Why are Social Housing Tenants Seen As Second Class Citizens?Make Text Bigger
As I read my way through developments in the housing world on a daily basis I see increasing reference to perceptions about social housing tenants which seems to be becoming a source of more concern for many landlords.
People have often had negative opinions about that world, but not as serious as the direction it seems to be going. I thought it might follow on from last summer’s riots, I don’t know, but 3 things happened on the same day last week to make me ponder on this more seriously
- I read Grant Shapps’ intention to challenge people’s perception that social housing is what he termed a ‘Dead end option’ .
- I defended a hard working African couple from mortgage repossession.
- Observing 2 broken windows whilst waiting for a bus to take me home from the African couple’s court case.
I was irked when I read Shapps’ proclamation about social housing. It didn’t fit my experience growing up in that sector.
Back in the day
Probably like many Property118 readers, I was raised in council houses. I was what used to be called a “latch-key kid“, letting myself in after school before my parents finished work, my Dad being a steel erector and making steel furniture on the side and my Mum being a factory worker. We never felt disadvantaged by our housing and never held the view that in being council tenants we were in any way second class citizens.
And a culture apart, my partner Frazzles, was similarly born and brought up, like me, in Deptford, bottom of the Old Kent Road. Her Mum, Midge, a nurse and her Dad, Fred, a bus conductor who like my Dad used his skills to make hand-made wooden furniture to supplement his wages. They arrived in the UK from Barbados in the early 1960s and grew up in property supplied by Lewisham Council without shame or apology. Hard working, decent people.
I think both our sets of parents would be horrified to think that people thought they were a dead end option. I don’t ever remember anyone I knew or their families thinking they were failures or that there was something lacking aspiration about them, simply for being council tenants.
We had family friends in the 1960s who owned their own homes and I can remember my parents thinking that would be a great idea but they didn’t stress themselves out by it, or think less of themselves for not owning property. There was no stigma involved. It was just something they would like to do one day if things worked out for them. They subsequently did but I don’t remember them looking down on where they came from. Homeownership was just a different option.
All a question of attitude
Cut to my African couple who I represented in court. A hard working family thrown into mortgage arrears by redundancy. Contrary to popular opinion they weren’t sponging off the state. Far from it. Part of the reason for their mortgage arrears came about because they weren’t claiming benefits they were entitled to. Home owners, but old school, hardworking people doing their best to support their families who took the view that their financial problems were their affair and they would deal with it.
Now cut to me, later in the afternoon. Standing at a bus stop by Woolwich Arsenal station, having just persuaded the judge that my African couple could come good on the debt if given a few months (The mum starting full time employment again in February).
I looked up at a low-ish rise set of flats, all looks normal but there is a flat on the third floor whose living room window had a massive hole in it boarded up from the inside with a lump of chipboard. The bedroom window a few feet away also had a broken window with a double sized duvet wedged into the glass blocking out the autumn weather while the TV flickered away.
This is no right to buy property. You can tell this from the building. So the council could fix the windows if called. Why is it like that? I cannot remember a single property in my life growing up on council estates where the occupants would let that be seen without shame or embarrassment. Is this what so many people fear about social housing tenants?
But is it that easy to explain?
So where did that working class pride go? A pride that wasn’t simply cultural, I see it in my adoptive West Indian family, who have a work ethic that would put Ian Paisley to shame; I see it in the pride of my African family working hard to get by. Who are the people who drive the popular perception that social housing tenants bring trouble with them?
Is it them or does it come from the perception of the cultural values of a nation obsessed with homeownership?
I ponder these changes in values but I am also loathed to fall into a mind-set of ‘people today just don’t care’. I think that’s just lazy stereotyping. There have always been people in communities who didn’t give a toss. Drunks and nutters but when did that perception transfer to all social housing tenants?
A good friend of mine owns a 3 bed house in Newham, not far from the Olympic site. She rented it to a GP, a woman in her 40s with a 16 year old son. My mate breathed a sigh of relief when she heard the tenant was a working GP, thinking it a perfect and trouble free letting. It turned out that the Doctor’s son was a drug dealer who she had no control over and who, well let’s just say, ‘Got intimate’ with girlfriends in the back garden. My mate got them out and it took a group of us a whole weekend to clean up the mess of a damaged kitchen and condoms in the garden. And this was from a GP, everyone’s ideal tenant. This wasn’t social housing.
For the past 6 months, Frazzles and my neighbours in the upstairs flat (now thankfully gone) were 3 women in their 30s who worked for a city bank. They once put a black bin liner out without putting it into the wheelie bin, the foxes got it and rubbish was strewn all over the front garden and path. It wasn’t the first time, Frazz and I refused to clean it up for them despite the fact that the contents included women’s feminine discards – shall we politely say. For 3 days we saw them leave the house and just step over the detritus without bothering to clear it up, until we were forced to raise it with them. Like it needed mentioning. And THIS isn’t social housing.
Why do 3 professional women working in investment banking care so little about what their neighbours and passers-by think of their personal hygiene? Why do people have boards and duvets up at their broken windows not care enough to get them fixed? How can a middle aged GP live in a way that would shame a Hogarth Print?
It isn’t a class thing; it isn’t about social housing tenants. Something is amiss in the way British citizens go about their lives. But Shapps, and popular misconceptions, would lay it all at the feet of social housing tenants.
On a training course I did once a council tenant showed me loads of pictures he had taken on his mobile of jobs he had done around the house without ever once calling the council to fix it for him. It was a matter of pride. He told me that the fact that it was his home meant it was his responsibility not the council’s, who he simply saw as a home provider.
Why should social housing be seen as the poor relation of other types of tenure? Why should home-owners presume that council tenants lack aspiration? A person can have aspiration but lack the resources to realise it. My dad, a dyed in the wool working class Bermondsey Tory supported Ted Heath in his election campaign in the 60s and got a letter from him thanking him for the work he gave in support, but he was never invited to have dinner with the guy because he was just a steel erector. He had aspirations, he just couldn’t afford the tux.
The problem as I see it that is at the heart of the attitudes between different types of home occupancy. Britain is obsessed with home-ownership as a bottom line. The government’s housing strategy still promotes this as the thing everyone wants but social housing grew out of the depression of the 1930s and was the reward for a nation’s citizens who fought and died in World War 2. People were thankful of a safe home that they could afford.
I hate the fact that the negative state of the nation is being laid at the feet of social housing tenants who are in some people’s minds automatically equated with rioters.
There is certainly something wrong with British culture. It is a lack of respect and self-responsibility but it is across the board. It isn’t confined to working class, social housing tenants, immigrants or even chavs.
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