In London and the south east private sector rents can be as much as four times those charged for social housing. People on low incomes who have not managed to access the very limited number of social housing tenancies are, through their taxes, subsidising the lucky few who have.
Subsidised rents can also limit mobility and choice. If you have a tenancy for life and want to move under the current system, you either have the very difficult task of finding another social rented property or you have to make the big leap to paying private rent or buying. For many, this feels like no choice at all and they are effectively prevented from moving.
A fairer and more sensible approach would be to means test rent subsidy as we do other parts of our social safety net, such as housing benefit or income support.
Charging an intermediate or market rent for those who have found well-paid work would free up significant resources which could be used to build more social housing and upgrade existing stock.
It would also make it easier for social housing tenants in work to move, if they want to, because it would make the transition to renting at market levels gradual and manageable.
More social housing tenants may also choose to buy a property - once paying market rent, buying starts to seem an achievable option.
I would positively encourage housing association tenants to buy the home they are renting, in part or in full, so long as they pay near market price and that money is available to build more affordable housing. This helps to achieve strong, balanced communities.
What I am proposing does not need be complicated or expensive to administer. You could have three levels of rent - social, intermediate and market - which a household could move between depending on their income. Tenure remains secure, but rent varies over time according to ability to pay.
To keep things simple, households could be assessed by their landlord when they cease to be eligible for housing benefit and then at regular intervals, say every three years.
This challenges one of the sacred cows of social housing. But the financial crisis, and the inevitable squeeze on public spending, demands that the housing sector, like every other, asks hard questions about how we can best use our limited resources.
Subsidised tenancies for life have never made sense and the case for ending them is stronger now than it has ever been.
Karen Wilson is chief executive of Origin Housing Group