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New Report Reveals Shocking Extent of Social Housing Stigma in England, and Suggests Ways to Eradicate it

By, Dr Mercy Denedo and Dr Amanza Ejiogu at the University of Leicester School of Business, July 2021

A new report investigating the origins of and motivators behind the stigma attached to social housing in England has revealed its significant negative impact on residents’ lives and wellbeing and has identified the actions of Government, social housing providers and the media as the key influencers for perpetuating such perceptions.

Stigma and Social Housing in England’ created by Dr Mercy Denedo at Durham University Business School and Dr Amanze Ejiogu at the University of Leicester School of Business, reveals that the prevalence of social housing stigma impacts every aspect of residents’ lives; from negatively influencing communications with schools, local councils, service providers, to hindering employment opportunities and even impeding relationships with neighbours, the police and their local GP.

Dr Denedo said:

“Social housing accounts for over a sixth of England’s total housing stock, however, it was not until the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017 attention began to be focused, albeit tentatively, on the stigmatisation of social housing and of those living within it. This report seeks to better understand how social housing stigma has been constructed, the impact it has on those living within social housing properties and areas, and what is currently being done across society to tackle this issue.”

The researchers used a variety of methods to gather their data. This included an in-depth analysis of historical media representation of social housing tenants, a review of the social media campaigns and activity of social housing advocacy groups and practitioners to assess their impact and, lastly, interviews and focus groups with more than 200 participants. Interviewees included tenants, social landlords, tenant organisations, trade bodies, campaign groups, civil society organisations, politicians and others.

From this analysis, the report made a number of important findings.

Firstly, the report found Government policy has consistently prioritised homeownership as the tenure of choice and, in contrast, positioned social housing as being only for the neediest members of society and a bottom rung on the social status ladder.

This perspective was found to be routinely repeated within the media, which often stigmatised social housing and those living within it with little fear of being challenged. This narrative, the researchers say, has helped to reinforce a negative stereotype over many years.

The report also recorded a lack of accountability across Government, social landlords and housing associations. It was commonly reported in interviews and focus groups that the behaviour and actions of such bodies were often with disregard to residents’ needs, feelings or rights.

The report also found fault within the typical ways in which social housing is built into communities, noting the deliberate construction of so-called “poor doors” in mixed social and private accommodation blocks as key examples of reinforcing social divides.

Furthermore, the report suggests the method through which some social housing is allocated makes communities an easy target for criticism. For example, schemes which purposefully house those with additional care needs together can make such areas, and those living within them vulnerable to, or the target of, negative influence.

Whilst the report does reveal that efforts have been made by local councils and other organisations to reduce social housing stigma, such as retraining staff and attempting to give residents a greater voice, such measures have had limited success.

Dr Ejiogu said:

“Efforts to challenge social housing stigma have, in the majority, focused on surface-level fixes such as attempts to rebrand social housing by presenting alternative narratives of who tenants are and what life in social housing is really like. However, there are deeper societal challenges that also need addressing. A key challenge is that social housing intersects with many other societal stigmas at play. Our report found that poverty, crime, mental health, disability, race and immigration were all revealed to interlink with general perceptions of those living within social housing dwellings.”

Dr Denedo and Dr Ejiogu’s report concludes by making a number of recommendations for Government and related professional bodies to consider. These include:

  1. Adopting a rights-based approach to housing which views access to affordable housing as a fundamental human right
  2. Discouraging policies which encourage the residualisation of social housing and the promotion of homeownership
  3. Taking action to better address the acute shortage of safe and affordable housing
  4. Developing policies which recognise the intersection of social housing stigma with other stigmas
  5. Facilitating stronger tenant voices at local, regional and national levels
  6. Redesigning the regulatory and governance arrangements to make social housing providers more accountable to tenants
  7. Encouraging fairer media reporting on stories relating to social housing

Dr Denedo said:

“For this to happen, everyone needs to play their parts. There is a need for honest conversations and spirited engagement around this issue by all stakeholders in the social housing sector including but not limited to the Government, politicians, the media, housing providers and tenants.”

To further their investigations, the researchers have also posed a set of questions for Government officials, organisations and other interested parties to answer. They ask respondents to consider what the purpose of social housing should be and whether it should be recognised as a fundamental human right, and make recommendations for how politicians, media and other bodies of social power can be encouraged to drop stigmatising language, how to give residents a greater voice and how to make social housing providers more accountable to their tenants.

Responses can be submitted anonymously to stigmaconsultation@gmail.com until 31 October.