Why are Social Housing Tenants Seen As Second Class Citizens?

by Ben Reeve-Lewis

12:11 PM, 29th November 2011
About 9 years ago

Why are Social Housing Tenants Seen As Second Class Citizens?

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Why are Social Housing Tenants Seen As Second Class Citizens?

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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Comments

13:54 PM, 29th November 2011
About 9 years ago

I too was born and grew up in council housing, with two sets of grandparents in houses on the same street. In fact most of the area I lived in was council housing. Probably 99% of the kids in my school lived on the estate.
We live in different times. Housing has split off into ghettos and kids see far more inequality. Society now is about what you own, not who you are or what you contribute. People are less grounded in their communities, they travel out of their area for work and school, do not know their neighbours. We all live in our little bubbles and when that happens people care less about what others' think of them.
The rot starts with TV and popular culture. Look to those to who set the aspirations for our children. Do we need a nation of pop star wanabees? If we only feed our kids a diet of consumerist cr_p we will get cr_p outcomes in our society. There is an inbalance in people understanding their rights but not their responsibilities.
(very satisfying this ranting thing ain't it :))

Ben Reeve-Lewis

15:43 PM, 29th November 2011
About 9 years ago

Haha indeed it is Teena, a habit I picked up from Frazzles.

Maybe bubbles is right. iPod bubbles, car bubbles, front door bubbles, personal space bubbles.

Maybe the notion 'I am what I own/spend' is right too and causes more separation that ends up manisfesting as a lack of respect for self and others.

Its the thinking itself that drives the malaise, not the class or the way people occupy their homes.

But I still dont know why social housing tenants are demonised as if they alone are suffering from disrespect and crude behaviour. I dont think its true at all but the notion is out there.

My ex-worked for a while selling shared ownership homes for a housing association branching out into shared ownership proerties for key workers before the recession hit, at which point sales dropped off and they had to turn the remaining vacant hmes into social lettings and everyone kicked off big time, complaining of being duped, as if they were going to get a disease from the tenants

18:06 PM, 30th November 2011
About 9 years ago

When newspapers want to make a point about the state of society they often do so by taking examples from extreme housing estates. They have done so for years. A society in trouble will always look for a scapegoat. Right now that scapegoat happens to be anyone renting social housing. Look at the fall-out from the riots. No-one with a mortgage was threatened wtih losing their housing as a direct result of rioting, only indirectly through losing their job. So councils and the govt. created a news story which gave the warped impression that rioters only lived in social housing. A convenient and misleading scapegoat. Just an easy target to allow bigots to feel complacent.

18:28 PM, 30th November 2011
About 9 years ago

I don't think the problem is with LHA claimants per se.
They are effectively victims of the useless; dysfunctional and not fit for purpose county court system and the criminal justice system.
Unfortunately it IS NOT possible to EVICT a wrongun tenant very quickly.
Consequently it is common knowledge that LHA claimants cause more issues than non-LHA claimants.
This is just a fact of life and is effectively in the nature of the beast!
It is generally NOT possible to obtain RGI on a LHA claimant or a possible guarantor.
So in the event of a non-rent paying LHA tenants you have to wait 2 months before you may start to claim direct LHA payments from the council.
This takes about a month to sort out so that you eventually receive LHA payments direct.
What about the 2 months LHA payments that were not paid by the tenant to the LL.
Ans nothing.
The council will say it is between you and the tenant to recover that unpaid rent as the councli will say they paid it out to the tenant and if the tenant has not passed it onto the LL it is nothing to do with them!!!?
Also if the LHA tenant steals and trashes at the property the police will say they are civil offences and you have to deduct form the deposit or sue them in the county court!!!!!!!!?:
To do this you have to know where they are to serve CC orders.
Even if the council knows as they are probably paying out LHA to another LL they will not tell you where they are!!!
Is it any wonder that LL do not wish to take on such tenants.
Plus even if sucessful in tracking them down how much in recovery do you think you would obtain from a LHA/UC claimant; I reckon £1.00 per week for the 20 years or so !!!?
Come the introduction of UC in 2013 NO LL will be able to receive direct rent payments as it will be down to the UC claimant to apportion the rent from their UC and pay the rent.
Given the choice drink; drugs, fags ,big screen tv, sky tv packages.......what chance do you think there might be of the LL receiving the rent.
If Eviction could occur if 2 rent payments are missed, eviction is enforced by the police the following day and any damage would could be determined by the police to be criminal damage they would be arrested and their goods seized to repay the LL for the criminal damge or thefts.
If this occurred you might find more LL prpared to take on such housing benefit claimants.
Of course NONE of this will occur and so LHA claimants WILL find it increasingly difficult to source rental accommodation.
That is not tar ALL LHA claimants with 1 big brush but unfortunately there is the generalisation out there that LHA claimants don't pay the rent ; trash and steal from rental properties before moving onto the next LL victim.
Consequently LL prefer to avoid LHA claimants.
If things were changed as I have suggested then LL would be more confident in taking on such tenants.
BUt I cannot see that happening any time soon?

Ben Reeve-Lewis

18:33 PM, 30th November 2011
About 9 years ago

I totally agree Teena. What we need to be on our guard against is blindly adopting a mindset created just to sell papers with an easy target.

The list of people convicted of rioting included care workers and even the recently deified soldiery. Not just the unemployed social housing tenants.

I dont agree with leftist commentators that the riots were politically motivated. I think their action had political ramifications but that isnt the same thing at all. It can be analysed post riot by behaviourists and youth group leaders, sometimes very accurately. One youth guy I saw on breakfast TV, an ex gang member himself said they did it because they had nothing to lose. I think that was the most sensible analysis I heard at the time.

Threatening to evict people for any behaviour not approved of by social landlords does nothing at all to regulate that behaviour. the rioters dont care, thats the whole point. But their mum, who might well be a hard working, resposnible citizen doesnt necessarily have total control over a 23 year old Mummy's boy, stuck at home who deals drugs.

Its an Eton prefects view of society and it's ills

Tony Atkins

10:25 AM, 1st December 2011
About 9 years ago

I avoid LHA tenants for several reasons:

1. The LHA system makes life more difficult for both sides: the tenants struggle to find a deposit; there are stupid rules that a tenant can only apply for housing benefit on a new property if she is already living in a particular borough, which causes terrible problems in areas close to borough boundaries; the landlord isn't paid rent direct; rent can be stopped for the smallest infraction by the tenant, like declaring some part-time work; and if the tenant does fall into arrears or their behaviour requires me to give her or him notice to quit, the local authority's advisors will advise the tenant to wait until they are actually evicted, all of which costs me a fortune in time and money. Local authority workers are in my experience actively hostile to PRS landlords and will do everything they can to defend tenants, no matter how much they are in the wrong. In the end, it is not worth me risking such problems occurring, even if there is plenty of evidence that "good" LHA claimants can be stable, long-lasting tenants.

2. I have few problems finding private-sector tenants for my houseshares, and despite Ben's example of slvoenly middle-class tenants, in my experience they tend to have better financial resources and common-sense psychology and resilience. The few tenants I have had on LHA proved to be incapable of keeping the kitchen clean, leading to my only-ever cockroach infestation (this was a self-contained flat), or borderline alocoholic, leading to my working tenants threatening to move out due to his behaviour. LHA claimants tend to be much poorer at time-keeping, failing to show up for viewings, perhaps because they have more difficulties with transport problems, but also because some are just flaky: I ring them to ask why they missed the appointment, and there's often not even an excuse, just "I didn't feel like it".

These are generalisations, but I'm afraid it's based on 15 years of continued and repeated experience.

I've no objection to social housing per se, especially council estates which can be well-balanced communities with a mix of different residents, many with jobs, but I have not had good experiences mixing private tenants, usually graduates, and LHA tenants in houseshares. I'm also a parish councillor, and we are finding that the modern social experiment of private estates "pepper-potted" with affordable homes is leading to all sorts of social problems: people who've paid hundreds of thousands of pounds to buy their home and LHA families living for free in flats or in the same-style, better-specified "social" house next door are simply *not* getting on. Of course there are exceptions, as ever, but our local police confirm they get far more call-outs proportionately to certain new estates, largely because of disputes over social behaviour and inappropriate parking and trades being carried out in the overly-narrow streets.

11:10 AM, 1st December 2011
About 9 years ago

An interesting point about mixed housing. An indicator of the intolerance and lack of communication in society. Probably the same reason we do not mix sheltered housing with homes for young families. My gran used to live near a school. She drew great pleasure from the noise of children playing. Nowadays I can't help but think the school would find itself getting visits from the police asking them to deal with the playtime noise nuisance to local residents...

11:17 AM, 1st December 2011
About 9 years ago

Ah but Ben, that's a reverse stereotype. I know people from all walks of life and all backgrounds. A person doesn't have to have had a privileged education to hold despicable prejudices. Equally a person who is born to privilege is not necessarily comfortable with that nor so quick to judge others less lucky.
The prejudice is universal. The undercurrent of people converned to try and change that is also universal, just a quieter voice. The biggest block is that society is so polarised and we have devolved responsibility for our communities to the authorities rather than build bridges for ourselves.

Ben Reeve-Lewis

11:30 AM, 1st December 2011
About 9 years ago

Paul you say you arent tarring all LHA claimants with a big brush and proceed to do just that with a quite astonishing set of generalisations and prejudices, and yet, I too know of examples of all that you have given above.

Tony your reservations seem more aimed towards your dealings with councils with LHA tenants and in that I too agree.

I think the danger is with all stereoptyping is taking personal experiences and generalising out from there.

I suppose the $64,000 dollar question for me is "If I were a landlord would I rent to an LHA tenant?" I would, but I would be more nervous about it than if they werent LHA even though I know rent arrears and damage arent restricted to them. Also if I had a choice between an LHA tenant and a working one I would probably choose the latter.

I ended my article saying there is a mailaise at the heart of British culture that isnt confined to people on benefits. I share the same commonly held prejudices to be honest but I like to think I wouldnt act on them. Having said that, it is easy for me to say because I havent lost or risked something.

Like you Tony I notice a certain flakiness. I notice that my clients on benefits are often late for their appointments with me who say they were too busy (doing what? I always ask) and I also notice that they tend to kick off when they hear something they dont like but to be honest I would also say that tends to happen with my younger clients more.

What I have taken to doing lately is geting my clients to fill in an action sheet with stuff that they are going to do in it and stuff that I will do, with dates attached. this I am finding gives them a bit of responsibility for their situation and if they dont do something on their list they cant blame me.

Council staff can indeed be unhelpful to landlords, taking the tenants side without researching. I think if I had a decent relationship with my local authority I would take a risk if I knew staff would work with me and help out. That is the way I do my job and how our new team is developing.

I cant change the perception that is so widely held, even by me, of LHA tenants but I can help persuade our local landlords to take them on with our help and support instead of our obstruction

Ben Reeve-Lewis

11:41 AM, 1st December 2011
About 9 years ago

Sorry Teena I missed your reply here.

I agree. I am part of that quieter voice but I am also prone to the same perceptions though. I try not to act on them however. To stereotype is a human trait. If I am walking down Rye Lane at 1am and see 5 hooded youths walking towards me I will disappear up a side street pretty sharpish, even though they might be returning from a bible class, stereoptyping has its uses 🙂

When we act on the very natural and understandable way we group people together without insight, thats when it gets nasty, thats when regimes get bad and it worries me that I see people on benefits getting demonised even though I share some of the concerns myself. Humans are imperfect creatures

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