Craig Stirrat: The stigma of the housing emergency

Craig Stirrat: The stigma of the housing emergency

Craig Stirrat

Grampian Housing Association Group CEO Craig Stirrat looks to address the longer-term systemic problems in social housing which are a major factor contributing to the immediate crisis.

Following the declaration of a Housing Emergency by the Scottish Government in May, the Housing 2040 Strategy Group met last week to discuss a coordinated response to the housing crisis. So, no doubt there will follow a number of recommendations on dealing with the immediate homelessness crisis and also a call for the required funding to build more homes to meet the needs of a growing number of households who cannot afford to buy or rent privately.

Whilst this is necessary to meet the immediate crisis I fear it may not be sufficient to achieve lasting change nor change the general public’s adverse perception (perpetuated by media expose of the shocking state of some social homes and the number of empty social homes in England) of the condition of social rented homes and halt the further decline of attitudes towards the social rented sector in terms of choice.

It is within this context that I want to take the opportunity to raise the thorny issue of the residualisation of social housing, which continues to blight the lives of existing Scottish communities across many local authority areas, as I consider it is a contributing factor to the current housing crisis. For instance, during 2022/23, as many households were living in a social rented property prior to declaring their homelessness (15% of all homeless) as were in a private rented property (16%).

Residualisation describes the long-term trend of social housing tenants who have the means to choose to transfer to a more desirable social house/community elsewhere, or to completely exit this tenure (which in the past was largely driven by the Right to Buy) - leaving behind communities comprised of those with least resources and opportunities in the least desirable homes.

As a consequence, many of these residual social housing communities have developed a significant reputation or association with criminality, disorder, anti-social behaviour, welfare dependency and impressions of a detached underclass unwilling or unable to engage with labour market opportunities or mainstream norms and values.

Ironically, many of these residual communities also have significant numbers of empty homes - which for some authorities - could go a long way to help reduce the requirement of local authorities having to spend millions of pounds per year on temporary accommodation for statutory homeless households.

However, partly due to the lack of sufficient funding, many social landlords have focussed on building new homes with government grants, often at the expense of revitalising or regenerating existing communities. But it doesn’t have to be that way - it has been shown if there is a will there is a way to make use of many of these (no longer fit for purpose?) empty homes.

For instance, in 2022, a local authority in the North East was awarded £6.5 million from the Scottish Government’s Longer-Term Resettlement Fund to bring 500 empty homes back into use to support refugees which in turn also helped to reinvigour these communities and reduce the overall number of empty council homes in that authority (to date) to circa 1700 homes.

To illustrate the sad indictment of the residualisation of large swathes of social housing, according to the 2022 Household survey:

  • Over 40% of local authority homes and over 50% of housing association homes were in the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland;
  • The proportion of adults in social rented properties who were permanently sick or disabled was higher than those in all other tenure types (15% of social rented properties compared to between one and 4% in other tenures).

These facts do nothing to dispel the deeply held views amongst the general public about the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor in Scotland. This has reinforced discrimination against people on the grounds of their poverty which is sometimes based on views that people living in communities stricken by poverty are inferior or of lesser value. Such attitudes can become embedded as ‘povertyism’ – a phenomenon akin to racism or sexism.

It has been recognised for a long time that Postcode discrimination exists, for example – it can result in people being refused access to services, such as insurance or credit, or are treated differently on the basis of their postal address. This was verified by a Department for Work and Pensions Research report in 2010 which found…

“evidence to support the overall ‘area effects’ thesis that individuals living in deprived areas may face disadvantages in the labour market additional to their own personal characteristics which result from the nature of the neighbourhood in which they live”.

There are no easy solutions to halt the residualisation of many social rented housing communities - but is it right to just stand back and condemn these communities to a self-fulfilling prophecy of poverty?

We here at Grampian Housing Association, believe mixed-tenure developments strengthen communities as it is widely recognised that bringing communities together helps to improve education and skills, drive creativity, create opportunities to support each other, improve well-being and reduce crime. Non-integration simply widens the existing gaps between communities.

That’s why for Housing Associations like Grampian Housing Association it is important to work closely with our housing developer and local authority partners to create balanced communities everywhere in the North East of Scotland that helps end segregation in housing based on economic status.

Otherwise, I fear in the rush to build more social rented homes we will miss the opportunity to broadened the agenda to also tackle poverty and associated stigma…. despite all the truisms contained in the Housing 2040 vision such as:

“Homes have never been simply bricks and mortar – good housing and homes support our health, our wellbeing, our life chances and our job prospects”, and

“This vision needs to put housing firmly at the centre of our other objectives for people in Scotland, such as tackling poverty and inequality, creating and supporting jobs…”

This current crisis should be a wakeup call - an opportunity - to be more ambitious and radical, undertaking a real systemic review and change of our housing system – ensuring that the 2040 vision is the right one for everyone in Scotland and chips away at the very real stigma that unfairly exists for many folk living in social housing and puts people and communities first.

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