For those living in social housing, the extreme stigmatisation of estates has had an impact on everything from employment to healthcare. Through documentary analysis, focus groups and interviews, Dr Mercy Denedo and Dr Amanze Ejiogu are working towards an in-depth understanding of the problem.
'Sink estates'. 'Zones of criminality'. 'Drug infested'... These are just a few of the common phrases routinely used to describe social housing estates in the UK - communities that account for 17% of the UK's housing stock and are home to more than 3.9 million people. And the number is growing. According to a government report, from April to September 2020 (there were 76,000 new social housing lettings in the first 6months of 2020/21), a decrease of 49,000 or 39% compared with the same months of 2019. The decrease in social housing lettings has been linked to the lack of government investment in building social housing and government policies to prioritising homeownership. Together, these factors have resulted in the residualisation of social housing stock for the poorest and the most vulnerable tenants. As a result of negative societal perceptions of social housing, resulting in part from its residualisation, families living in such dwellings are tarred with a biased brush and assumed to be 'work shy', 'uneducated', 'lazy', 'getting something for nothing', 'benefit scroungers' or 'lacking in aspiration'.
The depth of the problem is shocking. Like all stereotypes this perspective is not only widely unfair, it is also highly damaging - it is bad enough that society in general might hold this opinion of a person because of their postcode, but what about when that perception is held by or influences the actions of their landlord, their local MP, their employer or even their family GP? Unfortunately, it took a tragedy - the Grenfell Tower fire disaster in London, that led to the death of 72 council-housing tenants - to render visible for the debilitating impacts of these dehumanising perceptions. In the years following that event in June 2017, the experiences of those living in social housing within the building have become a tragic yet vitally important case study into how social housing stigma can perpetuate and adversely affect a household or community at every level of their day-to-day lives, making them feel like 'second class citizens'.
Whilst the official enquiry into the events that led to the Grenfell Tower fire is still going on, we, Dr Amanze Ejiogu of Newcastle University (formerly at the University of Leicester) and I, became inspired to investigate and to develop an in-depth understanding of how stigma is constructed, experienced and challenged in social housing in England. We set out to study how actors in the social housing sector in England (tenants, politicians, social housing providers (including the councils), the media, etc.) contribute to the construction of stigma; how tenants (and other actors) have experienced stigma and its impact on them; and then how social housing stigma is being challenged by different actors (including advocacy groups, tenants' bodies and trade bodies) in England. Through our work, we tried to understand exactly why this has become an accepted norm, how stigma manifests itself in tenants' lives, how it has been challenged previously and why such actions have been ineffective.
Our report, Stigma and Social Housing in England, includes consultations not only with tenants but also with social housing landlords (housing associations and council housing providers), government officials, trade bodies and advocacy agencies - conducted through 45 individual semi-structured interviews and 29 focus groups with over 200 participants - to gain a wider perspective on the core issues at play. In addition, we conducted an in-depth review of the role of the media in setting, encouraging and reinforcing the stigma of the social housing sector over the years. Lastly, we reviewed the effectiveness of social media campaigns and activities by social housing advocacy groups and other bodies.
The report reveals several concerning yet important findings, highlighting government policy and messaging to be at the crux of the issue as a key influencer of public opinion. For example, the government has, for too long, promoted homeownership as the ideal living standard for society to attain. In contrast, the idea of social housing has become less desirable, side-lined for those who cannot (or will not) achieve homeowner status - the neediest members of society and, as such, the bottom rung of the social ladder.
The problem has been further compounded by how the government has directed and allowed social housing to be structured over the years, from clustering purpose-built social housing within communities, to the creation of specific entrances - dubbed 'poor doors' - for the socially-supported tenants of private accommodation blocks to use. Such actions have created a physical separation between private and social renters and, as a result, social housing communities have become easy targets for criticism. For example, deliberately locating those with additional care needs or vulnerabilities together in a specific area of a town or city not only further reinforces social divides but also makes such locations vulnerable to negative influence and crime. Such social problems reinforce stigma. The media then affirms such perspectives in its reporting.
Our study also revealed how stigma influences the landlord - tenant relationship. Interviewees described the damage caused by the seemingly paternalistic attitudes of landlords and workmen contracted to carry out works at their homes, who failed to consider or acknowledge residents' needs, feelings and even basic rights. Through interviewing tenants, we encountered a common and longstanding complaint about the typically poor maintenance of socially-owned property and of being ignored by their landlords and disrespected when requesting repairs to be made. To add insult to injury, tenants also revealed their frustrations with ineffective complaint procedures that often made them feel powerless.
We also recorded evidence of stigma at play within the local community, with some interviewees sharing experiences of receiving poor service from their GP practice or a seemingly lesser amount of care or attention from emergency services. In some instances, interviewees revealed that they had been denied employment opportunities after disclosing their social housing status or address to a potential employer.
It is a bleak outlook, but we would be wrong to say that the problem had gone unchecked and unchallenged until now. In fact, the government has made efforts to reduce - even eradicate - social stigma. Housing associations have been retraining their staff and are attempting to give residents a greater voice. However, these projects have had limited effects.
The reason, we believe, is that too much attention has been focused on surface-level fixes. These include attempts to rebrand social housing by making communities look more appealing, through government planning policies encouraging mixed tenured estates and the regeneration of social housing estates. Whilst these projects are well-intentioned, the problem is much more complex. A key challenge is that social housing intersects with many other societal stigmas at play. Our report found that poverty and benefit stigma, crime stigma, mental health stigma, disability stigma, race and immigration stigma all interlink with general perceptions of those living in social housing. Isolating just one stigma to fix another will ultimately prove unsuccessful. A bigger societal shift needs to occur to address the stigma associated with social housing estates and their tenants.
It is a mammoth challenge, requiring every part of society to pull together. As a starting point, Amanze and I have made some recommendations to the government, politicians, the media, housing providers and tenants. These include:
Adopting a rights-based approach to housing that positions access to affordable housing as a fundamental human right
Discouraging policies that encourage the residualisation of social housing
Taking action to better address the acute shortage of safe and affordable housing
Developing policies that recognise the intersection of social housing stigma with other stigmas
Facilitating stronger tenant voices at local, regional and national levels
Redesigning the regulatory and governance arrangements to make social housing providers more accountable to tenants
Encouraging fairer media reporting on stories relating to social housing.
Furthermore, our work does not end here. We have also invited these parties to respond to our study by offering their own perspectives on the purpose of social housing and whether it should be recognised as a fundamental human right. Our consultation concluded at the end of October. Our respondents' feedback, along with our own investigations, will guide us in producing a set of society-wide recommendations on how politicians, the media and other bodies of social power can be encouraged to drop stigmatising language, give residents a greater voice and make social housing providers more accountable to their tenants.