It could be argued Welsh Government has created conditions that make Rebecca Evans job easier. Partnerships are working, grant funding is available and cross-department collaboration continues. Evans calls it a “wonderful sector to work in” and says she has been struck by “the energy, enthusiasm and desire to do more”.
Before joining the Welsh Assembly in 2011, Evans worked for a disability charity, where she realised it was “very clear” housing plays an important role in health and social care.
“People can have housing-led solutions to their health or social care needs and that good housing is absolutely critical to people’s health and wellbeing,” she says. “I think that is better understood now than it ever has been.”
One of the key differences between Wales and other regions in the UK is that housing is now seen as a basic human right. Although not able to enact it in law, Evans says “it can form a basis of everything we do and be the spirit of how we take forward our housing agenda”.
She says this is shown in the Housing First pilots currently underway in the country: “We are really clear that for a project to be Housing First it has to stick to the principles.
“You can’t just dress up supported living and call it Housing First, it is not the same thing. So for Housing First to work here in Wales, the first – principle it has to stick to is that housing is a human right. We operate within that spirit.”
Recently, the housing sector provided its final evidence to the Housing Review, a year-long project looking to explore the future of housing in Wales.
Community Housing Cymru, which first proposed the Review, called for rent-setting flexibility and future grant levels.
CIH Cymru backed these proposals, saying it was “vital” for the sector. But what does Evans want to see as the outcome?
“This review will not inform what we do over the next couple of years,” she says. “Really, it is a longer term piece of work looking at stretching building targets, higher quality homes and more innovative homes too.
“Often you have a review when things go badly, but housing in Wales is really strong, with good relationships with the sector, building more affordable homes and so forth. Having a review when things are going well gives us a real opportunity to look down the road at the challenges that are coming, such as decarbonisation and future rents.”
One of the most pressing issues is affordability. Social and affordable housing is becoming more unaffordable for many in the country, and there are concerns that, with the goal of raising quality standards, it will become harder for housing associations and others to build homes that are affordable for those who need them.
Evans dismisses this argument. “I think affordability and quality have to go hand in hand,” she says. “You can’t have wonderful quality housing that no one can afford to live in. Equally, you can’t expect people to live in housing that is sub-quality standard.
“We recognise that people can’t live a prosperous life if they aren’t in a safe, affordable and high-quality home. We will be considering everything within the context of affordability, particularly in times of austerity.
“Part of the review will look at rent. How do we set rents in the future that balances affordability for tenants with the ability for RSLs to keep building houses as well?
“I think we can also think imaginatively about affordability.
“Welsh Government launched a project with some of the mortgage lenders that takes into account energy efficiency of homes when people are applying for a mortgage through Help to Buy. So potentially people could have a larger mortgage for homes that have greater energy efficiency.
“I think in the future the way we build homes will change, and that will enable us to think afresh about affordability.”
But due to the lack of supply of affordable or social rented homes, tenants have been forced into the private rented sector, where they are often either refused due to being on benefits or simply unable to keep up with rent payments.
Evans says she “knows the role the private rented sector is playing in meeting our housing need” and is looking to work closely with the sector to encourage more landlords to take on those who are on benefits.
She points towards “untapped opportunities” within Rent Smart Wales and the possibility of providing bond schemes for those landlords on the register.
As our chat draws to a close we offer Evans a magic wand. What is the one thing she would fix if she had the power?
“I think I would like to see some of our actions on homelessness come to fruition. Tackling the really sharp end of homelessness would be something I would definitely wave my magic wand for.”