Tackling the Social Housing Stigma – the Need to Fit in, Not Stand Out

The UK affordable housing sector is one of the best in the world – today HAs and LAs across the country are producing incredibly high quality housing developments which focus on both community and inclusion. At the same time, we know that outside of the sector a social housing stigma still exists. Ken Morgan, Head of the Public Sector Regeneration Team at John Rowan and Partners, discusses what the sector is doing to tackle it and how asset management and taking a positive approach to regeneration is making a difference…

A Government Green Paper published in August 2018 aimed to tackle the stigma associated with social housing. With five core themes, it sought views on celebrating thriving communities, expanding supply and supporting home ownership, effective resolution of complaints, empowering residents and strengthening the regulator, and ensuring homes are safe and decent.

Those of us working within the sector know the importance of tackling social housing stereotypes and the fact that these damaging views risk unfairly marginalising whole sections of our communities. Recent research has shown that social housing tenants exposed to this stigma say they feel ‘less of a person’ just because of where they live. It’s as if they’re labelled, with unfair assumptions made about their lifestyles and morals.

A year on from the report, we wanted to look at the ways some of the HAs and LAs we work with have been tackling the issue of stigma through their maintenance programmes. We believe best practice asset management and maintenance programmes which aim to help social homes blend in with their private neighbours are key to this.

So, what can be done?

Of course, there are pressures on council and housing association budgets – it was ever thus. But what about all those older flats and houses that already exist? When it comes to the regular refurbishment, renovation or redecoration that’s scheduled, is it just a case of replacing like for like, repainting with the same colours or using cheapest materials?

We believe there is a real opportunity for taking a fresh look at these homes and asking what could be done differently. After all, good design and the way buildings look and fit in with their environment can have a major impact on all residents and the wider community.

Designing out stigma

The design and ‘feel’ of a building often serves to highlight social housing, setting it apart from private residences, but this need not be the case. Why should social housing necessarily have to be fitted out to a lower spec or have a different door colour to everyone else? We’ve worked with Has and Las who have shown that social properties can in fact blend in and become a much more integrated part of the wider community, engendering a sense of pride, inclusion and belonging. Now the standard approach for many new developments, this approach taken through the maintenance and refurbishment of affordable housing can pay dividends.

There are lots of areas where landlords have been making a positive difference through asset management. It might sound obvious, but many of these can be missed off the list when it comes to social housing – giving a not so subliminal message about such properties being somehow less worthy.

What do we think the focus should be on? Good landscaping (both soft and hard) with well-kept communal gardens. Using good quality paving blocks on walkways, which help residents avoid the risks of slips or trips? Is there good lighting as you approach, are there motion sensors in place, and is the entrance door smart in appearance, and equipped with controlled entry? If the building is also occupied by private tenants, then ensuring that social housing occupants come in via the same door, and not a separate entrance, can make a big difference. One door can fit all!

Look for opportunities to improve appearance, for example, rather than undertaking isolated patch repairs or small areas of repointing on the external elevation which stand out. We’ve worked with clients who take the more costly but positive approach to repoint or repaint the entire area, while also improving fences, gates as well as window frames, fascias, etc., greatly uplifting the external appearance.
Is the entrance door to the block, and to the individual home, painted in a fresh, bright colour, and does this colour blend in with the nearby private housing? We believe that you shouldn’t be able to tell that a building is occupied by social housing tenants just by the colour of the front door.

Flat roofs have been replaced with pitched roofs, which are known for their longevity and durability, meaning maintenance is often less of a focus compared to flat roofs.

Using LED lighting in entranceways, stairwells and inside individual flats / houses, and looking at the flooring are a number of options that we have found deliver durability, are low maintenance while still looking smart and welcoming.

Inside the properties, we recommend looking closely at kitchen units and worktops. If you’re going to replace them, look for items with a better quality and finish which generally results greater longevity.

Wooden flooring can be a good option for longevity and low maintenance. Some recent projects have included feature walls. It’s these small touches that can help give an inexpensive sense of individuality from one flat to the next.

If in doubt, ask

Some of the most successful maintenance projects have asked tenants what they’d like to see? While we appreciate you can’t promise them everything, we’ve seen that an openness to their ideas, will mean you pick up some great suggestions that you can incorporate in your plans.

There are costs involved, of course, just as there are with any refurbishments or renovations. We don’t believe, however, that this approach needs to cost substantially more. Smart thinking and the willingness to explore alternative options will help identify ways of upgrading assets in such a way that will deliver longer-term benefits for maintenance, upkeep, the lifetime of assets and importantly, occupant satisfaction.

Lower maintenance properties are better for all – residents have less cause for complaint to and about you as the landlord, costs and time spent on issues are both reduced. Instead of reinforcing segregation and ‘difference’, this approach has helped to deliver inclusion, while at the same time, protecting and enhancing the assets of HAs and LAs.

Showcasing asset management

We have seen that well-maintained properties are then viewed differently within the community, making them less likely to be the source of complaints (from both occupants and other local residents). At the same time, it could make it more likely that future planning applications for new social housing will be looked upon favourably by the community, as the historic social stigma will have been much reduced, if not removed altogether.

We believe there is a great opportunity to help set a new standard for asset management by developing design and maintenance manuals which can be used across the sector. But to achieve this, it needs to be driven by boards and committees who can provide clear direction and challenge the maintenance process.

These examples show how the sector is helping to raise the bar for asset management and deliver more inclusive communities. The development of a common accepted standard could be adopted by all social housing landlords. Together let’s look at our social housing stock and ask how we can make it fit in, not stand out!