28 Oct 2022

Stigma and Social Housing in England: their implications for housing sector and the profession

Our research report, "Stigma and Social Housing in England", published in July 2021 addressed how social housing came to be stigmatized, explored how this stigma is experienced by tenants in their daily lives, and asked what was being done to challenge it by industry, governments and society.

Following the publication of our initial report, we invited policymakers, housing providers, advocacy groups, trade and professional bodies, and social housing residents among others to respond to issues raised by providing their perspectives on the following questions;

  1. What should the purpose of social housing be?
  2. Should access to affordable housing be recognized as a fundamental human right and who should have access to it?
  3. How can we encourage politicians to limit/stop their use of stigmatizing language and rhetoric in relation to social housing?
  4. How can we encourage the media to be more balanced and fairer in their reporting of social housing?
  5. How can we create a stronger and more effective tenant voice at the local and national levels?
  6. How can we make social housing providers more accountable to tenants?
  7. How can we build a sustainable and inclusive social housing system devoid of stigma?

Our analysis of the responses led to a second follow-up report, titled "Stigma and Social Housing in England: feedback on the consultation responses" as well as the creation of a policy briefing, titled "Reducing social housing stigma in England: recommendations for the housing sector" in order to give those in power the guidance they need to enact change.

In this blog, we highlight a few of the key issues from the consultation report and their implications for housing professionals.

Housing should be viewed as a right

Our respondents noted that there needs to be a radical shift from housing being seen as a symbol of wealth to one in which adequate housing is considered a basic and fundamental human right. Housing being viewed as a right would mean that government housing policies would be directed towards providing social housing for everyone, encouraging a better mix of tenures and ensuring that every member of society is provided with the best possible chance of meeting their housing needs regardless of their circumstances or preferences. Such an approach would avoid the continuation of social housing being held out as a springboard to home ownership, which currently it is assumed that everyone should aspire to.  

Respondents in our consultation felt this would help tackle stigma because social housing would become attractive not just to those in precarious circumstances but also to those who can afford to privately rent or own their homes. In driving this radical shift, housing providers, the profession’s trade bodies and regulators can help inform and change the policies that have led to the depletion of housing stock (e.g., withdrawal of the Right to Buy) and lobby policymakers to invest in the construction of high-quality decent and safe social housing to attract people with a mixed levels of income and life experiences into social housing. This also includes the agreement that housing providers, housing professionals, trade bodies and regulators would eradicate the differential services that currently project the idea of social housing as inferior compared to other housing tenures.

Challenging the media narrative

Our respondents noted that housing providers, housing professionals, trade bodies, and regulators have a role to play in challenging the prevailing stigmatizing rhetoric which devalues social housing and its tenants by calling out and challenging these perspectives when used by politicians, the government or the media. Such stakeholders must also challenge housing policies that residualise social housing and, as a result, present tenants as second-class citizens.

Stakeholders should instead put out a more positive narrative which highlights renting a home as a valued housing option that should be promoted to build a sustainable housing system devoid of stigma. Overwhelmingly, our respondents argued that in tackling stigma, housing providers, professional trade bodies and regulators cannot afford to stay silent, as doing so would fail to fairly represent the interests of the tenants they serve. Going further recruiting social housing champions or celebrity ambassadors to help publicise positive stories at the local, regional and national levels (including through traditional and social media channels) could all help to shift the narrative.

Demand accountability

The power imbalance between landlords and tenants is not new, and has previously been highlighted in the social housing green paper and in our initial report "Stigma and Social Housing in England". As our earlier research shows, this results in the tenants being viewed as “the others”, with minimal or no voice in challenging the paternalistic attitudes of housing providers toward them or the provision of substandard services, or even the lack of response from their housing providers when complaints are lodged.

This organisational culture, that excludes and marginalises social housing tenants needs to be addressed by a professional code of conduct.

Stronger tenant voices

Our responders agreed that there was a distinct lack of tenant voice at a local, regional and national levels. In creating a stronger voice at the local level, housing providers and professionals are encouraged to make efforts to engage with a diverse set of their residents and not necessarily the “usual set of people” to build a culture of inclusivity, accountability and trust to co-design policies and services. Tenants need to be placed at the centre of policies and practices that affects them and they should be given substantive opportunity to shape those policies and improve the services that affect them. To promote a culture of inclusivity and democratic accountability, effective tenant panels and associations should be encouraged by housing providers, professional and trade bodies, the regulators; and feedback from these groups should be taken seriously to improve services and tenants’ experiences.

Housing providers should make significant and genuine efforts to ensure that tenants voices are not just  heard but listened to when making decisions, without adopting a tokenistic approach to such engagements. They should empower tenants to be directly involved in making choices about issues that directly impact them and other social tenants.

Also, tenants’ forums or Tenants’ Resident Associations should be effectively utilised by housing providers and senior management teams to engage with tenants establish communication channels where tenants' voice and complaints can be heard. This would help housing providers to identify and deal with issues in a timely manner. The housing professionals, trade bodies and regulators need to initiate and drive these discussions. Where this is implemented, the housing sector (including professional and trade bodies) should make a significant effort to showcase and publicise good accountability practices in which tenants are listened to and allowed to co-design services. Our participants noted that this would help challenge stigma and compel underperforming housing providers to change their organisational culture that excludes and marginalises their tenants.

In addition, participants in this consultation noted that the lack of an effective voice means that tenants do not have the power, mechanisms, resources or structure to lobby, challenge or help steer housing policies and regulations at the regional and national levels. At the regional and national levels, tenants' voice should be established for the tenants and with the tenants, with the operations independently managed by the tenants. This will ensure that power and voice are directly placed in the hands of the tenants and not in the hands of any third parties with limited power to advocate for them. The housing providers, professional and trade bodies, and the regulators have a role to play in collaborating with all stakeholders in ensuring that there is a culture shift to empower tenants.

Building an inclusive and sustainable social housing system devoid of stigma should not be expected overnight because the shift requires needs to happen at both policy level as well as at organisational levels. Stigma in social housing has been perpetuated over decades, and its eradication will require a multifaceted approach with conscious, consistent, deliberate, collective and sustained long-term programmes, policies and partnerships to change people’s perception of social housing and its residents. For this to happen, meaningful actions must be taken by all stakeholders to tackle this deep-rooted problem that affects the everyday realities, the quality of life, and the life chances of social housing and its residents.

Written by Dr. Mercy Denedo and Dr. Amanze Ejiogu

Dr. Mercy Denedo is an Assistant Professor in Accounting at Durham University Business School

Dr. Amanze Ejiogu is a Senior Lecturer in Accounting at the Newcastle University.

Contact details:

Enquiries can be sent to us via stigmaconsultation@gmail.com