An End To Social Housing Stigmas
20th September 2018

An End to Social Housing Stigmas.

In a speech yesterday, Theresa May has called for an end to social housing 'stigma' as she pledged £2bn for new homes.

Speaking at a National Housing Federation summit, Ms May said housing associations have a central role to play in building homes and challenging attitudes about social housing. She also called for a change in attitudes towards affordable and social housing, saying: “For many people, a certain stigma still clings to social housing.

“Some residents feel marginalised and overlooked, and are ashamed to share the fact that their home belongs to a housing association or local authority.

“And on the outside, many people in society – including too many politicians – continue to look down on social housing and, by extension, the people who call it their home.

“I want to see social housing that is so good people are proud to call it their home… Our friends and neighbours who live in social housing are not second-rate citizens.”

This news resonated with me today as last week I attended the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) event about the Social Housing Green Paper which was described as a “new deal for social housing” and sets out a “vision which values and respects the voices of residents, with landlords treating them with decency and respect, backed up with clear consequences when they do not”.

This green paper, which was developed in a very different way to previous housing policy documents as the housing minister actually went out to talk to social housing tenants about what they wanted, is underpinned by the following five principles:

  • A safe and decent home which is fundamental to a sense of security and our ability to get on in life;
  • Improving and speeding up how complaints are resolved;
  • Empowering residents and ensuring their voices are heard so that landlords are held to account;
  • Tackling stigma and celebrating thriving communities, challenging the stereotypes that exist about residents and their communities; and
  • Building the social homes that we need and ensuring that those homes can act as a springboard to home ownership.
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As the founder of a creative agency who works with housing associations such as Birmingham YMCASolihull Community Housing (SCH) and the Black Country Housing Group (BCHG), I was really interested in the research about the stigma attached to social housing. Does the “social” in social housing reinforce stereotypes? Should it be called “community housing” does this have better connotations?

The green paper reports tenants often feel they are treated as “second class citizens” and “benefits scroungers”. The CIH as well as other organisations, media publications and now Theresa May are all wanting to challenge this. Inside housing are backing the Benefit to Society’ campaign which has been created by a group of housing associations, tenants and journalists and aims to address stereotypes of social housing tenants in the media. At Big Cat, we support this and suggest an approach to repositioning social housing, changing perceptions and reducing stigma to make social housing feel more permanent, safe and not just a stepping stone or housing first aid.

A lot of the stigma is based on myths, for example, survey data shows that Britons estimate unemployment among those in social housing is 24%, when the true figure is just 7%, compared to 4% in the private rented sector. Social renting in the UK actually peaked in 1981 and has been in decline since, with private rentals overtaking social in 2012.

Damaging stereotypes have been able to take hold not only because of the media, but because social housing is less visible than it once was. Unlike the NHS or education system, most people simply don’t interact with subsidised housing in their day-to-day lives. A key component of the green paper was stronger regulatory expectations for resident engagement – listening to views and talking and communication. The lack of this has meant that the stigma has been allowed to breed.

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Engaging with residents is something that we at Big Cat, we have been doing for a long time. Having worked with Birmingham YMCA for 15 years, we have focussed on changing the perceptions of ‘a doss house for drug addicts and criminals’. We have fantastic case studies of people who have started off as residents and gone on to work for the YMCA and turned their lives around. We have worked hard with the YMCA to promote their social enterprises and to be seen as a business. More and more people are seeing that the wider services they offer such as their nurseries, their coffee shop and meeting rooms are as good as, if not better than any other in Birmingham.

The work we are doing with Solihull Community Housing (SCH) has shown that we are one step ahead of the social housing green paper. We were appointed earlier this year by SCH for a full redesign of their branding and we have made sure that the tenants and local communities have been integral to the development process.  We began by holding focus groups with residents and tenants to get their thoughts on how the brand and the business was currently perceived and their aspirations for the future brand. In addition, we met with local college groups. Interestingly, the younger generation detached all stigmas associated with ‘social housing’. More positive and warmer language was used to describe their perceptions. Words such as ‘helpful’, ‘affordable’ and ‘supportive’ were chosen. . With a robust body of knowledge and insights, we have been able to distil the key findings into our tried and tested creative strategy framework to develop a brand for SCH which is created with the community, for the community.

There is no need for the stigma to still be prevalent – if there ever was. There are plenty of examples of social mobility, looking at successful entrepreneurs like Duncan Bannatyne who grew up in a council flat in Clydebank, just west of Glasgow or Jim Ratcliffe, a chemicals entrepreneur who was recently named the richest person in the UK and grew up on a council estate in Failsworth, Greater Manchester.

Social housing needs to be repositioned so as not to be seen as inferior to owning or private renting. A move away from ‘safety net’ perceptions to a more secure, desirable, affordable option where people  choose to want to live. Big Cat have seen first-hand with SCH how younger generations aren’t necessarily associating negative connotations with ‘social housing’, so now is the time for us to be capitalising on these future generations to start shifting attitudes and building empowerment.  From a communications perspective, I believe a lot more can be done to showcase positive and compelling stories celebrating achievements which not only inspire, but also educate the wider society too.

However, making social housing more desirable will of course increase expectations and demand even further. So it will be more important than ever before to keep up with demand by building more homes, provide high quality stock and service.

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