As we slip out of 2020 and into 2021, let's not forget what the last year has brought, with lockdowns and social distancing creating a significant shift towards home working and home schooling. The start of mass vaccination may, hopefully, be (at least) the end of the beginning of the pandemic - but it won't be quick and it won't be a simple rewind to what went before. Property, and community building, isn't a switch on/switch off thing, and the repurposing of residential stock to support a sudden shift in how and why residents use their homes is a significant challenge to development and asset management teams for Registered Providers.

First of all - what about restrictive covenants? For many reasons, property developers are used to fixing covenants on their scheme titles to limit the use of dwellings to "residential" purposes, typically not catering for longer-term home working uses. True, many home owners and tenants don't look at their title deeds after they've moved in, but you have to wonder if the shift to greater home working is banking a management/litigation issue for down the line. No-one is likely to charge off to the Upper Tribunal to seek covenant releases, and this is unlikely to create a busy market for top-up title insurance, but maybe this shift should give some pause for thought for developers, to bring a more "live-work" mentality to their scheme document drafting.

Secondly, there's the challenge of physical space. Residential property is "right-sized" for residential use, without allowing for additional home office space - and this has not been helped by the shameful benefit grab of "bedroom tax". Social housing tenants generally won't have spare bedroom space for home offices and home schooling. Garden offices and loft conversions are not generally the preserve of social housing tenants, so space for work and study at home is at a premium. 

Coupled with space constraints is the whole issue of affordability - land comes at a cost for developers, as does internet connectivity, and larger houses cost more and don't necessarily attract buyers or tenants. Think of it all as key infrastructure provision, as well as community building. Investment in housing infrastructure comes at a cost, and the rent setting regime doesn't cater for a premium just because the dwellings have better broadband - benefits don't support a spare bedroom for home schooling. Unlike PRS, Registered Providers are there to ensure that the basics are right for their customers, and 'hoteling' of services isn't something that social rented tenants generally will have any interest in. There is a key market segment where the primary requirement is housing provision, and opportunities for discretionary spend is limited - let's not forget that, and let's not see these people left behind.

There's a lot to think about in future "design for life and living" with social housing - housing stock can't be rejigged quickly or cheaply, and the need is acute, even if the changes need to be sustained for the longer term. Affordability, accessibility, and deliverability are all part of the challenge for builders, planners and end users if we are going to support our sector stakeholders and truly deliver equality of opportunity for all in these challenging times.