Don’t demonise social housing tenants

It’s #HousingDay today – a national campaign that, this year, focusses on challenging the stigma surrounding social housing.

I’ve lived in social housing myself – for about five years when I was in my late teens/early twenties on North Hull Estate. It was the house that my boyfriend’s parents grew up in, his granddad lived out his final years there and my then-boyfriend moved in when his granddad was taken ill.

I need to be honest here. I had a comfortable upbringing – in the sticks. I didn’t want for anything – other than for my dad to take the lock off the phone and a more regular bus service to the city. So I fled village life when I was 17 and moved into a one bed flat with a school friend in the Spring Bank area, then slept on a mattress on a floor in a living room for six months with two other friends in a two-bed flat down the road. I worked part time at a print company and did my A Levels part time at college. For a 17 year old this was the bloody life! I was surrounded by students, we partied a lot, we had people round every day – it was the lifestyle my village-dwelling teenage self had dreamed of.

Then I moved into North Hull Estate and things began to change. I saw real life. The difficult challenges that came with it. And the community that supported one another.

I had already dropped out of college and my boyfriend was unimpressed that I wasn’t working. So I made sure that I re-decorated the house while he was at work and kept up my daily trips to the job centre. I managed to land a full time job at Hull Uni student’s union – collecting glasses. I was constantly drawn back to student life. But collecting glasses wasn’t half as much fun as downing the contents of them.

Basically, moving onto North Hull Estate forced me to grow up a bit.

Thing is, regardless of what people might think about social housing, I found living on that estate brought more responsibility and more reality into my life. My relationship was temperamental but I took my first step into realising a career while living there. A proper career. My boyfriend worked hard as a cabinet maker at a local caravan firm. Long working days but free Friday afternoons. And I started working my way up from administrator to recruitment consultant. I got there too.

Fair enough I was still young and my clubbing days were in full throttle, so whilst I turned up to work with the remnants of the night before still flowing through my veins on some occasions, I was holding down a job.

Eventually, I was earning enough money (around £14k at the time) to buy my own house. My granddad left me £1k in his will and my dad made up the remainder of the deposit – which back in 2001 was around £1,900 on a £38,900 three bedroom house – how times have changed!

So we packed up and left the estate behind.

Now, I can’t pretend I loved living there. But the main reason for that was the fact that my mates lived so far away – I had a case of FOMO – it existed long before the acronym and long before Facebook, just in a totally different way. The other reason was that me and my other half were a pretty bad match and clashed continually. But I never felt unsafe there.

Based on my previous experience, living in studentville was a little edgier than living on the estate. I enjoyed it more, of course I did, but it was round there that I had my top ripped by a stranger down a dark alley way; it was round there that I was flashed at by a guy in the bushes; and it was round there that my sister’s window was put through and a wheelie bin landed in her lounge. From my point of view, I didn’t experience any of this on the estate. I’m not saying that life was easy for many people who lived there – far from it. But for me, the worst thing I saw on the estate was a man lying in the road, drunk and unconscious at 9am one morning. No harm to me, but it was truly upsetting. I don’t think he was on his way home from one of my studenty parties after a cracking time on the Oranjeboom. I think this man’s street-side stupor illustrated more of a struggle, somebody in pain, perhaps. It was tragic, not terrifying.

From my limited experience, social housing has a very different feel to it than other places I have lived. I remember being wary of my neighbours at first – they kept pigeons. When my cat went missing a colleague suggested that my neighbours would have done away with her because ‘pigeon fanciers hate cats’. Turns out, they were the ones who rescued her, cleaned her up and gave her milk until I got home from work. So that was a bit of a jump from the reality of the kindly neighbours next door to pet cemetery central.

Next door but one was another eye opener. While my cat was missing, I was doing door knocks to see if anyone had seen her. I knocked back a double whiskey for Dutch courage before I knocked on their door. I think the family perhaps had learning difficulties. They were probably quite vulnerable. But the lady there really shouted when she spoke. And she was difficult to understand. It could often invite piss-taking and fear. But when you actually took the time to listen to her words, she was trying to engage in a sensible conversation.

I also knew many people who lived on the street who worked or went to college. There was a really strong family vibe too. We were invited by another neighbour to a birthday bash in the pub up the road. It was packed full of family members who all lived down the road.

But of course it’s not all parties, friendly neighbours, fun and games. Not by a long shot. I left home at 17 but I didn’t grow up quickly. I had choice. I felt like I always had a fall back in the form of my parents. I chose to work or go to college and fanny around with life drawing (I’m not suggesting fine art is ‘fannying around’ – just that, really, that’s all I was doing with it. I’m no Tracey Emin). I took nothing seriously. Getting wasted was a choice. We did it because it was fun. We went out to clubs and parties and gig nights at the student pub. It was all a matter of choice. I had no responsibilities.

Moving onto the estate made me grow up and take responsibility. Because this was real life. Not some jumped up kids leaving home for the first time and having a blast. These were real people bringing up kids, holding down jobs, maintaining a home. Life wasn’t easy, in fact for some, life was downright difficult. But there was a sense of rallying against the odds. Obviously, it became too much for some people. That man in the road, for example…And the pub wasn’t jumping around to House of Pain. It was a house of pain at times though. People sitting quietly, alone, with a beer. Then another one….

The estate did feel a bit dark at times – every house looked the same. But people tried to make the most of it and add their personal touch. I think that was a bit of a theme actually. People were trying to make the most of what they had every day.

I’m glad I left when I did. Not just because I wanted to be closer to my friends, but because I no longer needed that house and the cheap rent that came with it. I didn’t know anything about social housing at the time, I didn’t even know I was living in it to be honest. But I did have choice. And when my salary went up a notch I left that home. I hope that it went to a family who really needed it.

I drove by a few years later and had a look. It was definitely lived in. And let’s be honest, they certainly used a lawnmower more than we ever did when we were there.

So what’s the point of this ramble? Basically, don’t take a swing at what you don’t understand. I didn’t understand then – but looking back, there was definitely pride and drive in that community on North Hull Estate. Sadness and challenges too.

If I could change one thing about social housing it would be to make it more integrated. To have mixed communities that promote understanding and opportunity from both sides. A range of people from all walks of life and backgrounds living together. A melting pot. That’s the way I think we should be heading anyway. To me, that would create healthier communities.

Don’t demonise social housing tenants. It’s cuts to public support services and nimbyism, in my view, that are the bigger demons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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