Social Housing, the language used | S1 E3

Language, as we all know from misinterpreted texts, petty arguments, and conversations about who’s turn it is to do the dishes, is a moveable, interpretable beast. A simple combination of letters can have multiple meanings depending on who’s reading it, deliberate subtext depending on who’s writing it, and the implications of both can be far reaching. Social housing is no different. 

Even the term Social Housing itself has become a blanket phrase and covers a number of different types of non-market rented housing that doesn’t give any specifics on the differences between the dwellings within that range. 

When we talk social housing, we’ve called it a few things through the years:






Affordable housing

And there is a perfect example of what I was just saying. Affordable is one of those magically pliable words that means something completely different to each person to hears or uses it. For so many within the social housing system, “Affordable Housing” is an alienating term. 

Politicians are well aware of the crisis facing this country – and have been for some time – and have had to find words that keep everyone happy and promise the right thing to all the stakeholders. Part of that is creating a language that is universal for those in the same sphere as them – jargon. I came across one of those terms for the first time in an Invitation for Tender by the European Union’s European Regional Development Fund. I’ll read you the first couple lines:

The work completed through this tender will inform the design and manufacturing work within the Black Country Retrofit Wrap project, a project which is supported by the European Regional Development Fund and Accord Housing Association Limited. 

The Black Country Retrofit Wrap is to test the applicability of retrofitting Closed 240mm Panel Timber Frame units (constructed by LoCaL Homes) to 22 properties, some of the worst performing properties in some of the Country’s worst super output areas and transforming the properties to good new build performance standards.

Output areas are a geographic hierarchy designed to improve the reporting of small area statistics in England and Wales, and were originally generated to facilitate the calculation of the Indices of Deprivation. 

This situation is well reported: lower decile areas are chalked up for “regeneration”. Council estates are sold to developers, shiny newness is put in its place and a very small amount of those houses are returned to the social renting system. 

In the last couple of episodes, I mentioned slum clearance a few times, and during the times that term was used that’s exactly what it was called – in the papers and by politicians. Now, though, different words are used. Now we have ‘regeneration’, ‘improvements’, ‘development’.  Language changes over time, but often not the meaning. 

It’s a bit like being called into the office and gently being handed a firing beautifully wrapped in that legal get out of jail free card term, the Restructure. We’re redeveloping the area you live in and I’m sorry, that does mean … 

Homes for Heroes is one of the strongest examples of a deliberately chosen use of language. In the same speech from which that saying was coined, David George Lloyd said this: “What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in. I am not using the word ‘heroes’ in any spirit of boastfulness, but in the spirit of humble recognition of fact. I cannot think what these men have gone through. I have been there at the door of the furnace and witnessed it, but that is not being in it, and I saw them march into the furnace. There are millions of men who will come back. Let us make this a land fit for such men to live in. There is no time to lose. I want us to take advantage of this new spirit. Don’t let us waste this victory merely in ringing joybells.” 

DGL wanted to make a significant change in the way the UK provided for it’s less affluent members of society, and that is clear in the emotive and illustrative language he uses. “Heroes”, to begin with, allowed those moving into the newly built houses to feel significant, and that their contribution to the safety of their country was valued. “humble recognition”, and “make this a land fit for such men to live in”. were phrases DGL used to unify all listening and including them in society’s responsibility care for their fellow countrymen. 

Fiona Lund, Brouha’s MD, has written a chapter, PR for local authorities as developers, for a book Promoting Property. In her chapter, Fiona talks about how the language used by the Public and Private housings sectors use different language because they have different audiences. I’ll expand on that in just a minute, but something caught my eye, very fittingly, in this section. Fiona mentions the 2007 Decent Homes programme. Now, what I am about to say is not a comment on the programme itself, it’s just me diving down a rabbit hole of an observation. The choice of word, decent as the programme’s title. 

Let’s just look at the word, Decent. According to Collings, decent is “conforming to an acceptable standard or quality”. Its synonyms are




all right 





good enough




tolerable (informal) 

up to scratch


Decent is not an aspirational word, rather I’d describe it as a stopgap or space-holder, and it certainly isn’t a word that implies improvement or progression for those within the programme. I’m reasonably certain that this programme wasn’t named in a hurry and that the choice of Decent was carefully considered which is why I find it an interesting choice for a housing programme that outlined the minimum housing standards across the country. 

The difference between the language of the private sector and that of the public sector. Because the private can do what it likes without having the limitations and accountability that public funding puts on local authorities, they are able to invite the private housing buyers with direct, aspirational calls to action. Pictures of lush, sun-lit homes accompanied offering dreams to waiting to be lived, the very latest in fixtures and fittings, and the freedom to do anything you want with these modern, hopeful* blank canvases. Click into a local authority’s website the language you’ll find is … a little different.  Local authorities are traditionally administrative or legal and it is left to charities like shelter to offer the softness and human touch. There aren’t any dreams or shiny handles here, instead what you read about are remits, KPIs, safeguarding, representation, community investment, performance scrutiny and monitoring, and tenant satisfaction levels. 

There has to be a balance between the way we speak about Social Housing as PR people and the individuals and families living there. 

The language of Social Housing is emotive, there is simply no other way to describe it. We are talking about something that is immensely precious to people: their home; the place that provides shelter and protection for themselves and their families if they have them. What we are also doing is talking about the people that live in these houses and as such we have an immense responsibility to maintain honesty and transparency about the service being provided whilst respecting the individuals living there and situation they are in. 

I think it’s really important that we consider how the language we use effects those living in or waiting to live in social housing. The way these people have been described in literature, media and in conversation include terms like ‘vulnerable people’, ‘struggling families’, ‘people with complex needs’, ‘people in poverty’, ‘the most deprived’, and the ‘just about managing’. These terms do an adequate job of giving the listener an understanding of the groups of people in which they refer to, but they are also described as “the working poor”, “disadvantaged”, “people in housing poverty” which are broad generalisations that don’t acknowledge the individual. What we have the opportunity to do is expand our lexicon to include terms and phrases that include the tenants, and value their experiences. 

Shelter did a study in 2018 that spoke with were homeless or in social housing about how the language used in marketing and charity campaigns made them feel. They discovered that active language that felt situational and specific, and that acknowledged the complexity of people’s situations and experiences resonated on a much more positive way. Those are phrases like 

Private tenant/private renter

People who need to top up their monthly income

Families struggling to get by

Hard-pressed families

In acknowledging the complexities involved, phrases like

People with complex needs, 

Multiple and complex needs

And, the hidden homeless 

Are phrases that were more constructive. Take “People with complex needs” as an example instead of “Needy people” or “the homeless”. People identifies the person listening, needs acknowledges that they in need of something, and complex acknowledges that their need isn’t a single, simple thing, and that the circumstances creating that need will have been multifaceted and complicated. 

In the contrast, you have terms and phrases that aren’t as constructive or engaging. 

There are passive labels that label the individual rather than the situation:

Destitute people

Desperate people

The working poor

Disadvantaged people

There are also broad-stokes phrases that are impersonal and don’t resonate with individuals:


Hard to reach people

Homeless people

Homeless families

Vulnerable renters

Vulnerable people

Instead, looking for ways to make our language more situational and specific creates a link to the circumstances rather than the person, and reduces any inferred blame. 

There’s generic language that skims over the complexities of people’s situations:

Average families

Ordinary families

Typical families

Families on average incomes

By acknowledging the complexities that have led to a person needing to apply for social housing, the language includes the individual rather than seeing them as part of a whole. 

By using language that links the issues around housing to the circumstances rather than to the individual, we are acknowledging that the struggles are in part due to external and structural factors, rather than being the fault of those experiencing it.

Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman wrote a book called, Words Can Change Your Brain. In it they write: “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”

Therese Bochard wrote an article in PsychCentral which explains it really well.

[Hostile language can disrupt specific genes that play a key part in the production of neurochemicals that protect us from stress. Humans are hardwired to worry — part of our primal brains protecting us from threats to our survival — so our thoughts naturally go here first.

However, a single negative word can increase the activity in our amygdala (the fear centre of the brain). This releases dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters, which in turn interrupts our brains’ functioning. (This is especially with regard to logic, reason, and language.) “Angry words send alarm messages through the brain, and they partially shut down the logic-and-reasoning centres located in the frontal lobes,” write Newberg and Waldman.] 

That article, and a link to Newberg and Waldman’s book is on our website if you were interested in reading more into this. 

If I were to extrapolate that information, and without any medical or scientific training, If we continue to speak about those with complex need within the housing sphere with the broad descriptors and fault-laying words, we risk exacerbating problems that are keeping them in the situation they are in, and therefore could be contributing to the large scale need of social housing. If I take it a step further, if we to include more of the personal, situation-specific phrases and language when we speak about social housing in PR and marketing, we could have a positive effect on these people, potentially leading to them improving their circumstances, and if that change in circumstances meant they moved out of the social housing system, there is space for other to have access to the currently limited stock of social housing. But hey, that’s just me philosophising and so I should probably finish before I find myself a corner and suitably sturdy soap box. 

Promoting Property

Words Can Change Your Brain, By Therese J. Borchard,regulate%20physical%20and%20emotional%20stress.%E2%80%9D

Words Can Change Your Brain – book – by Andrew Newber, MD

Shelter’s Kantar report- How people in housing need feel about the way they are described by UK poverty charities

Living at Thamesmead –

Thamesmead | Promotional Film (1970) | London Housing

Thanks for spending time, guys. As always, you will find rough transcripts of this episode on the podcast page of our website – You’ll also find links to articles and other interesting bits and pieces that I found while writing this series should you like to read into it a bit more. So! I shall leave you to the rest of your day and look forward to sharing a cuppa with you next time. Till then, have fun.