‘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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How Much is too Much Regulation?

The importance of community

The Scottish Housing Regulator’s current consultation on reforms to the regulation of social landlords in Scotland has sparked controversy within the sector (see for example, recent articles in the Glasgow Herald and Inside Housing, and briefing papers by the community housing sector).

The biggest moot point is over plans to introduce a mandatory fixed-term for committee members (who make up landlords’ governing bodies).  This change is especially problematic for small, community-based housing associations (a dominant governance model in the west of Scotland), because their management committees are drawn from ordinary local residents.  The passion, commitment and local knowledge of these individuals, combined with the partnerships they forge with local housing staff have been central to the success of this governance model; and the skills and experience these community leaders develop over the years is invaluable. That the Regulator wants to consign this to the scrap-heap is sad indeed, especially when most committee members are already subject to regular, open elections.  A second related concern is the proposal to pay governing body members.  This not only contradicts the ethos of volunteering and place based social capital that underpins the community housing sector in Scotland, but seeks to introduce a ‘private sector’ governance model which is inappropriate for community organisations, many of whom are also registered charities.  There seems to be a real tension between the Regulator’s desire for ‘professional’ boards and the benefits of community governance through the community ownership of social housing.

Beyond this immediate issue, the consultation also sparks questions about how much is too much regulation?  There have long been concerns that housing associations are over-regulated compared to other independent, third sector organisations. Whilst housing association do receive financial support from the public purse does that mean the Regulator should be able to dictate the terms of their constitution, or how they govern themselves?  Or would the regulatory gaze not be better directed on the Private Rented Sector which is where the real rogue landlords are to be found?  Answers on a postcard …..

(for further discussion of mandatory terms see the excellent paper by GWSF )

 

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