All things social

I was reminded this week of the first ever CIH Rising Stars competition and the question posed to the entrants; it was all about the word social and how it can be perceived positively or negatively depending on the context, ie. positive if it’s about social networking, but negative if it’s about social housing. My reminder of this came in a conversation with a colleague about the loss of social values in social housing by some individuals and organisations that are blinded by the promises of a fully commercialised sector.

The phrase commercial head and social heart is thrown around quite a lot but I think it’s a really important principle we must all operate under, whether you work in the not for profit world, public, private or third sector. Given all the challenges of the new Conservative majority government, it worries me that some may consider the social purpose of the housing world to be too negative, too difficult, too risky or too low reward financially to continue bothering with. As has been said many times before, if social housing doesn’t offer a home to those on low incomes, with support needs or in crisis, who will? And if the popularity of Benefit Street and other such programmes is anything to go by, there isn’t much public support out there for our cause.

I know there are thousands of dedicated housing professionals who work tirelessly every single day, sometimes with little thanks or reward other than knowing they have done their bit to tackle the housing crisis where they are. I hope that those on a commercial journey recognise this and their social roots and stay true to them. Some of my work involves managing a small number of homes for market rent, let to households you wouldn’t generally find on a waiting list. So you might ask how does this fit with values of social housing? There’s the usual cross subsidy argument, but also, whilst these households might not be in a crisis or excluded from the market because of their low income or support needs, their needs are not met by the market because what’s on offer is too costly, poor quality,  insecure or badly managed. Their’s is a different type of housing need but nonetheless one that can and should be met by social housing organisations as part of our mission to ensure everyone has a decent and affordable place to call home. But we should not prioritise one type of housing need over another, but tackle as much of each as we can.

I’ve blogged before on this topic of losing our social hearts and it seems that this won’t be the last, I guess all any of us can do is to fight for our cause in any way we can. Mine will be to always operate with a social heart no matter what and I expect my next challenge in this respect will be ensuring our market rent project indirectly benefits those on the waiting list/current social tenants and that we don’t succumb to replicating the practices of the market (such as insecurity and unfair fees) to squeeze out maximum profits but embed our social values alongside our commercial approach.

You may recall that I made the final three of the CIH Rising Stars competiton last year, but you may not know this was actually the second time I had entered the competition. At the start of this post I mentioned the topic of the very first Rising Stars competition; here is my entry from 2011:

How do we tackle the problem that the word ‘social’ is good when followed by ‘networking’ and bad when followed by ‘housing’?

Is it to be expected that the word ‘social’ has positive connotations when followed by ‘networking’ and negative when followed by ‘housing’ given the different concepts that each represents?
Whilst social networking represents a fundamental and forward-thinking change to the way our society communicates and interacts, social housing evokes images of deprivation, exclusion and residualisation.
Whilst social networking is social because it is about people, and about bringing people and information together to one place to interact in their own way; social housing is social because it was created in response to a problem recognised by society (although it’s now considered as much a part of the problem as the solution). And therein lays the source of the positive and negative feelings associated with each term.
But that is not to say that social housing is not also about people; in the same way that the people using social networking make it what it is, the people living in social housing make it what it is. So given that both are about people, I believe that their work must go hand in hand and that they must each learn from the successes of the other for the benefit of the communities they serve.
Social housing providers must recognise and apply to their own work the principles that make social networking so successful. That is, bringing diverse people and information together and empowering them to discuss and tackle the issues that are important to them. Be that through platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and hyperlocal blogs, or by facilitating community groups.
In this way social housing providers can harness the power of social networking and enable communities to tackle the negative perceptions that surround the sector. And in a world where currently the result of media-influenced perceptions becoming reality is that people suffer impoverished lives, it is vitally important that action is taken.
You might think that challenging something as deeply entrenched as the negative perceptions that surround social housing may be beyond the capabilities of a platform where users can only express themselves in 140 characters or less; but the power of social networking should not be underestimated. Earlier this year, it made a significant contribution to the Egyptian revolution and the ending of three decades of violent oppression. How? Revolutionaries used it to transmit their messages to the world and to stimulate international support for their cause.
With this in mind, I believe that social networking can and must be used to empower people to tackle important issues and to challenge the negative perceptions that surround the sector. Ultimately, it must be used to ensure that the word ‘social’ is good when followed by ‘networking’ and ‘housing’.

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