In this feature article, our International Journalism MA student, Holly Abraham examines the perceptions of social housing and what politicians and communities can do to challenge this.
“Benefit scroungers and the “underclass”. According to the Fabian Society, these are the most commonly associated words when social housing is mentioned. The government have stated that the stigma surrounding social housing is on the rise in their ‘New Deal for Social Housing‘ report. But do their proposed street parties and community awards really solve the stigma surrounding people who are reliant on council and social housing?
I visited Bridgend housing association, Valleys to Coast, and spoke to Director of Housing, Anthony Hearn and Communications Officer, Lizzie Conway. I wanted to know their views on social housing stigma and why it exists.
Aspirational to Undesirable?
Having grown up on a council estate himself, Anthony is hugely enthusiastic in combating negative perceptions of social housing. His ethos is clear: “housing should be a fundemental right for everyone”.
Views on social housing have certainly changed, when Anthony was growing up it was perceived as aspirational and accessible, with people and families working hard to live in close-knit communities at good rates. However, the introduction of the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme in the 1980s was a turning point that allowed people to purchase their social houses. This was a positive for many, but resulted in a scarcity of properties and, as a consequence, a range of criteria for people seeking to live in social housing. The criteria meant that only those in desperate need of housing would qualify, mainly the vulnerable who are often unemployed or dependent on benefits to supplement a low income.
So, housing associations like Valleys to Coast, which has over 5,800 properties across Bridgend County Borough, are seeking to erase some of the damage done by the implications of the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, and work on creating more diverse and integrated communities. This also extends to eradicating the stigma that surrounds social housing today, as while there are people who may fit the stereotype, there are also many hardworking, honest people who are being misrepresented.
Where does the stigma come from?
Both Anthony and Lizzie said that one of the biggest contributors to social housing stigma is poverty porn. Poverty porn is term given to a plethora of programmes that claim to be documentaries, but continuously shame working class people, particularly those who live in council estates. Anthony and Lizzie argue that the media should bear the brunt of responsibility in its misrepresentation and use of stereotypes.
Perhaps some of us are somewhat guilty of enjoying programmes likes ‘Benefit Street’ and ‘Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away’, sometimes forgetting that these people are human and their struggles are being showcased to a national audience. Some people are there through their own fault, but a lot of people just struggle to make ends meet. Consequently, the fees paid by TV companies wanting to produce some cheap entertainment is just reinforcing negative stereotypes and what Anthony deems as “demonising the poor and normalising poverty”.
What do housing associations do?
Lizzie Conway, the Communications Officer at Valleys to Coast, believes that the stigma can be combatted internally within the Housing Association by proactively working with tenants to stop this. This is done in a number of ways, from using consise and clear language in tenant communication and also guiding them through processes they may not have completed on their own; such as applying for benefits and form filling. For Lizzie, this is a “restorative journey” for tenants.
It’s all about educating and enabling tenants to be self-sufficient, and giving them the right tools and equipment so they can do things themselves
The Government’s plan of action
Both Anthony and Lizzie agree that to tackle the issue of social housing stigma, politicians must take the first step towards lobbying the government to revamp the housing sector. The Government’s ‘New Deal for Social Housing’ is taking steps in the right direction, and states that social housing must no longer be a “safety net to prevent homelessness”. Instead, social housing must become inspirational again, and not based on what a tenant can pay but based on their needs and to keep communities diverse and integrated. The Government’s plan suggests street parties and best neighbourhood competitions to help communities thrive. This may be the first step to overcoming the problem but according to Valleys to Coast, there is a lot more to it than that.
After the Grenfell disaster and failure to re-establish the National Tenant Voice Agency, a vital lifeline for social housing tenants, the Government has been called upon to stop making empty promises. So will social housing see any radical changes? There is some hope, with the current Government hoping to make housing what former Secretary of State for Housing deemed as “the first social service”. It is hoped that this approach will help turn social housing into the valuable communities they once were.