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Opinion

Why we need to change the narrative for social housing

Politicians’ rhetoric and negative portrayals in the press have intensified the stigma around social housing tenants for decades. That needs to change to tackle the housing crisis, say academics Mercy Denedo and Amanze Ejiogu

Social housing tenants are usually stigmatised and kept at the margins of public discourse.

The Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017 went some way to illuminate the stigma experienced by social housing tenants by shedding light on the ineffective discriminatory and dismissive complaints procedures, and the implications of ignoring social housing tenants when demanding repairs or accountability from their social landlords and the council.

It is difficult to grasp why people are treated differently because they live in social housing. Indeed, social housing stigma is a very complex problem to understand. Trying to understand the origins of this stigma, how it is experienced and how it is being challenged led us on a journey; meeting with residents, speaking with housing associations and landlords, advocacy agencies and government officials, and other actors in the social housing sector. This resulted in our report titled Stigma and Social Housing in England.

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What we found was that before 1970, there was not much stigma associated with social housing and its occupants. Where there was a stigma, this was as a result of the build quality and poor planning of the social housing estates. As a result of the quality of the estates, over time, a stigmatising perspective emerged – social homes were seen as cheap and poor quality housing. From about 1970, we saw that there was an intensification of the stigma associated with social housing which stemmed from government policies of promoting homeownership while holding social housing out to be a tenure of last resort. The government’s policies post-1970 such as adopting a needs-based allocation policy, depletion of social housing through the Right to Buy scheme led to a residualisation of social housing and exacerbated the stigma associated for tenants. This means social housing is cast as temporary, inferior, tenure of last resort and a springboard for homeownership or something better than social rents.

Politics and politicians’ rhetoric on social housing also helped drive the intensification of the stigma as politicians on all sides of the aisle have stigmatised social housing as a means of justifying their housing and benefits policies. The media has also played a significant role in stigmatising. Participants in our study repeatedly pointed at the negative portrayal of social housing and its residents in the news and TV programmes such as “Benefits Street” and “Skint” is deeply stigmatising. Indeed, the media portrayal of social housing tenants as work-shy, lazy, unemployed, anti-social, benefits cheat, the underclass, poor, uneducated and lacking in aspirations and estates as zones of criminality, sink estates and drug-infested have shaped political and national/societal discourse around social homes.

To have the best chance of absolute eradication of social housing stigma in the UK, we need a collective consensusMercy Denedo and Amanze Ejiogu

Mercy Denedo and Amanze Ejiogu

In addition, several of the participants in our study pointed at the housing providers (housing associations and local authorities) as contributing to their stigmatization. Specifically, they pointed at the paternalistic attitude of housing associations and their staff – with social housing landlords often portraying themselves as the heroes protecting the neediest and most vulnerable people.

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Stigma was experienced by social housing tenants in a variety of ways and settings. We found evidence of tenants experiencing stigma through their interactions with homeowners and neighbours (particularly leaseholders), potential employers, at school, in meetings with their GPs and via their engagement with the police. For instance, we had examples of social housing tenants who reported that they were not offered a job because of their postcode with potential employers advising them to change their postcode if they want to be employed.

We also saw that stigma was much more complex than usually presented as it intersects with other societal stigmas around poverty, benefits and unemployment, race and immigration, crime, and mental health and disabilities. This implies that social housing stigma cannot be addressed without a considerable and effective programme of actions to tackle the interconnected stigmas.

So, what needs to change to address social housing stigma? Should we brush it under the rug and assume that it is an abstract concept with no real damaging impacts on social housing and its tenants?

The Westminster government has tried to address stigma through the regeneration of estates and mixed tenure developments but this has not worked.

Housing providers, advocacy groups such as the See the Person Campaign, the Chartered Institute of Housing, the National Housing Federation among others are working to tackle stigma. For instance, the See the Person Campaign group published The Fair Press for Tenants Guide for journalists, asking for fair, factual and representative coverage of social housing stories. The National Housing Federation in 2020 launched the Together with Tenants Charter to bridge the accountability gaps between social housing providers and their tenants to improve the quality of services provided to the tenants. However, the impact of these initiatives is yet to be known or explored.

What is obvious from our study is that stigma has to be addressed and it will require a collective, sustainable and inclusive programme of actions deliberately designed to minimise or eliminate its impacts. To have the best chance of absolute eradication of the stigma in the UK, we need a collective consensus – deliberate effort made by all stakeholders at the same time including politicians, the media, housing providers, advocacy groups, professional and tenants’ bodies, social housing tenants and wider society.

This movement needs to be driven via the sheer recognition of housing as a basic human right and that everyone would not be able to afford to buy a home, and therefore will need a safe, high-quality and affordable shelter to call home alongside a non-discriminatory assessable complaint procedure.

As reported by the National Housing Federation in its People in Housing Need report which found that nearly eight million people in England are experiencing some form of housing need and for which approximately 3.8 million people, social homes will be the most appropriate tenure. If we are to address the housing crisis and provide the necessary support for homeless people and those in need of affordable and safe housing, the stigma associated with social housing estates and tenants need to be tackled head-on and should not be continuously brushed under the rug.

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And this is what our research calls for. We are advocating for a sustained programme directed towards addressing negative societal perceptions and stereotyping rhetoric on social housing and its tenants.

To further our work, and to take perhaps the first co-ordinated step toward social change, we have invited government officials, organisations, and other interested parties to respond to our study by providing their perspectives on what the purpose of social housing should be and whether it should be recognised as a fundamental human right.

From this, we intend to produce a set of society-wide recommendations for how politicians, media and other bodies of social power should be encouraged to drop stigmatising language, how to give residents a greater voice and how to make providers more accountable to their tenants. 

Mercy Denedo is an Assistant Professor in Accounting at Durham University Business School and Amanze Ejiogu is an Associate Professor in Accounting at the University of Leicester. Responses to their consultation can be submitted anonymously to stigmaconsultation@gmail.com until October 31st

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