Social housing renewal: threats to tenant stability and security

This piece was published by Parity in their special edition on Issues in Housing Tenure (September 2017). 

Social housing has been source of secure, stable tenancies for vulnerable Australian households for decades.

There is ample evidence to show that social housing provides tenants with sense of belonging, security, safety and a bond related to their shared project of ‘getting by’ (see, for just a small sample of this evidence, (Clampet-Lundquist, 2010; Keene & Geronimus, 2011a; Manzo, Kleit, & Couch, 2008).

In recent years, social housing has provided these benefits to a declining segment of the population. In Australia, the proportion of residents housed in social housing declined from 4.9% in 1981 to 4.4% in 2016 (AHURI, 2017). This falls well short of meeting demand: the proportion of households that meet the criteria for eligibility for public housing was 11% in 2011, and those who pay more than 30% of income in rent comprised 8.7% of all households the same year (AHURI, 2017).

Now even those who retain their public housing tenancies are having the security and stability of those tenancies threatened, thanks to government enthusiasm for public housing estate renewal.

Renewal tends to involve the demolition of existing dwellings and their replacement with privately-developed housing, often a mix of social, affordable and private housing. Usually this results in social housing occupying a significantly smaller proportion of total housing on the site, and causes disruption or forces the relocation of incumbent residents.

While this process does not end the social housing tenancies of those who live there, it can sever their relationship to place, disrupt communities and neighbourly friendships, and cause displacement (Manzo et al., 2008).

Renewal projects often involve physical displacement to make way for the redevelopment project, with residents relocated either temporarily (often for several years) or permanently. Displacement has been shown to cause significant negative impacts for residents. Even in those instances where residents are not physically relocated, the state-led gentrification brought about by these estate redevelopments often involves social and cultural displacement (see Hyra (2015) for a description of these kinds of displacement). This displacement occurs when residents become the minority group within their own neighbourhoods.

There is a paucity of evidence to demonstrate that ‘social mix’—the concept frequently called upon to justify renewal projects—does much to benefit the lives of low-income tenants ( Arthurson, 2010; Bolt, Phillips, & Van Kempen, 2010; Galster, 2007). However, evidence shows that the redevelopment projects that are involved in trying to engineer social mix can cause significant negative impacts for residents (see for example, (Clampet‐Lundquist, 2004; Keene & Geronimus, 2011b; Manzo et al., 2008).

The renewal processes put in place by governments around the country do not necessarily put tenancies directly at risk—generally, tenants retain their eligibility to live in social housing. However, these projects and the forced relocation they so often entail threaten the very benefits that a social housing place provides—security, stability, certainty, the ability to develop a sense of place and belonging. These projects rupture the relationships with neighbours and community that we consider to be important for building social capital—not to mention a happy and fulfilling life.

This is tied to a trend that sees governments reminding tenants that they should not consider their public housing unit to be home. In a recent review of social housing rents by the NSW Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal, it was recommended that the department adopt a formal policy that ‘eligibility for social housing means eligibility for a suitable dwelling that meets the household’s needs, rather than a specific dwelling’ (IPART, 2017). Such a policy would have two effects—the first, as articulated in the report, would mean that tenants would be asked to move if their circumstances change in order to allow more ‘efficient’ allocation of public housing stock. The second is that tenants are expected to view their housing not as a home, but simply as a place they might live until their needs change. This fits with broader trends outside social housing, where the commodification of housing has eroded the notion of housing as home at the expense of housing as an asset.

Governments may not consider that redevelopment threatens or compromises tenant’s relationship with their housing. But such projects threaten tenants’ ability to hold on to the place and community attachments that stem from having a secure, stable and affordable tenancy. Forced displacement and the state-led gentrification of public housing estates put the tenancies of our most vulnerable citizens at risk, and jeopardises the ability of tenants to imagine their public housing unit as ‘home’, rather than just a temporary shelter.


AHURI (2017) What is the right level of social housing? 

Arthurson, K. (2010). Operationalising Social Mix: Spatial Scale, Lifestyle and Stigma as Mediating Points in Resident Interaction. Urban Policy and Research, 28(1), 49–63.

Bolt, G., Phillips, D., & Van Kempen, R. (2010). Housing Policy, (De)segregation and Social Mixing: An International Perspective. Housing Studies, 25(2), 129–135.

Clampet-Lundquist, S. (2010). “Everyone had your back”: Social ties, perceived safety, and public housing relocation. City and Community, 9(1), 87–108.

Clampet‐Lundquist, S. (2004). HOPE VI relocation: Moving to new neighborhoods and building new ties. Housing Policy Debate, 15(2), 415–447.

Galster, G. (2007). Should Policy Makers Strive for Neighborhood Social Mix? An Analysis of the Western European Evidence Base. Housing Studies, 22(4), 523–545.

Hyra, D. (2015). The back-to-the-city movement: Neighbourhood redevelopment and processes of political and cultural displacement. Urban Studies, 52(10), 1753–1773.

IPART (2017) Review of rent models for social and affordable housing. Published April 2017.

Keene, D. E., & Geronimus, A. T. (2011a). Community-based support among African American public housing residents. Journal of Urban Health, 88(1), 41–53.

Keene, D. E., & Geronimus, A. T. (2011b). “Weathering” HOPE VI: The Importance of Evaluating the Population Health Impact of Public Housing Demolition and Displacement. Journal of Urban Health, 88(3), 417–435.

Manzo, L. C., Kleit, R. G., & Couch, D. (2008). “Moving Three Times Is Like Having Your House on Fire Once”: The Experience of Place and Impending Displacement among Public Housing Residents. Urban Studies, 45(9), 1855–1878.

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