To most people, thinking of social housing might typically invoke one of two images: kids weaving big-wheeled bikes between identical high rises; or post-war ‘new town’ developments, which historically placed workers and their families in entirely new communities in industrial areas. These possibilities may ring true for some people’s lived experiences, but with the decline of new social housing developments at a time when they are needed most, the few new properties being released to social housing tenants are often nestled among more expensive housing only available to more affluent residents, in ways which alienate the poor. In fact, social housing now is so far removed from dominant expectations of cohesive, mono-class communities that it is hard to spot.
social housing now is so far removed from dominant expectations of cohesive, mono-class communities that it is hard to spot.
Social housing started as a solution to the destruction of war, and the displacement caused by it. Initially envisioned as ‘new towns’, these council-owned rental homes were cheap, high quality, and positioned workers well in relation to key workplaces such as factories. The effect was not only economically liberating, but nostalgic: living and growing up in these communities, surrounded by fellow working-class families, gifted residents a sense of belonging. Though new town residents are still affected by inequalities and fewer opportunities in wider society, being surrounded by those of a similar socio-economic background can only be nourishing.
The final new town was built in 1970. Since then, the construction of new social housing developments has declined faster than the need for it. Councils are no longer able to build new housing; instead, they sell land to private developers with a clause: that a certain amount of their housing must be designated for social housing tenants, but operated by housing associations rather than the council itself. The private companies which develop the land often negotiate to have fewer social housing properties than proposed, and the result has negative consequences for the assimilation of working-class households into communities.
Growing up first in a council flat, and subsequently in a housing association flat – in otherwise affluent areas – I have nursed a distinctly different impression of the appearance of social housing from that of common assumptions. My current block of flats has a ‘poor door’ system: tenants such as myself in the social housing flats must access the building via a door on the busy main road, whereas the privately owned flats, in addition to being able to use our door, have an inconspicuous door on the quieter side road – to which our key fobs deny us access. There is a communal garden, but social housing tenants are prohibited from using it, and we are not allowed parking spaces even though most are unused. There are two bike sheds – one for the private residents, which has a lockable door, and one for us, which has no security and has recently been expropriated for the housing association to use as storage. There is no sense of community, which I assumed was normal for social housing developments, and it is an overwhelmingly lonesome lifestyle. When positioned among streets of Victorian and Edwardian three-story houses with attic rooms converted into idyllic office spaces, relationships with similarly poor neighbours naturally turn sour. The competitive nature of capitalism drives resentment between different working-class households, as does media portrayal of housing benefit claimants as ‘scroungers’. I always carried the impression that social housing developments all over the UK were prone to hostility, and learning how some portrayals were inversions of that was a shock.
Unsurprisingly, there has been no widespread effort by media or housing associations to instil class consciousness or unity in the UK’s various working-class residents
My first time hearing about the idea that working-class communities were neighbourly and tight-knit came from sociology classes in secondary school and college. Above all, the stereotype we were taught was unrecognisable – the idea that social housing developments occupy entire towns, incorporating community centres and the safety for children to play in the streets is so far from my own experience that I assumed my textbooks were mistaken. Although they do not explicitly promote outdated stereotypes, the A level and GCSE sociology specifications do not provide a clear distinction between types of social housing and enable dangerous caricaturising of working-class identities. Sociology is heavily based in social class theory, and this should be updated in line with 21st century diverse working-class occupations, housing and identities. By key stages 4 and 5, I had developed some level of class consciousness on my own, but being taught at A level that Pearly Kings and Queens were an essential part of working-class culture would have utterly distanced me from the class component of my identity if I had not discovered it first.
The way new social housing is structured in the 21st century results in a hierarchical neighbourly system: the way a single building may be accessed differs between social housing tenants and private homeowners – a phenomenon there by design, in which housing associations are complicit. Simultaneously, the association of living in buildings deemed ‘swanky’ or ‘modern’ discourage social housing tenants from feeling justified in seeking change. Unsurprisingly, there has been no widespread effort by media or housing associations to instil class consciousness or unity in the UK’s various working-class residents, as admitting to the existence of social class and related inequalities would be admitting the failures of capitalism. The way in which current social housing tenants are forced to hush and feel grateful, all while being isolated from other working-class people and deprived of opportunities to organically form strong communities, allows for other injustices to be forgot – such as systems which measure deprivation by postcode missing these residents.
Although the way social housing is structured now is considered positive, hiding social housing tenants among affluent neighbours does not create opportunities for social mobility, but rather alienates them instead. Ultimately, allowing housing associations to operate social housing may relieve councils, but becomes just another example of privatisation facilitating unjust treatment of disadvantaged people and pitting them against each other.
Featured image via Macbean Street Project
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