Do we need to re-evaluate how we perceive social housing tenants?
by Yvette Williams MBE
“I didn’t know I was poor until I saw the media coverage of the fire.”
Tasha, my youthful Justice4Grenfell campaign colleague, felt that way because she had lived in social housing all her life.
Those who died in Grenfell Tower were clearly victims of a system that failed to prioritise the safety of poorer citizens, but in highlighting this, it seems the media quickly defined the residents as all being marginalised and poor. As Grenfell Tower remained ablaze, the media told the world that the residents who lived there had a history of illegal subletting, it was overrun with illegal immigrants, they were all poor, unemployed, benefit claimants and that most were unable to speak English. The risk here is that this one-dimensional portrayal has evoked images of tenants living in social housing having hopeless lives. This image perplexed our community, who knew that 14 of the properties in the tower were privately owned by leaseholders; there were civil engineers, teachers, architects, business owners, private renters, artists, nursery workers, hospital porters, the list goes on. In reality, the former residents of Grenfell were a diverse community whose lives and homes were full of purpose, meaning, work and pride, and in many ways just as rich as those who inhabit the townhouses of Kensington and Chelsea.
This modern perception of the ‘characteristics’ of tenants who occupy social housing properties seems to have its roots in the early 1980s under Margaret Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ programme. It is here that home ownership began to define a person’s ‘worth’. If you own your home you are a worthy, upstanding member of society; if you don’t, then you are somehow ‘deviant’ or need to have public evidence of why you are deserving of social housing. We saw this in previous centuries with the notion of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.
In contrast to Tasha, I was raised in a house bought by my parents in 1965 in Birmingham. When I was growing up, we all just had somewhere to live; I wasn’t aware whether my friends lived in private or social housing. We all called where we lived ‘home’.
Since moving to London in the early 1980s, I have always lived in social housing in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is one of the richest parts of the UK and I can’t afford to buy here, but I love our community. People, not buildings, make communities. We welcome millions of people to come and join us for two days every year for the Notting Hill Carnival. I have friends here whose heritages are from all the continents (maybe not Antarctica), I have a diverse childcare support network and my daughter speaks three languages. Why would I want to be anywhere else?
In the 19th century, Kensington’s grand townhouses were owned by the well-to-do, and many had servants housed in their attics. As they moved out to the suburbs and their country piles, the demographic changed. For much of the 20th century, the large Victorian and Edwardian houses were subdivided into multi-occupancy rentals. Rents were cheap, but people were exploited by slum landlords like Peter Rachman. In the 1960s, the area benefited from philanthropy and the development of housing associations. Some of the slum housing was cleared and new social housing developments put up. The Lancaster West Estate, where Grenfell Tower was situated, was opened in the early 1970s.
The demographic began to change again in the 1990s; Kensington is in central London, property prices escalated and only an elite set were able to afford the luxury apartments and refurbished five-storey houses that now sell for millions. In turn, there was a decrease in social housing units for the long-standing community here who could not afford it. We are a working community, but unfortunately those on average salaries cannot meet the price demands. This is happening across the UK and in places like Kensington the situation is exacerbated further by London’s extreme property market.
There are huge myths about those living in social housing, including the assumption that most tenants don’t work. We know that these are usually tenants who are carers, who have a disability or are in retirement. Do they not deserve a home?
Another myth is that they are mostly foreigners. Research by Equity Housing Group (EHG) showed that between 2007 and 2015, 93% of social housing lets in England and Wales went to British nationals. There is also the notion that we all claim housing benefit. But, as EHG states: “The number of housing benefit claimants in social housing, including local authorities and housing association homes, has changed little since the recession, hovering around the 3.3 million mark for over five years. The big increase in welfare spending has been in private accommodation, with the number of people claiming housing benefit or local housing allowance in private homes doubling in 10 years.”
This perception of people who live in social housing needs to change. It is often the only hope people have of somewhere to live within their community.
Assets are often seen as an analogy for ‘good’ human characteristics, while those receiving assistance from charity or the state are thought of as having undesirable characteristics or being poor. This assumed analogy flies in the face of post-war Britain and the Bevan principles of a welfare state for all. Let 72 beautiful souls rest in peace; as a society, let’s respect that everyone deserves a safe and decent home. It is a right, not a privilege.
Yvette Williams MBE is a coordinator for Justice4Grenfell and a founding member of Operation Black Vote
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal — Issue 2 2018