It’s never been more fashionable to demonise social housing tenants

If there is a ‘dependency culture’ it exists in the banking and privatised utility sectors.

Yesterday was Housing Day when, through events across the country and a ‘tweetathon’, social housing workers showcased the achievements of their occupation while highlighting the effects of a growing housing crisis.

Against this backdrop, one housing association chief executive, £191,000 per year Michael Kent of the 27,000 home Bromford Group, chose to accuse his fellow social landlords of ‘laziness and complacency, concentrating on helping their tenants maximise benefit claims instead of encouraging them get a job or develop self-reliance’.

Alongside this unsubstantiated claim, Mr Kent went on in an open letter to Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud, work and pensions and social security ministers respectively, to support the general thrust of welfare reform, claiming that the UK’s social security system is unsustainable, outdated and social corrosive, without offering any evidence to support the claim.

It is increasingly fashionable, and part of Cameron advisor Lynton Crosby’s dog whistle strategy for winning the 2015 general election, for ministers and their media friends to criticise housing associations and their tenants.

Yet such adverse comments from within the housing association ‘movement’ are unusual: especially from an association where 69 per cent of rental income comes from housing benefit and two thirds of tenants are economically inactive.

There is a growing trend for housing associations to be unfairly portrayed by politicians as playing a pivotal role in concentrating unemployment and benefit dependency and fostering a ‘something for nothing’ society. Mr Kent unfortunately echoes these uncorroborated claims, saying that housing association attitudes and practices have ‘led to a dependency culture and caused deep and untold damage to society’.

Social tenants are the bête noire of this government. Continual cuts to welfare benefits – the bedroom tax and benefit cap being most corrosive and aimed at social tenants – and to services on which they rely are dressed-up as being fair since they ‘make work pay’ behind the ‘all in this together’ mantra.

Social tenants are, in fact, bearing the brunt of public sector cuts to repay the national debt while being blamed for a range of societal problems, such as anti-social behaviour and 2011’s riots; again with precious little evidence.

The charge that housing associations inculcate a ‘dependency culture’ is often based on crude comparisons of the economic status of today’s social tenants with those of the past. The social housing sector does include proportionately more economically inactive tenants than thirty years ago; but this trend can be traced back to the impact of wider economic and housing policies and has little to do with tenants’ lack of self-reliance.

Unemployment has been high since the late 1970s, despite ebbs and flows in the intervening period, and, coupled with the demise of manufacturing, has fuelled growth in worklessness in the social housing sector. Right to Buy social housing, introduced by the Thatcher government in 1980, has also attracted more affluent – usually working tenants – leaving behind those with fewer resources and the unemployed.

These two trends are responsible for higher proportionate benefit reliance in social housing, not some mythical ‘dependency culture’.

If there is a ‘dependency culture’ it exists in the banking and privatised utility sectors where power and privilege are progressively paid for by hard-up workers and people on benefits.

Combined with punitive welfare cuts, and escalating costs of living, the results are the unsustainability of many social tenancies, rising fuel poverty, ballooning use of food banks and tenants as easy prey of loan sharks.

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