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Social housing and stigma

Scott Dorling analyses the government's efforts to address the stigma associated with social housing.

The social housing green paper was published on 14 August 2018 with its aims being to rebalance the relationship between residents and landlords, tackle stigma and ensure that social housing can be both a stable base that supports people when they need it and support social mobility. Prior to its publication almost 1,000 tenants shared their views with ministers at different events across the country, with over 7,000 submitting their opinions, issues and concerns online.

The social housing green paper noted that stigma was the most consistent theme raised by residents at the engagement events before the green paper was published. A whole chapter of the green paper was devoted to it in which the government sought views on:

  • potential for a best neighbourhood competition
  • sharing positive stories of social housing, and
  • professionalisation of housing management, amongst other things.

It even asked the open ended question: What more could be done to tackle stigma?

The green paper elicited 429 responses to this broad question.

Roughly a third of respondents suggested changing how the media reports on social housing and poverty and roughly a third suggested stopping the emphasis of home ownership as the tenure of choice.

With that backdrop, tackling stigma was obviously going to be high on the government's agenda when it published the charter for social housing residents: social housing white paper. Or maybe not? There is so much to be commended in the white paper. There will be very few people who would argue against the charter's set of wholly meritorious general aims including, to be safe in your home, to be treated with respect and to have your voice heard, but where is the ambition to tackle the stigma associated with social housing that so many residents raised "consistently"?

It is not as if stigma is completely ignored in the white paper. It is addressed directly, but in a limited way in my view, through the championing of good design and better tenure integration through the planning system. The other specific reference to tackling stigma in the white paper seems clumsily to conflate the issue of social housing stigma with mental health awareness.

"We have heard how, in social housing, people’s experience, including stigma, can be shaped by their interactions with frontline staff. Going forward, we want to ensure that frontline social housing staff have the right knowledge and skills to work sensitively with people who have or are at risk of developing mental health problems, building on examples of good practice in the sector. Our review of professionalisation will consider how well housing staff are equipped to work with people with mental health needs and we will encourage best practice for landlords working with those with mental health needs."

Social housing tenants reported, in large numbers, that the emphasis on home ownership as the tenure of choice was a significant contributor to the stigma associated with social housing. The government's focus in many parts of the white paper is razor sharp with these two statements obvious examples: "To ensure that more social tenants have the opportunity to buy a home" and "However, we need to do more to support people to realise their dreams of home ownership." The irony will not be lost on the stigmatised tenants who talked to the government. As someone surely said before - “ Whenever there is a ladder there is always a bottom rung."

The charter for social housing residents proposes wide ranging reform to social housing regulation, the standards of quality for social housing and the relationship between the residents and their landlord. Perhaps it is in the reform to the relationship between the registered provider landlord and tenant where stigma will be properly addressed. One of the guest speaker at our recent webinar with the Regulator said she was appalled that the white paper should have to specifically state that residents needed to be treated with respect. That might be right but if the white paper results in improvements to the quality of services to match the best registered providers, the development of good quality, well designed and integrated social housing, with tenure blind respect, then the government could take credit for tackling the stigma it hoped to address.

Scott Dorling is a partner at Trowers & Hamlins.

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