Post- Grenfell, social housing is back on the political agenda, and with it comes the inevitable subject of stigmatisation.
I’d argue the problem we are trying to fix has never been correctly diagnosed — what exactly is this stigma and who is driving it?
There are lots of people living in social housing who identify with no such stigma, and do not feel they are poor, vulnerable or need protecting. The problem is we rarely hear from them.
That’s not to say stigma doesn’t exist. The Social Housing Green Paper describes how tenants at the engagement events often feel they are treated as “second class citizens” and “benefits scroungers”, rather than “honest and hardworking”.
This is backed up by wider research, such as the Fabians report from 2016. which revealed less than a third of people said they would be happy if they or their family lived in social housing. In the housing hierarchy — it’s the tenure of last resort.
Or is it?
Listening to the public, and forming policy on anecdotal evidence can be a dangerous game. The British public are wrong about almost everything, including levels of immigration, crime and spending on pensions and health.
My contention is that talk of a ‘social housing stigma’ bundles a lot of disparate issues into one catch-all phrase. Breaking these issues down makes them easier problems to solve.
Indeed, the problem isn’t social housing, it’s two different trends that we are in danger of conflating.
The continued demonisation of the poor
Poor bashing is nothing new. A by-product of capitalism and neoliberalism, it exists in most societies worldwide:
You’re poor: you didn’t try hard enough.
Laying the blame squarely on the media, and in particular on shows like Benefits Street, is naive.
The irony is that Benefits Street was one of the only TV shows that allowed poor people to speak for themselves. The professionals who helped and, sometimes, hindered their lives were mercifully absent. By comparison, the sectors own use of the media has often been hamfisted — portraying professionals as ‘housing heroes’ who rescue the feckless.
This paternalism still exists — we are always hearing landlords talk about ‘turning people’s lives around’ and protecting ‘the neediest and vulnerable’, a phrase that’s used endlessly.
We need to move away from focussing on what’s wrong and seek out the skills and inventiveness of local communities, rather than foisting more housing services on them.
More authentic tenant voices are finally emerging, not through the mainstream media, but within local communities and social media. The latter in particular could be a net gain in how we rearticulate and revisit the purpose of social housing.
We need to move away from casting ourselves as professionals and experts to be listened to. This gives the impression of an exclusive club, populated by those in the know, who are using their exclusive access to solve problems and design services on behalf of tenants.
The solution is to transform our organisations to reconnect with their roots and to rediscover the campaigning zeal of the social movements of the 1960s. One built around the dignity of people, and a modern sense of trust, solidarity and compassion.
The championing of home ownership
The second issue, seeing homeownership as the pinnacle of the housing ladder, is a more recent development.
You simply cannot reduce any stigma around social housing if you imply people should get out of it as soon as practical. This is actually reinforced by people talking about ‘their beginnings in social housing’. The fact is a lot of sector advocates of social housing didn’t remain there — they bought a home of their own and got out as soon as they could.
Homeownership for the masses is a historical blip affecting just one or two generations. There’s no evidence to suggest it’s a sustainable model for the future. None of us have any idea what the job market will look like in ten years time, never mind fifty, yet we are building homes to last 100 years.
The green paper underlines a commitment to fixing the ‘broken system’ by getting more people on the housing ladder. The problem with a ladder is there’s always someone at the bottom.
This national obsession with home ownership as nirvana, together with a continued undersupply of truly affordable homes, is creating a rationed and sidelined product ripe for stigmatisation.
If we don’t challenge this narrative of vulnerable communities, of housing winners and losers, we’ll not only fail to fight stigma, we’ll be complicit in its continuation.