A simple children’s playground has become the latest symbol of the disturbing rise of stigma in our housing sector. The Baylis Old School development in South London has shocked and angered in equal measure as it has emerged that a playground developed on the site, and originally intended for use by all residents, has been restricted to block social residents from accessing the communal play areas.
Our housing system is widely acknowledged to be broken and in a state of emergency, but what’s often missed from this analysis is how badly this affects children who are subject to the often brutal outcomes of a property market that doesn’t take them into account. This development has been designed in such a way as to literally segregate the children in social homes from the other children.
The Baylis Old School is just one development. But it is symbolic of a much deeper problem – and a harsh reality that segregation and stigma are being institutionalised in our housing system.
In January, Shelter published the findings of our independent commission into the future of social housing, the result of the biggest exercise of listening to social tenants in recent times. It found more than half of the social tenants we spoke to felt they are portrayed unfairly, and one in six feels looked down upon because they live in a social home. A social home can change a life just as much as a job or an education, and yet we have normalised the idea that it’s somehow second class.
And it’s not just in social homes that our broken property market has institutionalised stigma. As Shelter has highlighted, private landlords and private letting agents are frequently putting up “No DSS” signs on adverts for properties or otherwise refusing to rent to those receiving benefits. These are people who can afford the rent, have exemplary records as tenants and yet are told their money isn’t good enough simply because they are relying on benefits as part of their income.
A home is a fundamental need. It’s the platform from which everything else we achieve in life can happen. Without a safe home everything is uncertain. And yet the market we are relying on to provide these safe homes is one in which discrimination is the new normal.
We cannot go on like this.
Those children living in social homes in the Bayliss Old School development just want to play in the playground outside their window. The fact they can’t should give us cause us to ask some pretty fundamental questions. Yes, greater wealth will probably always get people a better and nicer home. But do we want to be a society where that wealth segregates and separates, or do we want to build the spaces which bring people together? Do we want a housing market which treats those who need some help from the state as if they are second class? Do we want to go on like this?
Our country has rarely felt as divided as it does today, but it really doesn’t need to be this way. Social housing, if built in the right way, and properly invested in, can be a source of national pride and unity. It can help people put down roots and it can build strong communities.
The Shelter Commission on social housing laid out a route to a better future where these practices are ended and we invest in three million new social homes throughout our communities for all families who need them. Now is the time to seize that opportunity. For the many who need a safe home and for the children told a playground outside their window is not for them.
Greg Beales is campaign director at the housing charity Shelter.