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Fixing The Social Housing Stigma

 

 

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I’ve been reflecting on the “stigmatisation” of the social housing sector – highlighted as a core issue to solve in the Housing Green paper 2018 – and digesting many of the responses. 

I’m pleased there’s a focus on this important topic; it’s long overdue, certainly at a political level. There’s been much discussion about how we got to this point, where social housing tenants and the sector are suffering from a profound image problem. But the analysis seems to have missed the bigger picture, focusing on the symptoms and not the root cause. 

In my view there’s a real danger that Government will try to solve this challenge by thinking about the tenant enquiries in MP’s mailbags and not the real source of the problem. If they do that, we’ll have missed a massive opportunity; an opportunity that may never come round again. 

The green paper specifically references MP’s case work issues as a reason for stigma existing – for example, the way complaints are handled. It’s probably true that this is what politicians hear about most frequently, but if you take a longer term perspective it’s obvious that it’s not the real root cause. Other examples cited, such as repairs taking too long, or the lack of resident involvement in decision making, are similarly not the core issue in my opinion. 

While they’re all important and landlords need to do more work on them, they’re not the reasons behind the public’s perception of social housing. If we don’t understand how we got here, then the easy way out will be for regulation to focus on the wrong things and we won’t get wholesale change. In fact, stigma will continue to grow. 

The fate of Housing Associations is inextricably linked to that of our residents. We’ve been on the same journey as tenants, navigating a maze of policies and rhetoric for years. There are some who would like to split housing associations away from their tenants - to say we’re on opposite sides - but that’s simply not the case. We know we’re not perfect, but individual examples of poor service are not a true measure of the sector’s interconnection with the people it serves. The best organisations stand shoulder to shoulder with their residents, supporting their needs and defending their rights. 

So how did we end up here?

The ‘stigmatisation’ of the social housing sector really got traction in the 1980’s, with the introduction of Right To Buy. Councils were prevented from building new social housing, the proceeds from RTB were not ring fenced for new social homes, and so a decline begun. 

With housing becoming more and more limited, lettings policies were changed to move allocation systems away from housing a wide range of "working poor" to focus mainly on the most vulnerable. 

Over a number of years, ‘needs’ based letting policies slowly chipped away at social mobility. Other regimes worked in parallel to further residualise and create mono tenure neighbourhoods. Housing Benefit was capped and made harder to access. Supporting People funding was decentralised and cut. Specialist housing services were shut down in huge numbers and vulnerable people were effectively prevented from moving outside their borough boundaries; not for work, not for their care, not for anything. 

People on the waiting lists started waiting years. Others were placed in costly temporary accommodation and B&Bs. A period of renewed investment in the social housing sector in the 1990s and early noughties was welcome but the cuts returned more aggressively after the credit crunch. 

It was during this time that it became common to hear mainstream politicians and the media talking about ‘workers and shirkers’. The word ‘fairness’ was weaponised, and used to justify the reduction of support for the most vulnerable. This political rhetoric was used to promote home ownership as the only viable and desirable solution for ‘hard working families’. 

Social housing tenants were stereotyped and so were their landlords. They were portrayed as the problem. In fact social housing was said to encourage ‘low aspirations’ and was promoted as housing of last resort. Grant funding for new affordable homes was effectively turned off and Government investment was switched to ‘aspirational' home ownership products. 

This is how it was until the 2017 General Election when, for the first time in two generations, people voted with housing in mind. That, coupled with the tragic events at Grenfell Tower, changed media and political conversation and brought the question of stigma to the fore. 

That’s why I don’t believe that the sector’s ‘stigma’ can be addressed by organising a few street parties or by focusing on what’s in MP’s constituency in-trays. The problem has been a long time in the making; if you want to change the reputation of the sector and its tenants one needs to respond to the policies which have created it over the past 30 years. 

The issue has four pillars:

  • the gross under-supply of affordable homes;
  • unbalanced letting policies which fail to house a wide spectrum of low income people;
  • a lack of funding for vulnerable people who need support to lead independent lives; and finally
  • a political rhetoric which associates social housing with low aspiration. 

Address all those and - in time - perceptions will change.

If politicians want to put an end to stigma then these are pillars they must address. My ask is that they really think about the bigger picture and resist the temptation to focus on simply regulation and case work.


Comment via LinkedIn.

If politicians want to put an end to stigma then these are pillars they must address. My ask is that they really think about the bigger picture and resist the temptation to focus on simply regulation and case work.



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