Empathy in Every Home: Emotionally sensitive approaches to English Social Housing

  • Election 24
  • Living standards and Levelling up

Dr Hannah Absalom, independent consultant and University of Birmingham  

In this piece, Dr Hannah Absalom, independent consultant and ESRC Fellow at the University of Birmingham, makes three recommendations for fostering a more empathetic and effective social housing framework.

In England, nearly 4.7 million households reside in social housing, a sector tasked with providing affordable homes to those in housing need. However, recent years have seen this sector shaken by tragedy. The tragic Grenfell Tower fire, which claimed 72 lives, and the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak from mould-related illness have spotlighted severe deficiencies in housing safety and oversight. In response, regulatory authorities such as the Regulator for Social Housing and the Housing Ombudsman have been endowed with enhanced powers. These reforms aim to elevate the standards of home quality, complaint management, and professional accreditations for housing practitioners.

As these regulatory changes evolve beyond the next general election, it is critical that the incoming government monitors their progress and refines the definition of professionalism within the sector. My work, deeply embedded in the exploration of homes not just as physical spaces but as emotional environments, draws on over a year of collaborative research with social housing residents. This partnership has been instrumental in developing an understanding of how housing services can better align with the emotional and psychological needs of residents. From this research, I propose three key recommendations aimed at guiding future governmental policies to foster a more empathetic and effective social housing framework.

Recommendation one: Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) should underpin the training for resident-facing staff and senior decision makers.

A foundational recommendation is that SEL is woven into qualifications for housing practitioners. SEL involves the development of critical skills necessary for understanding and managing emotions, fostering empathy and developing and maintaining positive relationships, which are essential for making responsible decisions. This recommendation is grounded in an emotional understanding of the home, which is described on page 5 of this briefing.

The skills central to this approach include empathetic listening, working with emotional insights into the home and relationships, and understanding how trauma-informed practices can contribute to transforming organisation cultures for the better. There is much to learn from allied sectors, namely care and social work, noting that there is a need carefully translate SEL into day-to-day work within the social housing sector.

Many residents come into social housing from backgrounds marked by housing-related trauma, including domestic abuse, eviction, or living in substandard conditions. An emotionally informed practice recognises these complex histories and emphasises the need for collaborative efforts to establish a stable and nurturing home environment. Key benefits of this emotionally informed approach include improved communication and trust between staff and tenants, enhanced relationships, greater tenant satisfaction, and a noticeable reduction in complaints and the underlying issues that lead to tenant dissatisfaction. These improvements are critical for building a more supportive and effective social housing system.

Recommendation two: Training for senior decision makers and resident-facing staff to include recent developments in collective decision-making.

Resident involvement in decision-making regarding housing policy and landlord activities impacting residents has a longstanding tradition in the sector, often prompted by changing emphasis in government policy. However, this historical approach has produced a patchwork of participatory practices, causing confusion for both residents and practitioners. It’s high time for a comprehensive revamp of resident participation, especially considering recent advancements in participatory governance—an academic field focused on the techniques, values and ethical considerations of actively engaging citizens in democratic and accountable collective decision-making. Check out this example from Manchester to see what a difference a coherent approach to participation can make.

I propose specific measures for resident-facing colleagues that emphasise training in participatory techniques and the systematic documentation of concrete outcomes resulting from these interactions. This training will enable staff to effectively engage with residents, ensuring that their input is not only sought but also integrated into the very fabric of housing policy and practice.

Furthermore, I recommend the establishment of a competency standard to evaluate the quality of these participatory processes. This standard would ensure that resident input significantly influences agenda-setting, policy formulation, practice refinement, and the collective evaluation of programs. The goal of these recommendations is to transcend tokenistic engagement, fostering genuinely meaningful participation.

By implementing these measures, we can cultivate a deeper, more trusting relationship between residents and landlords over time. The ultimate benefit for tenants is a housing system where landlord agendas reflect what truly matters to them—ensuring that the services provided are not only effective but also empathetically delivered. This approach guarantees that the core priorities of tenants, such as quality homes and reliable services, are met consistently, enhancing their day-to-day living experience in social housing.

Recommendation three: Social Return on Investment (SROI) measures are developed for repairs and allocation processes.

A critical issue in resident treatment stems from overlooking the social and psychological impact of allocation processes and repairs in shaping a sense of home. While efforts like The End Furniture Poverty campaign have assessed the SROI of furnishing new homes, repairs and maintenance services remain unexamined in a similar fashion. Research consistently underscores the significant role these services play in resident wellbeing. Notably, the Housing Ombudsman’s 2021-2022 Annual Report identifies repairs as the top complaint among residents, comprising 44% of grievances (p11). Recognising the social value of these core activities, grounded in an emotional understanding of home, is crucial for highlighting to social landlords the importance of investing in maintaining quality homes to enhance residents’ overall wellbeing.

The social housing sector in England is undergoing significant changes. While this period is stressful for many within the sector, it’s essential to acknowledge the silent suffering of many residents. Research from psychology, sociology, and human geography highlights the challenges faced by those living in insecure circumstances and the profound impact of poor services and attitudes from housing providers across tenures. By developing training and regulatory standards with emotions in mind, social landlords can provide quality homes and services that truly support resident wellbeing. After all, a home is more than just a place to live—it’s the foundation of a flourishing life.

About the author

Dr Hannah Absalom is an expert in social housing policy. Through her extensive research within the English social housing sector and her work in tenant advocacy, she has played a pivotal role in shaping new perspectives on the purpose of social housing and how tenants and landlords can work together to produce home-based wellbeing. Hannah’s work underlines the importance of quality homes and the role that secure and truly affordable housing plays in enabling people to flourish.


Image credit: Benjamin Cheng, Unsplash