expertise encompasses advising on social housing development transactions, from site assemblies to larger scale phased sales and purchases.

Having acted for registered providers since 2001, Joanna’s expertise encompasses all aspects of affordable housing acquisitions, sales and development and is often the primary interface on multi-disciplinary projects involving cross-departmental working.

Joanna has previously worked at Birmingham city law practices and has a wealth of experience in larger scale social housing projects, including stock rationalisation transactions, stock swaps and transfers.

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