A career in housing is not glamorous, but it is perfect for anyone who wants to improve people’s lives, says Inside Housing’s anonymous columnist
Do you ever worry about your status? My friend Camilla has a £2 million house in Notting Hill, west London, in the very street that the minister of silly walks, John Cleese, once lived.
It is terraced, just like my own, but called a ‘townhouse’. Thanks to that exclusive Notting Hill cachet, it commands what estate agents like to hype as ‘stupendous’ desirability.
Camilla isn’t a snob. Unfortunately, many of her friends from her former Cheltenham Ladies’ College days certainly are. Their snobbery is of that peculiarly thick-skinned British variety that doesn’t acknowledge itself.
At one of Camilla’s parties some weeks ago, I was asked the inevitable ‘and what do you do?’. Among my less well-heeled acquaintances my answer evokes either a swift change of subject - or sometimes genuine interest in my job.
There was real interest on the part of Camilla’s party guest. ‘How could you possibly… those ghastly people … do you feel safe?’ sums up her reaction.
I am pretty thick-skinned myself and this naked fear of the ‘underclass’ doesn’t unsettle me. Nor am I in the least bothered what city lawyers and merchant bankers may think about my chosen career path.
It does worry me though, how our job is seen by young people on the brink of choosing a vocation. We need bright, enthusiastic and positive-minded young recruits. We don’t want them put off by the belief that they will have to work with a bunch of nasty, shell-suited ‘chavs’.
From time to time the media highlights research into young graduates’ career aspirations. Studies seem to show that many want to work in television or publishing, however their ambitions can be even narrower. A jaded media studies lecturer once told me that his students no longer aspired to uncover another Watergate scandal but ‘they just want to be famous for presenting the weather forecast’.
No bright lights
No one with such a superficial mindset is ever going to be attracted to working in housing. The drawbacks of our work are all too evident, while the rewards are mostly hidden.
Residualisation, which is about to be accelerated by the coalition government, has left many of our tenants poor, vulnerable and deprived. In my own patch, which is not one of the poorest, more than half are on benefits.
Some of their houses are very smelly. You wouldn’t want to sit down, let alone accept a cup of tea. Some keep nasty dogs. Some are threatening and others outright violent. I can see Camilla’s friend’s point.
But of course that isn’t the whole story. The ‘difficult’ tenants form a very small proportion. Most tenants I work with are friendly and, since banter is a cultural requirement in my part of the world, enjoy a good laugh. To be honest, I would rather spend time in their company, than with career and status-obsessed high-flyers. They are not to be looked down on because they don’t have a lot of money. They deserve to be treated better by politicians, who often rush to blame them and demonise their behaviour.
Many tenants have complex problems, be it with their health, finances or family relations. Some need a helping hand to overcome mental or physical disabilities.
In fact, that’s the crux of it - and why I would recommend a housing career to anyone who likes people. You are not just there to collect the rent and make sure tenants keep their houses in order; you are trying to help them.
That could be by explaining how to access the services they need, or it might be by offering them support to run their tenancies better. These days, the boundaries between housing and social work are becoming ever fuzzier, especially for anyone working in tenancy support.
I have met some really enthusiastic, intelligent and dedicated young people starting out in a housing career and this is heartening. I do wonder though, whether the profession might not attract many more of them, were it not for the relentless negativity of the press towards social housing. When did you last see a good news story emerging from a council estate? Lazy journalism that panders to prejudice has created negative stereotyping. I was shocked but not surprised to read recently that disabled people have been attacked because they are assumed to be scrounging.
Fear of the unknown
Snobbery is not the only recruitment blockage we face. There is also ignorance and fear - a worry that the work-shy lower classes are dangerous. The fact that the participants in last year’s riots were neither all unemployed nor exclusively in social housing hasn’t prevented extreme commentators and bloggers portraying our tenants as likely culprits. There is another anxiety underpinning these negative attitudes; that of failing in life and having to fall back into council housing.
All of this then, may be off-putting for would-be young housing workers. It has to be said that housing isn’t the profession for those who enjoy the competitive cut and thrust, or who want to claw their way to the top across the prone bodies of less talented (or ruthless) colleagues. It is work for co-operatively minded folk who like people and get satisfaction from improving their lives.
But how do we get this message across? I would have made a start by trying to persuade Camilla’s friend, but she wandered over to the tray of canapés before I could reply.
Inside Housing’s anonymous columnist is a senior housing officer