‘Mixing it Up’ – Can Tenure-Mix Help Overcome Social Distance?

Last week I was teaching my class about mixed communities policy, and in the seminar that followed we were discussing our own attitudes towards living in socially mixed neighbourhoods and how tenure-mix might alleviate poverty. Now, as a housing researcher I am very critical of the evidence base underpinning this idea:

Mixed Communities

  • I find the ‘role model’ idea very patronising (in a nutshell this theory suggests social renters can become better citizens by living next door to home-owners … seriously?!)
  • I don’ think housing policy on its own can address the problems of concentrated poverty (wealth also needs to be redistributed via person centred as well as place-based solutions)
  • Research suggests home-owners and social renters don’t really interact on mixed-tenure estates (there still seems to be segregation within some estates)

Despite all of the above I still find the ideal of social mix an attractive one because of its potential to help overcome social distance.  And here’s why …. one of the things that struck me in the conversations with my students is that social housing is very much an alien concept to them. Few of them know social housing tenants personally, and so are too ready to accept popular stereotypes perpetuated in the tabloids which renders such people and places as ‘problematic’ (see Sean Damer’s class book for example).

This is in stark contrast to my own childhood experience in North Lanarkshire – a local authority dominated by council housing. I grew up in social housing and even now live in an ex-council house. My housing estate (or ‘scheme’ as we would call it in Scotland) is comprised of a mix of renters and owners, and to be honest that’s one of its endearing features. You can’t tell (aesthetically) which homes are bought and which are rented, and both are pepper-potted at the street-level, which allows more social interaction across tenures. Having experienced social mix first-hand I have a very different view of social housing from my students, because I can more easily separate the moral panic about ‘sink estates’ and ‘schemes’ from the reality of life in working class communities.

To me, mixing people of different backgrounds together (whether in the context of housing & neighbourhoods, comprehensive schools, a national health service etc) is key to bridging social distance and emphasising the common bonds that bind us all together.  Physical segregation by contrast reinforces differences.  Arguably one of the strengths of social housing in Scotland in its hey day was that it was home to a broad cross section of the population (it wasn’t just for the ‘poor’).  In a Scottish context tenure-mix has also been really important for social mobility by allowing ‘aspiring’ households to remain in their local community, instead of leaving it in search of better (often private) housing markets elsewhere.  This is probably the bracket I’d put myself in, as where I live now is only a few miles away from where I grew up as a child.  And I have a strong place attachment to the area.

So despite my hostility to the evidence base surrounding ‘tenure-mix’ as a solution to concentrated poverty, I have been pondering that perhaps mixed communities aren’t always a bad thing.  Nor does it always equate with gentrification as some on the left have argued (although in some circumstances it can do – see for example the work of Kirsteen Paton on Partick in Glasgow).  Would be interested in other people’s views on this, as I know many housing researchers are critical of tenure (and social) mix  – often for very good reasons.


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4 Comments to ‘Mixing it Up’ – Can Tenure-Mix Help Overcome Social Distance?

  • Peter Matthews says:

    I agree with you. Except, to bang my usual drum, I think it’s also the concentrations of affluence we have to focus on in “mixing” and pepper-potting social rented housing into these neighbourhoods, possibly through voucher schemes. Although the hoo-ha that has erupted in many Edinburgh residents because of Edinburgh Council’s policy of using the private rented sector to house homeless people shows how difficult this can be.

    I also think it’s important not to be too rosy about the heyday of Scottish social housing. I imagine, post the late 60s early 70s homelessness legislation, when 50% of Scots did rent their homes, most neighbourhoods were very mixed, but the work of Sean Damer and also Alan MacGregor and the team at the Paisley CDP in the 1970s also demonstrated how discriminatory housing allocations could be and how they regularly housed those in greatest needs in “supervised” housing and the like.

    But, good point to make and a good post :o)

  • Peter Matthews says:

    oops, my smiley went wrong. I meant :-)

    • David Manley says:

      An interesting, reflective blog that made me pause. Let me try and chuck in a couple of challenges (or ramblings):

      It is, initiatively very difficult to argue against social mix. I guess where I approach the debate from is a concern about the conflation of social mix and mixed tenure. They are not the same thing! Developing mixed tenure policies or neighbourhoods does not automatically lead to social mix. Indeed, the diversity of social background in many mixed tenure areas is very low with the renters and the homeowners being very similar. After all, we know from the literature that people tend to select neighbourhoods based on a desire to live with other people similar to themselves. Tenure diversity does not equate to social, economic or cultural diversity. I‘d suggest there is, also, an important difference between ‘natural’ social mix and ‘engineered’ social mix: who governs how much of each group should be allowed to live in a certain area? What rights do the groups excluded have? When social mix is promoted (through mixed tenure regeneration) what of those who are displaced?

      Social distance is harder to refute. Bringing different groups (however defined) into contact with each other can help to challenge folk myths and media stereotypes. But, social distance doesn’t just exist in the Cartesian plane: social distance can exist in the way in which very spatially close groups develop strategies to avoid each other. Anecdotally, the “we’re not like them” attitude can be very difficult to overcome even when the spatial distance is very small. Moreover having a large social distance between people in very close proximity can have negative effects as well: There is recent research that suggests living in close proximity to others who are much wealthier than you are can be seriously problematic for an individual’s mental well-being.

      Finally, you get at one of the major contradictions in the urban literature: social mix = good; segregation = bad! After all, who wants to promote segregation, and segregated neighbourhoods?! Of course, this assumes segregation is automatically a negative. However, I think there is sufficient evidence to at least suggest that some forms of segregation are actually quite good. For instance, when specialist services (food shops, or religious institutions) need a sizeable population base segregation can be very helpful.

      Ultimately when something seems so initiatively ‘right’ and difficult to argue against is exactly the when we have a responsibility to stop and question why we think how we do?!

  • Kim McKee says:

    Thanks for your comments folks. They highlight many of the complexities behind his debate! No easy answers.

    1)I agree on the conflating of social & tenure mix; not the same thing at all (and a very UK take on the issue I guess when you think of some of the international literature)
    2)Interesting point about the engineered v natural social mix. The RTB is a funny one in this respects as it was designed to encourage tenure mix (amongst other things), but one of the reasons why it was so successful was because people really liked their council homes & neighbourhoods
    3)The old Paul Cheshire argument about segregation is an interesting one, and in some circumstances I can see how that would work, but I think it ignores the way in which choice is ‘constructed’, and that not all groups would choose to live in segregated areas

    1)Good point about the homelessness legislation, interestingly the same issue comes up a lot when I interview social housing tenants (so nimbyism seems to cross-cut tenure!)
    2)Yes Damer’s work on social housing management certainly challenges some of the romanticism but what I liked about that era was that the tenure housed a much broader cross-section of the population and was much more ‘socially mixed’ (and less stigmatised) than it is now.

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