I’ve always thought of myself as incredibly lucky to be a social housing tenant. On the two occasions I’ve come to rely on social housing, it has been there to make sure my family has had somewhere to live. When I was growing up, my family found itself technically homeless when an economic downturn in the building market put my Dad out of business and meant our family couldn’t pay the mortgage. A council maisonette, then a newly-built house, meant my family got an opportunity to get back on its feet.
More recently I’ve been a tenant of a council bungalow, a safe, warm, dry, affordable home that’s been adapted to the needs of my wife, who has secondary progressive multiple sclerosis and for whom I’m a full-time carer.
Perhaps I’m an example of how real social housing has become a bit of an emergency service for ‘the most vulnerable’, but I’m hoping the Shelter commission will offer an opportunity to talk about how social housing should be much more available if we’re serious as a nation about solving the housing affordability crisis.
One of the other issue we need to address is the way that social housing has become stigmatised in public, and the imbalanced portrayal of what it means to be a tenant – from programmes focused on how to get a council house to inaccurate depictions of who lives in the majority of social housing.
I only became interested in housing when housing policy came to affect me. As a council house tenant and full-time carer, I made the wrong assumption that the removal of the bedroom tax wouldn’t affect me as it seemed strange to try and make better use of social housing through decanting or charging disabled people and their carers.
The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire has prompted a number of public conversations about social housing. But the conversation needs to be much broader than it currently is. So when I was asked if I’d like to be part of Shelter’s commission to prompt wider discussions about what social housing is, what it is for, who it is for and why it’s so important to communities, I had a bit of a think about it and I said yes.
The commission boasts some impressively recognisable names, and a real range of skills and experiences. It feels like an opportunity for us all to shape a wide-ranging discussion about social housing informed by the communities who live in it and the people who need more of it.
I want to use my time with the commission to amplify the voices and views of other tenants and to highlight how there’s no difference between citizens just because of the tenure they live in. I’m also hoping to explore and share examples of what works in social housing so that we can do more of it. I’m not expecting to design a housing utopia, but we need to bring a bit of reality and pragmatism back into the debates that are all too often shaped only by ideology.
This is a vital opportunity to take part in a national conversation about the sorts of homes and communities we need to plan and build, so we can create a society that understands how central social housing is to addressing the housing crisis, and provide families with the chance to thrive.