Societal and Legislative Attitudes Toward Social Housing Tenants in Ireland: Critical Evaluation of Housing Law and Policies, Statistics, Case Law and Literature

By Tatiana V. Kelly
2013, Vol. 5 No. 08 | pg. 1/4 |

One area in which the division among Irish citizens remains apparent is in the realm of social housing. Housing represents the largest expense as well as the largest investment for most households: home ownership strongly continues to symbolize wealth of an individual in the eyes of society and provides a basis for social inclusion of all citizens. And when housing is unaffordable, not accessible, or simply unsuitable for a particular family unit, it can result in emotional as well as financial distress and social exclusion. The provision of shelter is a prerequisite of human existence, typically considered one of the most basic and human requirements to maintain a reputable social status and to engage fully in economic and public life.1

While for some, housing is a shelter or a home, it became increasingly popular during the past decade to see housing as a capital and an investment. Such phenomenon was described by Powers as “the most conspicuous sign of inequality.”2 It eventually contributed to a distinct division of social classes in Ireland, where some people were left homeless while others enjoyed the ownership of multiple housing units.

Living in a house, however, does not always grant a particular respectable status to an individual. It can in some cases create stigma, result in social deprivation and treatment as second-class citizens, archived through the process of residualization, segregation and social exclusion. An apparent example is a segregation of a certain class of citizens in social housing estates. When poor households and low-quality houses are concentrated in a single area, the negative ramifications of individual housing challenges increase substantially.3 Concentration of poverty often also correlates to a concentration of ethnic minorities.4 As a result, such economic segregation limits individuals’ access to goods, services and employment. This approach was criticized by the Chartered Institute of Building by expressing the view that placement of citizens in “stop-gap” semi-permanent accommodation in inappropriate concentrations should be avoided.5 Households which are economically vulnerable and disempowered in the first instance are, therefore, further disadvantaged within the Irish housing system, from the initial application to the very end.6

The initial aim of this essay is to analyze and evaluate literature, case law, statistical data, housing legislative provisions and local authorities’ policies in relation to social housing in Ireland, with an aim toward highlighting the unequal treatment of social housing residents by the legislature, local authorities, media and public in general. By analyzing relevant legislative provisions, policies and case law, it is argued that the status and social perception of those who rely on social housing provisions in Ireland amount to a form of second-class citizenship. In conclusion, some proposals to reduce inequality and generalization are addressed.

Public Perceptions and Media Representations of Irish Social Housing

First of all, it is essential to understand the importance of media in the process of social exclusion. The media often frames public attitudes to social housing tenants. Stereotypes, that may bear little resemblance to reality, also influence perception of this class of citizens. One of the primary elements of attitude formation is information, filtered by individuals through the media.7 The strategy behind most current tabloids is to sell their press. And in order to do so an article must be “eye-catching” and it must “scream” at the reader. For these reasons, some of the background to publications may be omitted and extra colors are added instead. A random example in relation to social housing can be a publication of eviction of women for anti-social behavior. This procedure in general raises concerns not just about deficient societal attitudes, but women’s rights in general.8 Presented as a “trouble-maker,” the reasons for such behavior, such as domestic violence, alcohol dependency, depression, victims of anti-social behavior, may not always feature in the publication. Instead, a simple statement of fact coupled with statistics is presented. The cause of such behavior may be either of no interest to the press or it may be a case of hidden agenda. Therefore, the public, in forming perceptions, can often see only the top of the iceberg as laid out by the media. Research by McCombs also demonstrated a strong correlation between the media and public agendas.9 With the mass media, relentlessly continuing to reiterate an increase in crime rates committed by low-income individuals, it places a further nail in the coffin of social isolation and deprivation of those unfortunate to be in the same category.

It is important at this point to discuss factors which may lead to the assertion that the status of social housing tenants almost amount to second-class citizenship. To analyze this issue, it is necessary to consider and apply the labeling theory in a social housing context. Labeling theory focuses on the informal and formal application of stigmatization by society and agents of control on some of its members. Such agents of control, who function on behalf of powerful in society, impose the labels on the less powerful, initiated by the reaction of the larger society. 10 The process of branding with stigmatizing labels and exclusion from the community results very often from peoples’ social status and their mailing address. The outcome, according to the symbolic interactionism theory by Cooley,11 is that our own self-concepts reflect of others’ conceptions of us. Further beliefs, self-esteem and actions can therefore be shaped by such societal labeling. Particularly when confronted with a label applied by those with power and authority, individuals may find it impossible to resist. In the context of social housing, there is, therefore, a potential danger that once the societal attitude forms, often fueled by the media towards a particular class of tenants, it will start a chain of causation. The reaction of larger society may reflect a legislative process by those in power and endorse a second-class status of social housing applicants without any chance for defense or detailed analysis. Public opinion is one of the driving forces behind the creation and maintenance of public policies.12 Perceptions and lack of information covering all angles prove particularly influential in attitude formation towards social and housing welfare policies.13 Therefore, the core issue lies in changing attitudes about people who may be different from prevailing social class though an intelligent use of the media and public education in the sphere of social housing tenants.

Evaluation of Statistical Reports

Prevailing generalized attitude towards social housing residents is that these people are generally unemployed, uneducated and therefore occupy the lowest niche of our society. While Special Census Report on Homelessness 2011 provided a strong data indicating that people who were homeless had lower levels of educational attainment,14 no data could be found to confirm the same in relation to other categories of applicants for social housing. For these reasons, generalization should be utilized with great caution.

Statistics in relation to employment also provides different to public perceptions results.15 The Housing Needs Assessment 201116 shows that despite the fact that most of applicants in Ireland fall into the category of those, who are not able to meet the cost of accommodation and they are unemployed, the second largest category of applicant are hard-working families in secured employment with their total income falling within maximum thresholds, as prescribed by Local Authorities.17 Historical analysis of this data for 2002-2008 also confirms same tendencies.18

Another study from Social Justice Ireland showed an increase in unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment.19 Despite the above, it is likely that the second category of social housing applicants will remain unaffected. Further decline in employment and a certain range of decisions made by the Government in Budget 2013 will continue to have a negative impact on the most vulnerable in Irish society. Debates about adequate funding for social housing should be done in combination with addressing unemployment in general, to ensure that at least those, who are in employment, will be giving a fair opportunity to continue it and therefore avoid being socially excluded and stigmatized by upper middle-class citizens.

It is interesting to note that within a single category of unemployed people, the Housing Needs Assessment 2011 provides no further breakdown into subcategories of short-term or long-term applicants, therefore conferring the same status to a distinct group of applicants. By segregating all categories under the single umbrella of social housing tenants, distinctions become blurred and generalization by the public becomes inevitable.

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