Written by IFF Research

How can social housing providers tackle stigma?

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Social housing stigma isn’t new. Since the term ‘social housing’ was coined in the ‘90s, there have been negative connotations attributed to people living in social housing; with assumptions made about residents’ situations, motivation and behaviour. This idea that they’re ‘to blame’ for their situation. All due to the type of landlord they have.

Shelter’s report: a vision for social housing, commissioned in the aftermath of Grenfell, found that: “Two out of three (63%) private renters feel that people would perceive them in a more negative light if they lived in social housing.”

In truth, this stigma started long before the term social housing was used. For centuries and in societies across the world, those who are less well-off have been labelled and stereotyped as needy and vulnerable. Yet the ongoing narrative of social housing being a ‘springboard’ to better things, isn’t helping. Despite the government green paper: A New Deal for Social Housing, promising to address stigma, this rhetoric was still evident in their tone.

Why is it a problem?

Stigma arises from many sources. However, there are two factors perpetuating the problem that need addressing: media bias and cultural failings within our own organisations.

Controversial programmes like Benefits Street and frequent news articles continue to reinforce negative stereotypes that social housing tenants are scroungers and benefits cheats. So much so, that a 2014 report found that when asked: “Which two or three of the below words or phrases do you most strongly associate with social housing?”, just under half of respondents listed ‘benefits’.

Inside the sector, a stigmatising culture can be related to a few factors. First, social housing is a high-barrier industry with little or no choice for residents.  Residents are not in a position to “vote with their feet” and simply move on when the service they receive does not meet their needs.  Secondly, the power in the resident-landlord relationship is with the landlord.  Residents can feel like their views are not being taken into account, and services provided are based on company policy rather that resident preference. A further driver perpetuating stigma within the sector could originate from the push to achieve the targets of satisfactory housing for the least possible cost – and the overriding initiative to achieve “value for money” in terms of housing, repairs, and neighbourhood quality.

Additionally, there are structural and procedural barriers that perpetuate stigma in social housing. For example, legal agreements between developers seeking planning permission and the local planning authority, known as Section 106, are based on the provision of affordable housing. However, the provision itself could be seen as a bargaining chip. This article on mixed-tenure housing from The Guardian illustrates how some estates claim to have ‘mixed tenure’ housing that segregates and separates affordable housing from market rent properties.

The drive to improve value for money has left some housing and service standards at the low end of reasonable expectations, and housing policies are written to support those standards.  For example, when it comes to new lettings standard or estates management policies, social housing might not be the most “aspirational” – so it stands to reason that social housing residents feel marginalised, stigmatised or low priority.

Who does it impact?

The effects of stigma are far reaching. Stigma around social housing diminishes the good work we do as a sector, undermining social cohesion and prompting social isolation among the nation’s most vulnerable.  For example, residents suffering the effects of stigma could lack confidence and self-worth, driving people to feel shame about where they live.

From the perspective of the resident-landlord relationship, with awareness of stigma and perceived embarrassment surrounding social housing, the perception is that residents’ expectations are lower and could, in turn drive service delivery levels lower. Residents could be less likely to be engaged and less motivated to trust their landlords, their communities and their neighbourhoods as safe places.

We all need to work toward building trust in reliable housing services and advice, demonstrating empathy toward our residents, and adopting effective, practical measures so all people can feel empowered and safe.

Possible solutions

During a workshop session at our recent social housing event, we brought together a group of housing providers from across the UK who shared their ideas of possible solutions to overcoming stigma. During these sessions delegates discussed practical measures a social housing provider could take to tackle stigma, with a number of theme solutions suggested, as detailed below.

– Partnerships

Working with and effective signposting to partners and stakeholders, such as the local authority, Citizens Advice, and charities were identified as an important way to highlight the value of social housing within the wider community.  Open communications and working groups with stakeholders were seen as a way to elevate the perceptions of social housing overall.

Outside the sector, benchmarking service standards with other industries (for example, with aviation or telecoms) can be a reality check into the levels of service we are providing to customers – and a means to combat our own complacency toward service excellence. Also, seeking high benchmarks externally helps to elevate our sector standards, professionalism and understanding of modern consumer expectations.

– Service reviews

Reviewing customer facing services from the perspective of the resident and carrying out customer journey mapping exercises can pinpoint how your services are making customers feel.  Areas to review could include your lettings process and lettable standard, repairs response times for emergency, routine and out-of-hours repairs, and your customer care standards within call centres – paying attention to wait times and keeping customers informed when waiting for a repair.  Taking account of a customer’s feelings when accessing these important services allow landlords to make changes that improve the customer experience.  Once standards are set out, you can measure satisfaction and sentiment toward these changes over time, to make sure that you are doing every possible to increase positive feelings toward your services and the sector overall.

– Communications

How we communicate within social housing is critical in supporting people that feel stigmatised and to prevent further fuelling the spread of stigma.  Solutions to take effective action to help include creating an environment in which all housing can be discussed and addressed openly, honestly and effectively.

Marketing communications, such as newsletters, websites and signage were seen as particularly patronising, “talking down” to residents unnecessarily. Further communications with outside media could be improved through a strong, confident relationship with local media, asking them to champion your good news stories and promote your programmes positively.

– Culture

Internally, culture change needs to come from the top. However, you need a strong understanding of how residents view your services to support this. One solution for this is conducting a customer journey mapping exercise. This allows you to identify unhelpful language that perpetuates the problem. Enabling providers to swap militaristic terms such as “officer” and “front line” to more helpful language like customer services and customer partners.

In closing

The task of reducing stigma from social housing isn’t going be easy, and it’s not all down to our sector to fix.  Challenges exist in societal norms and in the media, but with a bit of effort, social housing providers can take control of that narrative.  We need to work together and take steps at every level in our organisations, from executives to local housing offices – improving our understanding of perceptions and improving our communications. By working together in a focussed effort, we can bring about a positive change – and positive feelings about social housing once again.

Watch for our next blog, highlighting another challenging topic from the event workshops: addressing the difficult question of how to engage with residents dispersed over a wide geographical area.

For more information on practical solutions to engage with your residents, please get in touch with our housing team.