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:
- 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.