by Mercy Denedo (Durham University Business School) and Amanze Ejiogu (Newcastle University Business School)
Stigma and Social Housing in England published in July 2021 revealed how social housing stigma impacts every aspect of residents’ lives. It highlighted how stigma was evident in interactions with local councils, housing providers, employment agencies, neighbours, the police, local GP surgeries, schools, amongst others and how these impacted negatively on the life chances of residents. Indeed, residents told us of being tarred with a biased brush and assumed to be 'work shy', 'uneducated', 'lazy', 'getting something for nothing', 'benefit scroungers' or 'lacking in aspiration'.
While it is hard to fathom why such stigmatization occurs, it is the reality faced by many people and their families who are living in socially rented accommodation in England. Through documentary analysis, focus groups and interviews, Stigma and Social Housing in England provided an in-depth understanding of the problem. It showed that social housing stigma is much more complex than is usually assumed because it intersects with other stigmas such as poverty stigma, crime stigma, mental health and disabilities, and race and immigration stigma. Several of these intersections are direct results of the residualization of social housing. It also showed geographic and generational variations in the intensity of stigma in England.
The report noted that challenging stigma needs a collective and concerted effort by stakeholders. To facilitate stakeholder and societal dialogue on challenging social housing stigma, we opened our findings up for a consultation by proposing a set of seven questions which are as follows:
Responses were received from social and council housing tenants/residents, local council, professional and trade bodies, policymakers, housing associations, housing professionals, executive and board members, advocacy groups and tenants’ representative bodies. Our analysis of the responses to the consultation has resulted in this report titled “Stigma and Social Housing in England: feedback on the consultation responses” and a policy briefing titled “Reducing social housing stigma in England: recommendations for the housing sector”.
In this report, our findings indicate that social housing should provide affordable and decent standard accommodation for all who choose to live in social housing. It should also be there to offer secure tenancies to those on low incomes, those seeking work, on benefits, the homeless, migrants, and those unable to afford market rents. Similar to our findings in Stigma and Social Housing in England, this consultation indicates that the residualization of social housing and the shortage of social housing caused the depletion of social housing stock, particularly through the Right to buy scheme. This consultation suggests that the lack of investment in building social housing despite the enormous sale of social housing stocks through the Right to Buy are key drivers of social housing stigma. This is because the limited available stocks are residualized to those classified as the poorest and most vulnerable group in society. To tackle stigma, investment in social housing and affordability of social housing should be at the core of government housing policies to ensure that social homes are not only available but should meet the needs of a diverse set of people and levels of income that people can afford. This will make social housing tenure of choice rather than the tenure of last resort. In also ensuring that investment in social housing is driven through effective government housing policies; to tackle stigma, there is a need to embed human rights framing to the provision of social housing.
Similar to our findings in Stigma and Social Housing in England, in this consultation report, our respondents highlighted that politicians use stigmatizing language to justify their housing and welfare policies, and this influence and shape the media and societal narratives/perceptions of social housing. Our respondents overwhelmingly recommended that this needs to change. Politicians need to develop a better understanding of social housing and its purpose to tackle stigma. This report suggests that the housing sector (stakeholders) has a key role to play in holding politicians accountable when found to have stigmatized social housing and its occupants, and in publicizing the positive stories. However, policymakers are recommended to raise the awareness of stigma in social housing by setting the right tone to influence the media narratives. Our respondents suggest that if political rhetoric is addressed, it would be easier to address the media narrative. In addition, the media is encouraged to break the stigma by reporting factual and credible stories, and not be sensational when reporting on social housing. Our respondents suggested that the media should show a balanced reporting of the diverse groups of people (including professionals) living in social housing and desist from portraying social housing as simply the homes for those on benefits, scroungers or with mental health and addiction issues. In setting the right tone from the top, policymakers and regulators – Ofcom – should discourage stigmatizing programmes.
Similar to our findings in Stigma and Social Housing in England report, the consultation responses also alluded to the intensity and spread of stigma being linked to the absence of a strong tenant voice. This implies that political and media rhetoric is often left unchallenged by tenants because of its absence of it. There is a need for a strong tenants’ voice at national, regional and local levels. For instance, tenants’ engagement at the organizational level needs to be meaningful such that tenants are listened to and their opinion is acted upon. Our respondents suggested that there’s a power imbalance between landlords and tenants, and the regulatory framework does not facilitate an accountability regime to empower the tenants to hold housing providers accountable. These, the majority posited must change to challenge the stigma experienced by social housing tenants. This report highlighted that the regulatory system needs to be redesigned to put the interests of tenants at the heart of regulation. In addition, this consultation report revealed that increased tenant voice should be linked to democratic accountability mechanisms and decision-making powers with more effective tenant representations on key decision-making bodies, including performance and compensation planning, and investment and rent level decisions. This implies that tenants would like to be seen and engaged as stakeholders in their housing associations rather than just being social housing residents.
While at the national level, the government should facilitate and support the establishment of an independent national tenants’ voice with similar remits and scope to the National Housing Federation. This, our respondents claimed will ensure that tenants are acknowledged as experts and co-regulators of the sector to challenge stigma, and drive meaningful engagement with policymakers, the regulator, the media and housing providers. In addition, this report suggests that government should consider introducing a regulatory metric where housing providers’ performance and compensation (including managerial remunerations) are tied to service deliveries. This is envisaged would improve the services and enhance accountability practices with tenants compensated for any inconveniences experienced due to poor performance. At the national level, our respondents suggest that the Regulator of Social Housing and the Housing Ombudsman should be respectively empowered to enforce standards and sanction housing providers when compliance falls below an acceptable standard. The improvement in services, tenants’ satisfaction and lived experience, our respondents argued would help tackle the stigma associated with social housing.
In conclusion, building a sustainable and inclusive social housing system devoid of stigma requires the combination of all the measures proposed in this report. This includes addressing the acute shortage of social housing through incremental investment in building high-quality social housing, and the withdrawal of the Right to Buy that has resulted in the depletion of social housing stocks. The housing sector is encouraged to make a significant effort in lobbying for increased and sustained funding to build high-quality social homes not residualized to those in precarious circumstances but can be made available to everyone. This, along with having a strong tenants’ voice, democratic accountability and decision-making powers for tenants (among others) are important in building a sustainable and inclusive housing system that challenges stigma in social housing.
We believe that for this to happen, everyone needs to play their parts, and there is a need to keep having those honest conversations around the issues highlighted in the initial report and this consultation report by all stakeholders in the social housing sector including but not limited to the government, politicians, the media, housing providers and tenants.