Operating Beyond the Vacuum – Addressing Stigma in Social Housing

4 August 2021
social housing stigma

I often speak with clients about operating ‘beyond the vacuum’, how delivering training in isolation (i.e. without the ‘wraparound’ of cultural transformation) is not necessarily going to deliver the change in behaviour, attitude and service delivery required. The recently published research paper ‘Stigma and Social Housing in England’ by Dr Amanze Ejiogu (University of Leicester) and Dr Mercy Denedo (Durham University Business School) makes a similar point in relation to the stigma associated with living in social housing.

Knowing some of the North East social housing tenants who contributed to this research paper’s focus groups in 2019, I was looking forward to understanding more about how their experience of stigma aligned with the experiences of those from other parts of the country.

The research findings highlight two distinct eras of social housing ‘experience’ – pre-1970s and post-1970s. The pre-1970s stigma associated with living in social housing seems to be as a result of poor build quality and a lack of investment. Whereas post-1970s, the stigma stems from a combination of the attitudes of the key ‘actors’ (the media, politicians, social housing providers and staff) compounded by the lack of a strong tenant voice to challenge these attitudes and the promotion of home ownership as the tenure of choice. The result sees social housing being stereotyped as the inferior tenure of last resort.

The research paper identifies a growing awareness within social housing providers and local authorities of the contribution their policies and practices make to the stigmatisation of their tenants. Indeed some of those organisations who took part in the research had taken steps to address some of the damaging, stigmatising behaviours through staff training programmes. But delivering training in this vacuum is not enough – we have to operate beyond the vacuum. A fundamental examination of organisational culture, mindset, attitudes, etc is required to embed significant and long-lasting change. Social housing staff need to be equipped with the knowledge and fluency to truly understand the complexities of the people and communities they serve. Only then can they deliver their work without an attitude that,  at best, can often be paternalistic and at worst, can often be dismissive and belittling.

As it closes, the research paper seeks further consultation, posing a number of questions to stimulate the debate. The authors are hoping to encourage ‘spirited engagement’ on the issues it has raised with organisations and stakeholders, at conferences and events or wherever debate is possible. I look forward to joining them at one such event organised by Tpas, taking place in September 2021 and the subsequent publication of the results of their consultation later in the year.

Karen Faulkner, Director and co-founder of Positive About Inclusion

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