News & Insights

POSTED Tuesday 10-08-21

The Unseen Side of the RSL Sector: Creating ‘Place’ for Communities

Hi, my name is Nigel, and I’m the Director here at Aspen People. Today I’d like to chat about something a little different than our role as an executive search organisation, and highlight the incredible deeds done by RSLs (Registered Social Landlords). As a board member of a housing association myself, I see first-hand the vital work they do keeping communities functioning and afloat, and quite honestly, we need to shout louder about the wonderful things they do. As it stands, their work is underappreciated and under the radar; it is my mission to change this.


For those unfamiliar, a Registered Social Landlord is a person who owns property (as the title ‘landlord’ suggests) but ensures that it is affordable; in other words, they own and provide affordable housing. Our prevailing image of such accommodation is unfortunately unflattering: run-down, overcrowded, dirty, neglected. This kind of housing does sadly exist, and too often unscrupulous landlords profit from these unacceptable conditions. But for RSLs, their story is not one of exploitation, but support. More than providing and maintaining affordable accommodation, they go above and beyond: in other words, they create ‘place’ for communities.


From my time as a housing association board member, I’ve continually seen RSLs commit themselves to forging a community that promotes wellbeing, safety, social harmony, opportunity, guidance, and cultural enrichment. From common greens, streetlights, offices, shops, commercial centres, GPs, village halls, libraries, play parks, and more, RSLs shape communities into liveable and social spaces. If these have always been part of your world, it’s easy to take them for granted. But these very places create the fabric of our society. They are what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would call your ‘habitus’: not merely an environment or wallpaper to your life, but spaces which structure and inform your thoughts and relationships to others. Without places to socialise, learn, unwind, receive advice, and take care of your physical and mental wellbeing, communal relationships become difficult or deteriorate altogether. The ‘place’ RSLs create is crucial not just to individuals looking for affordable housing, but for an overarching goal of promoting the health and growth of the wider community. The best part is that their continual engagement with communities means that they don’t just up and leave when these places are finished being built; they stay to maintain them so that they remain intact for the years and generations to come.


Furthermore, RSLs take the lead on development programmes which includes providing employability training, apprenticeship and job opportunities, citizens’ advice centres regarding debt control and benefit eligibility (run by “community officers”), technological and infrastructural development (such as streetlighting, or acquiring local buildings for communal use), as well as broader engagement and encouragement. They get involved at every scale of the community, be it larger projects like securing office space, or simply supporting local football teams. They help build a community’s physical and emotional resilience in the face of ongoing socio-economic hardship, a monumental feat that (for reasons that elude me) continues to be unsung.


RSLs similarly play an active role in reducing the impact of social issues such as alcohol and drug addiction, gambling addiction, or antisocial behaviour. From mental health and trauma support to services tailored specifically to different age groups, RSL community development and support relies on a model of care rather than punishment to ensure a community’s growth and longevity. For more serious cases of abuse or misbehaviour, RSLs can also act as a middleman between people and the police; this has proven key for communities whose experiences may have led them to fear or mistrust authoritative institutions, and which in turn have caused them to be reluctant to approach the police themselves. As RSLs work closely with the community, they communicate much better with one another and can handle residents’ complaints more effectively and empathetically. Again, community is at the heart of everything they do, and the emphasis on relationships has had a profound and far-reaching impact. A community’s very foundations are forged by the collaborative acts of RSLs and residents under these schemes.


Strange, then, that this is not our prevailing view of affordable housing. These great deeds continue to be unseen, untold, and unacknowledged. As a housing association board member, I felt it necessary to spotlight them for all to see, not just to celebrate the hard work that goes into shaping communities, but to attract others who might be interested in using their talents for the communal good.


If you’d like to read more about the services RSLs provide, the SFHA website is an excellent resource. You can read more about services here: