Social housing has long been negatively portrayed in mainstream media. National and international media scholarship finds that social housing tenants are often represented as morally deviant and deficient individuals. This prominent understanding of social housing and social housing tenants has historically diminished the viability of social housing as a policy response to social exclusion. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic, social, economic, and political contexts have transformed globally. In Queensland, the economic impacts of COVID-19 coupled with rising housing costs has meant that more people are now exposed to housing stress and homelessness. Where once such experiences were seen as resulting from individual moral deficiencies, the widespread impacts of COVID-19 have placed a spotlight on broader social influences that exist beyond individuals’ control.
It is therefore timely to revisit representations of social housing in the mainstream media to examine whether such representations have changed in line with shifting social and economic contexts. Our research examines coverage of social housing in a popular Queensland newspaper in the two years before and the two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We find that the newspaper’s coverage of social housing prior to COVID-19 is overwhelmingly negative, reflecting the dominant focus on tenants’ immorality and deviance found in existing media representations research. After COVID-19, on the other hand, we find that media representations of social housing are almost unanimously in support of social housing, calling for increased investment from the government. Significantly, however, we also find that post-COVID-19 media coverage does not support the provision of social housing to everyone in need, but rather focuses predominantly on the needs of ‘hardworking’ and ‘upstanding’ citizens impacted by the pandemic. At the same time, existing social housing tenants are either ignored or continue to be disparaged in the post-COVID-19 coverage. While the shift towards more support for social housing is promising, this paper questions the value of housing support that is largely predicated on the perceived deservingness of its tenants. As such, we argue that housing scholars and activists should remain mindful of the ways in which social housing is framed by the media to better understand public sentiment and thus the state’s continued willingness to respond to the housing needs of its citizens. Indeed, the representations of and identities imposed on social housing tenants by the media directly influence the extent to which governments are willing to invest in social housing policies in ways that respond appropriately to people’s needs. We argue that it is critical that policies enable social housing access for all those in need, regardless of whether or not they are deemed by the media to be deserving of such support.