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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

Housing Studies Association conference discusses ‘housing as a site of struggle’


CIH policy and practice research officer Dr Yoric Irving-Clarke shares observations from the Housing Studies Association (HSA) conference held last week which discussed, among other topics, the causes of homelessness, the intimate connection between housing and identity, stigma and social housing, and the tools available to housing academics and professionals to address these issues.

So, another HSA conference has come and gone. This year’s conference was themed around ‘housing as a site of struggle’, international, nations, organisational, interpersonal and personal. The conference is a chance for housing academics and practitioners to come together and talk about the issues facing the sector, indeed HSA exists to facilitate conversations between these two sectors.

Many of the plenaries and workshops centred around the concept of home and how this differs from ‘housing’. Sometimes it is all too easy to focus on housing policy as a conversation about numbers and supply, rather than the intimate connection we have with ‘home’. These are my top takeaways from the conference.

The causes of homelessness

Evidence from Shelter shows that inequality is the true cause of homelessness rather than deprivation. Inequality is demonstrated by many people’s inability to compete in the market place and the reasons for this are manifold. High demand, inadequate Local Housing Allowance rates, welfare reform, prejudice and ‘extra assurance’ e.g. deposits, right to rent checks were all stated as barriers to the housing market for many. Additionally, the case was made that ‘complex needs’ are often a symptom of people being inadequately housed, not a cause. In short, the cause of homelessness is failed housing policy rather than behavioural failure.

Housing and identity are intimately connected

A key theme of the opening plenary was identity and the “emotional politics” of home. We should all ask ourselves what it means to feel ‘at home’, and what impacts this has for policy making? How do we build houses that enable people to ‘feel at home’? Similar issues were discussed on day 2 with Peter Matthews (University of Stirling) and Lindsay McCarthy (Sheffield Hallam) exploring housing and homelessness from LGBT+ and feminist perspectives. This was a thought-provoking session asking whether it was possible to be adequately housed but still be homeless – feelings of precarity caused by domestic abuse, heteronormativity, financial issues or bereavement may cause feelings of insecurity tantamount to ‘homelessness’. Feeling at home with ourselves is as important as feeling at home in our environment – and one informs the other.

Stigma is complex and elusive

In my own session, I explored the history and nature of stigma and its application to social housing. I made the case that the stigmatisation of people unable to provide housing for themselves has a far longer history than we think; workhouses and asylums being the pre-cursors to today’s malaise. However, polling for the Rethinking Social Housing project by Ipsos MORI showed the public have a more positive view of social housing than many of us think. In the discussion afterwards, the audience tried to decide whether the stigma around social housing is real or imaginary – the jury is still out! The spatial nature of stigma was also raised, some areas that are stigmatised may contain streets that are stigmatised even within that area…much to think about…

We have the tools to address these issues…

Throughout the sessions, although there was much criticism of the place we find ourselves, I also felt optimistic that we have the conceptual and practical tools to tackle these issues. We have thoughtful academics and practitioners helping us refine concepts like home (Affordability, Accessibility, Security, Quality [Francesca Albanese, Crisis]); understand the philosophical concepts behind our housing and homelessness systems (desert, need, vulnerability, utility, rights & equality [Katie Colliver, Heriot-Watt]) and how these intersect to form policy and shape people’s housing experiences; and model and predict the number of homes we need to build to ensure everyone has safe, quality housing.

We also have committed and passionate practitioners who dedicate their time to helping people in housing need and campaigning for a more just, fairer housing system informed by the research evidence.

Despite the challenges I left the conference in good spirits and confident we can tackle the housing crisis. And as I got to work today, the government was talking about abolishing ‘no-fault’ evictions – a great start!

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