Jules Birch, freelance journalist and editor of Welsh Housing Quarterly, reflects on his experience of the HSA 2019 conference through the dual lens of journalist and academic.

Straddling the line between journalism and academia can be an uncomfortable experience.

On the surface they have much in common – both are attempting to make sense of the world around them, both are interested in new trends and the interaction between them can provide news stories for journalists and a dissemination channel for academics.

In practice, though, there is also much that divides them. This can be the cause of mutual frustration as journalists tear their hair out wondering why academics cannot get to the point or meet their deadlines and academics are outraged that all the nuances in their work get edited out for the sake of a good story.

The biggest challenge for me, as a freelance journalist and part-time student, is to be able to switch from one way of thinking and writing and back again. What journalists see as concision and immediacy is perceived as lightweight in academia and what academics view as learned comes across as pomposity to journalists, and the differences in style are part of bigger ones of substance.

So I can’t help but see a Housing Studies Association conference from both points of view. As a journalist specialising in housing, I’m on the look-out for research that breaks new ground or creates new ways of thinking about familiar problems. As a student who will (eventually) complete my housing-related doctorate, I’m looking for research that’s covering similar (hopefully not too similar) ground to me or has a related methodology or conceptual framework. As usual I came away thinking I almost know too much as a journalist and definitely know too little as a student.

This was my first conference in Sheffield, although I had been to a couple before in York, and I was impressed both by the venue and the way that the event itself has develop. If the attendance is anything to go by, interest in housing studies (even if the courses are not called that) continues to grow in all parts of the UK and overseas.

As a journalist I’m also tailoring what I write from an audience and my blog about the conference for Inside Housing was very much aimed at housing practitioners. The general themes of the conference would be of interest to anyone working in housing, as exemplified by the plenary presentations by Francesca Albanese of Crisis and Deborah Garvie of Shelter, and it was especially interesting to hear Dan Wilson Craw’s account of the rise of renter resistance in the UK knowing that a major government announcement on private renting was imminent.

The same applied to the emerging theme of what Tony Manzi called ‘the dilemmas of practice’ and especially the work being done at the University of Sheffield by Jenny Preece, Emma Bimpson, John Flint and others on forms and techniques of exclusion from housing and the way they are evolving in a digital world.

To square the circle I began with, John Flint credited the journalists at Inside Housing for many of the stories that had prompted the researchers’ interest and a news story had appeared in The Guardian that same morning about a housing association that had declined to renew a tenant’s fixed-term tenancy after criticism on social media. It was also good to hear Ian Wilson’s paper on the impact of universal credit on affordability for social housing tenants after asking him to write about the work he has been doing in Wales for Welsh Housing Quarterly.

As a student, I was instantly drawn to the paper by Mark Stephens asking how the Global Financial Crisis has changed the UK’s housing system and especially his conclusions about the institutional changes that have resulted and emerging themes for the longer term. The same definitely applied to the paper by Alex Marsh and Dave Cowan asking whether English social housing reform has proved to be a success, a failure or a fiasco.

However, as usual at an HSA conference, the papers I came across by accident were also really thought-provoking. Stewart Smyth and Ruth Flood’s work on Northern Ireland revealed a different side to devolution. Martina Gentili’s spatial analysis of housing supply for the lower middle-class in Rome inevitably made me think about the similarities and contrasts with other cities I know better (and the Italian distinction between public and social housing was interesting). And Kay Saville-Smith’s paper on structural housing deficits in New Zealand showed the long-term consequences of marketising reforms that went much further than in the UK.

So those were some of the highlights of HSA 2019 for me. As ever, though, I was left wishing I’d been able to hear many of the papers in the sessions that clashed with the ones I attended. That is surely the sign of a good conference.

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