Our editor Kate Allen is participating in a live webchat on the Guardian's Housing Network today - do join her!
... That is the question. Or at least, it was the question yesterday, at Social Housing magazine's inaugural seminar on profit-making registered providers.
The timing was great, with the first two major for-profit RPs having just received the Tenant Services Authority's blessing - although this has not yet been officially announced. Key questions on the table for our panel of expert speakers included: what benefits does registration offer? What hurdles must be overcome to complete the registration process? What is the difference between functioning as a profit-making provider and being a not-for-profit? How will profit-making landlords be regulated? What standard of service will they be expected to deliver? And to what extent might they access funds from institutional investors?
While the core registration process and the regulator's expectations have become fairly clear, the main message from the day was that some major outstanding questions remain. In particular, the regulator is deeply concerned about the prospect of for-profit RPs acquiring existing social housing stock. Much of the ongoing wrangling between the TSA and the aspiring registrants focuses on how the historic grant which has been invested in these properties will be protected from potential asset-stripping by an RP's parent organisation.
There is also the issue of future stock: how will long-term investment in the stock be ensured? This is fundamentally about the balance between profit-taking and maintenance spending when distributing rental income. It's an area which the regulator would find hard to micro-manage, even if it wanted to - which it doesn't.
The TSA is clear that it would rather spend a bit of time getting the initial set-up right before it begins to register for-profits, rather than attempt to untangle these issues retrospectively, once the situation has gone live. And other potential registrants have been open about the fact that they are waiting to see how the initial tranche of candidates fares, before bringing forward their own plans.
Full coverage of the seminar will of course appear in the next issue of the magazine.
The ongoing media furore over the government's planned benefit reforms and the creation of the capped universal credit has focused quite rightly on the issue of rents. One of the largest payments to families in receipt of benefits is housing benefit, and much of that goes to private sector landlords. It is worth noting that housing benefit does not currently pass through the pockets of many households, being paid instead direct to the landlord (although along with many other things this is scheduled to change, a matter of great concern for social housing landlords who fear a spike in arrears rates as a result). The very concept of the fabled '£26,000' cap on household benefits income is therefore open to challenge on the basis that these households do not actually see a large proportion of that money - the rent charged is purely a transaction between the government and their landlord.
Private sector rents have been rising strongly in recent years, and are forecast to continue to do so. As the housing benefit bill rises it is therefore unsurprising that the government should wish to limit it. Capping benefit payments is a demand-side action which seeks to deflate the lower end of the rental market. But is capping benefits the most effective way in which to do this?
The legislation already exists to moderate lower-quartile private sector rents in a much less messy, more humane fashion. As Labour MP Dr Eion Clarke points out, the government already possesses the ability to regulate the rents which private landlords charge - and indeed used to do so.
So, if it wishes to moderate its housing benefit bill efficiently (in terms of parliamentary time) and effectively (in terms of producing the desired effect on lower-quartile private sector rents), why does the government not simply amend the relevant existing legislation and re-enact rent controls for the private sector?
Is it, perhaps, insufficiently politically sexy?