Last night I met Mike. He was sat on a bench outside a Marks and Spencer’s store, he was in a grey hoody and a black baseball cap lay upside down in his lap.

He was homeless. And had nowhere to go.

He’d put together a makeshift bed in a car park. His cap had £18 in it and he told me he was trying to get £30, so he could get a room at a nearby B&B. He hoped to get enough before it started to rain.

I’ve worked in social housing for about six years now, not that long really, but when I meet people like Mike it makes me realise why what we do as a sector is so important, and getting more important all the time.

But, with all the talk of the government (and the Office of National Statistics) changes making it harder for housing associations to achieve their social purpose, I wanted to ask what really is the housing association sector, and what is it here for?

What is the housing association sector?

Housing associations are not-for-profit businesses that provide social housing. Simple. Right?

Housing associations look after more than 2.7m homes/bed spaces (government’s words, not mine). That’s a staggering number. Think of all the people that have made those places a home, or benefited from a warm bed on a cold night when they needed it most.

But the beauty of housing associations is there is just no one-size-fits-all description.

There are over 1,500 housing associations across the country, but around 80% of them are smaller, local charities that own less than 1,000 homes each. Meanwhile the top 5% own more than half the stock.

At one end of the alphabet you have A2Dominion, a 35,000-home association and major property developer. At the other, Zebra, a smaller housing association providing homes and support for international students and their families that come to London, particularly those from developing countries.

So what are we here for?

Social purpose is a big, broad phrase – but what does it mean?

Some build, a lot. Last year just the 50 largest developing housing associations built 40,213 new homes.

Many don’t. But all do amazing things for their community.

Some provide thousands of beds every night to those in greatest need, others have safe places for single women or homes for the over 55s. There’s specialist mental health care and support for people trying to get into work.

That’s not to mention affordable homeownership, something the government is pretty keen on right now.

So when we talk about a housing sector, I don’t think that phrase does justice to the diversity, the reach and the impact these organisations have.

What’s the future?

Even after just six years, it feels to me like times are changing fast.

More welfare reform, rent reductions, Right to Buy, pay to stay, local authority spending cuts, the reclassification/deregulation/privatisation hokey-cokey.

It’s a complicated and potentially toxic policy cocktail.

It’s making everyone, across the sector, think hard about what their social purpose really is – and how they can deliver it.

Is it about putting an affordable roof over the heads of those in work, but struggling on a low income? Is it to support the homeless? Is it to help the elderly live independent lives? Do we fill the service gaps that our local authority partners can no longer fill?

Today is #housingday, a rare opportunity for the sector to come together and celebrate the difference these 1,500 organisations make every day. I’m really looking forward to seeing the variation and diversity in the stories, to see the scale and breadth of that social purpose.

And the challenge for each business, given the intense pressure from government, will be to find the sustainable balance between that simple definition of providing affordable housing – and going further, offering something extra.

But let’s not forget about Mike, and so many like him, who don’t have a safe, secure place to call home. Yet.

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