The stigmatisation of social housing: findings from a panel investigation
Jacobs, K and Arthurson, K and Cica, N and Greenwood, A and Hastings, A, The stigmatisation of social housing: findings from a panel investigation, AHURI Final Report Series, (166) pp. 1-34. ISSN 1834-7223 (2011) [Refereed Article]
This report presents the findings from a panel investigation established to consider the impact of stigma for social housing residents and the policies that can be deployed to mitigate its effects. The panel team included experts in public policy, housing and the media. The team met on three occasions in the latter part of 2010. While the panel deliberated on issues that traversed theory and practice, a substantive amount of time was set aside to explore the role of the media as a contributor to reinforcing stigma, and the ways that social housing organisations can promote more positive media reporting. The findings of the panel are as follows: The stigmatisation of social housing There are complex reasons as to why social housing neighbourhoods are subject to popular vilification. These neighbourhoods are usually seen, not as a symptom of social inequity, but as a contributory factor that heightens social disadvantage, commonly viewed as havens for crime and sites for policy interventions that reinforce cultures of welfare dependency. From this perspective, the primary reason for why social housing has become so stigmatised can be traced to government policies that have limited access to those households with acute needs. As a consequence, the vast majority of tenants now residing in social housing are there because they have no other options. This 'reality' informs the wider public understandings of social housing and acts as a brake on attempts by state housing authorities, tenants' groups and welfare lobbyists to highlight the positive contribution made by social housing. Conceptualising stigma in relation to poverty The concept of stigma serves as a lens to interpret and make sense of the ways that inequality and discrimination impact on tenants, social housing organisations and the wider society. The concept is valuable in highlighting how existing inequalities and ideology structure social relations. For this reason, the stigmatisation of social housing needs to be viewed in a wider discursive setting that includes the way that policies are conducted and the role performed by the media. Policies to address stigma and the role of the media There are practical steps that social housing agencies can undertake to mitigate the effects of stigmatisation, particularly in relation to media reporting. For example, they might seek to establish professional contacts with senior journalists with a view to ensuring more positive accounts of social housing. Also, new virtual media provides an opportunity for tenants' organisations and lobbyists to counteract negative stories of social housing. Though the production of more positive accounts has no direct impact on the underlying material problems (lack of investment, residualisation etc.), it can affect how individuals interpret social policy interventions and thereby challenge simplistic caricatures that lead to prejudice. Gaps in knowledge There are gaps in knowledge relating to our understanding of social housing and its problematic reputation. There is a need for research that makes explicit the wider 'politics' of housing and how, in particular, the subsidy and taxation arrangements reinforce the divide between well-off home owners and rental investors on the one hand and low income social housing and private rental tenants on the other. The attempts by state housing authorities to address the problems that arise in disadvantaged social housing neighbourhoods can only have a limited impact so long as this divide remains in place. Policy conundrum Finally, there is a conundrum that all welfare and social housing agencies face when taking steps to mitigate the effects of stigma. Campaigns that draw attention to the problems of social housing can inadvertently reinforce prejudice and stigma. On the other hand, positive stories are less likely to attract the attention of policy-makers and entice the release of new revenue streams. There is no simple way to address this quandary. Consequently, campaigners seeking to improve social housing need to remain vigilant to the way information is interpreted by policy-makers and the public at large.