CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Since the 1990s, the housing crisis in France’s major cities has intensified. A shortage of land, a surge in construction costs and low levels of housing supply in comparison to demand have led to prices in urban housing markets taking off. The situation is particularly critical in the capital, where, between 1998 and 2008, the price of apartments rose by 185% (Gallot, Leprévost and Rougerie 2011). According to the Monitor of Rents in the Paris Region (Observatoire des Loyers de l’Agglomération Parisienne–OLAP), rents for those relocating have risen 50% in ten years. Under these conditions, access to quality housing has become difficult for a significant portion of the population, extending significantly beyond the working classes. The margin for manœuvre in terms of housing choice is narrowing and, in order to improve their living conditions, many people are forced to leave the capital. As for the most economically deprived, they have to resort to precarious solutions (substandard housing, emergency accommodation, all-seasons campsites, etc.).

2This state of affairs leads us to consider a new situation: as in the labour market, [1] some people are “incapacitated” by the housing market while suffering from no particular social impairment (Ballain and Jaillet 1998). Those living in Paris’s poor housing are well aware of this situation: whilst some face substantial social marginalisation, others are excluded by the increasingly selective market (Dietrich-Ragon 2011). This exclusion marks a break with the post-war boom years, during which obtaining a certain social status resulted in access to housing conditions that were a reflection of this??”residential trajectories were ascendant and led to home ownership, thus embodying households’ social mobility in the labour market and in society more generally. Today, it is increasingly difficult to maintain position in terms of housing, even though housing is increasingly crucial as a social status symbol and for people’s destinies (Maurin 2004).

3This disconnection between social and residential statuses can be likened to a social déclassement. [2] Social status is based on the possession of different types of capital: economic, cultural, social and symbolic (Bourdieu 1987). For immigrants, who will be much discussed in this article, we can also add that legal status is also crucial. As for residential status, this is the result of three factors: location of housing, its material characteristics (size, number of rooms, building structure, level of comfort, etc.) and, finally, type of possession (ownership, renting, free housing, etc.) (Grafmeyer 2010). Whilst the issue of residential déclassements has begun to emerge in some studies and has been highlighted as a factor in contemporary social malaise in the middle classes in particular (Cusin, Burckel and Juillard 2010), there has been little enquiry into the experiences of the affected populations. Yet, just as graduates whose educational qualifications have been devalued but who continue to have raised aspirations (Bourdieu 1978), this déclassement potentially produces “social suffering.” [3] The emergence of a mismatch between objective opportunities to attain the legitimate goals offered by society (one of which is undoubtedly housing) and individuals’ aspirations can even be a source of deviant behaviour and a factor behind anomie (Merton [1953] 1968). What then are the effects of this type of disparity in the housing field and how do individuals actually face up to it?

4Sociological literature has, for a long time, highlighted the close ties between social and residential status. According to structuralist-inspired studies, the residential order is, in many ways, a reflection of social order. The importance of the possession of social resources determines the type of housing individuals can access and their place in physical space. For Bourdieu, space is the subject of struggle, from which those blessed with the most economic, cultural and social capital emerge victorious. In contrast, those most deprived of these forms of capital are denied the scarcest social goods and condemned rub along by with the most undesirable and most common people and goods (Bourdieu 1993). According to this theory, all disparity between social and residential status is resented, each place of residence tacitly requiring certain social behaviour from its inhabitants, without which they would not, strictly speaking, be living there. Housing poorer residents in Paris’s fashionable streets, which causes social and psychological tensions (Pinçon and Pinçon-Charlot 2004), illustrates this phenomenon. In another approach, the work of the Chicago School also considers residential mobility to be a reflection of social backgrounds. Residential localities are perceived as being closely tied to socio-economic status (Duncan and Duncan 1955), cities selecting individuals who are best able to live in the same particular district, which then fulfils a specific function (Park 1917). For example, ethnic ghettos have a role assimilating immigrants to their host society (Wirth 1928). There is, therefore, an “urban career of the city dweller” (Burgess 1925) during which residential mobility towards districts that are separated from arrival districts is associated with integration. In general, progress in an “urban career” is synonymous with upward social mobility. Here again, as an individual progresses in an unsuitable environment, which he finds himself at odds with, behavioural problems can result.

5Other work has, however, highlighted the fact that residential space is not a perfect reflection of social space. For example, according to Bonvalet and Gotman (1993), the distinction between owner and tenant status (the former being highly valued in representations) is a very imperfect match with the hierarchy of resources or socio-occupational status. The residential strategy concept also reflects the desire to counterbalance an overly deterministic vision of housing practices according to which individuals are promised a certain occupational status, and a predetermined type of housing and locality as a function of their income and social class (Bonvalet and Fribourg 1990). Whilst social and residential orders are incontestably linked, we should not, however, adopt an overly prescriptive vision of the residential hierarchy, nor minimise individuals’ capacities for action. Moreover, in opposition to a conception that considers that the spatial grouping together of individuals sharing the same ethnic and very often social origins fulfils an integrative function, Bonvalet and Brun (1998) see urban segregation as having a pathology which combines “specific effects” with social differences and reinforces inequality. Conversely, making comparisons with the most advantaged areas is thought of as a factor encouraging social mobility of individuals (Maurin 2004). Analysing the relationships between social and residential status thus entails taking their reciprocal interactions into account and considering that situations of disparity are not neutral in terms of social status.

6Assuming that social space does not completely overlap residential space and that these two orders interact, this article discusses the impact of these mismatch situations, the interdependency between the two positions, and how adjustments can be made to them. Are there differences between the experiences of housing problems depending on the size of mismatch? How do people attempt to handle their respective positions? For example, how do they struggle against social decline linked to relegation in the housing market and how do they attempt to climb the social ladder by attaining a better residential status? Finally, how do people deal with the situation of being provided with social housing, which, in particular, sometimes means being cut off from one’s original social milieu? In order to understand the reciprocal ties between social and residential status, it is therefore necessary to analyse mobility in relation to its implications for identity and individuals’ experiences, that is to say by taking into account objective (statuses and positions) and subjective (changes in perspectives by which individuals perceive themselves) dimensions.

7To clarify these questions, this article draws on the case of Parisian householders living in poor housing. This, mostly immigrant, population (see Box 1), is on the losing side in the “struggle for places” (Gaulejac and Taboada Léonetti 1994) in the housing market and is awaiting a residential upgrade. Studying people deprived of satisfactory housing, and showing what they are lacking, can highlight housing issues in terms of social positioning, especially since immigrants attach a particular importance to where they live to position themselves socially. In this environment, where they are reduced to the level of cheap labour assigned the most menial tasks, any reference to occupational status is dispelled while housing is virtually the only factor taken into account for defining social status (Boudimbou 1992).

8This population is also likely to experience two kinds of disparity: not only residential déclassement but also residential surclassement (when social status is not as high as residential status), as a result of eventual rehousing by public institutions. Generally, however, it is not same people who face these different situations. Whilst the occupants of poor housing with the most social resources experience residential déclassement (disparity between social and residential status is very marked in their cases), we should not ignore another situation that is as common, i.e. the case of socially marginalised people living in housing that is also marginal: here housing and social positions are relatively consistent, if such a thing could be said of poor housing that offers “intolerable” living conditions (Dietrich-Ragon 2011). Those who are little affected by residential déclassement, are conversely frequently driven to residential surclassement, a situation that is much less common for those with greater social status. In the context of Paris’s policy to reduce poor housing initiated in 2002 (see Box 1) and because of its emergency aspect (Dietrich-Ragon 2010), only those occupying the most insalubrious properties, who are also socially precarious, are given priority access to social housing [4] and, because the aim is to create a social mix, are sometimes rehoused in wealthy neighbourhoods in the capital, where they experience surclassement. Through these two contrasting situations, a study of the population living in poor housing allows us, therefore, to analyse the way in which housing and social status interact.

9Firstly, the implications of poor housing for social position will be detailed. In particular, the effects of residential déclassement in terms of self-perception and the different attitudes adopted by the poorly housed to deal with this situation, will be examined. By observing the way they attempt to climb the social ladder towards a better-regarded position, we will also study the role of social housing in strategies adopted by precarious households to improve their social statuses. Secondly, the way in which reclassement resulting from rehousing operates will be addressed: such a process is not straightforward and some individuals find it difficult to adapt to the new places assigned to them.

Box 1. The field, the study and the population occupying poor housing

In order to define the population living in Paris’s poor housing we refer to buildings included in the plan to reduce poor housing. Initiated in 2002 by the City of Paris, the plan for which the City of Paris Mixed Economy Property Society (Société Immobilière d’Économie Mixte de la Ville de Paris–SIEMP) was responsible, aimed to rehouse those living in the most insalubrious apartments belonging to the City of Paris or to the SIEMP and to provide grants to landlords to carry out work in the less dilapidated buildings.
This research is based on qualitative and quantitative methods. Having received an Industrial agreement for training through research (Conventions Industrielles de Formation par la Recherche–CIFRE) contract for my doctorate, I worked at the SIEMP for three and a half years. I made many visits to those involved in the field and carried out forty-eight semi-structured interviews, around thirty with occupants of poor housing and five with activists. In addition, 520 face-to-face questionnaires were completed by the poorly housed. The objective was that the sample of buildings where interviews were done would be representative of different institutional arrangements while avoiding buildings that were in comparatively “too good condition” where residents would be relatively unconcerned by insalubrity. Therefore, the buildings suffering from the most issues were overrepresented, while those where the problems were limited to communal areas were excluded. This selection work was done with the help of institutional actors and based on descriptions of each building, taking into account different criteria: the state of the building’s dilapidation, its size, occupation status, geographic location and the residents’ origins (social and geographic). The method then involved interviewing the first homes on the left of each of the buildings’ floors in a clockwise direction when the interviewer has his back to the stairs. However, given the difficulties associated with the field, interviews were sometimes done as opportunities arose. For the same reason, interviewers were given no specific advice on who should be interviewed in each household. Around two years later I again carried out qualitative interviews and then organised a second wave of questionnaires for the same sample that had already been interviewed in order to understand what had happened to the interviewees over time. Of the original sample of 520 people, 363 were traced and 271 were eventually re-interviewed.
Ultimately, even if not representative in the statistical sense of the term, the interview sample reflects the population living in Paris’s run-down buildings. The immigrant population represents 80% of the sample, a third of which are “illegal.” 16% of interviewees have no tenure status in their building, 10% are living in residence hotels, 53% are tenants and less than 10% owners. This is a population with little education (32% of people have received no or very little education, 45% went to school up collège level or to a lycée) they are very economically insecure (40% receive less than 300 euros per person in the household per month). At the same time, this population is very heterogeneous. While some people face strong social marginality, others work (40% have regular employed work), have regular legal status (21% are born in France and 56% are foreigners who have regular legal status) and have even received a higher education (21% of interviewees, which is far from negligible when you consider that the figures in France as a whole in 2009 are 27% for men and 31% for women [INSEE 2012]). Note that, in view of this article’s problematic, it is the qualitative material that is mostly used, while the statistical results provide a statistical framework and supplement the data from observations and interviews.

Deprived and stigmatised housing, social exclusion

10Occupying poor housing implies low social status, deeply marking those who live in it. The experience of those who live in this housing situation varies greatly depending on social resources possessed and whether they feel a sense of déclassement of otherwise. Moreover, far from being passive, people attempt to fight against the downgraded status implied by these conditions and to improve themselves on the housing front. In this regard, social housing is very often the only possible way out.

Residential déclassement

11The poorly housed’s sense of relegation has been shown in different studies at different times. Sayad and Dupuy (1995) have, for example, detailed the humiliation, social indignity and suffering associated with living in a slum. These observations are still relevant today for those who are at the bottom of the residential hierarchy. However, the sense of injustice that accompanies their experience of this situation varies. For the poorly housed with cumulative social disadvantages (exclusion from the labour market, poor education, illegal status in the country, etc.), poor housing is somehow a “logical” consequence of all these troubles. They can develop a certain rationalisation for their situation, considering it to be transient and as being part of the order of things. For example, illegal immigrants accept this passage through “purgatory” to a certain extent. A squatter explains that before receiving regular legal status he had to accept these living conditions because his status did not allow him to obtain better ones. At the time, this did not unduly disgust him:


If I’d not been legal, I’d have been satisfied. In this county you’re taught that if you don’t have papers there is practically nothing you have a right to. But when I became legal four years ago I didn’t see why I should stay here. I should be properly housed shouldn’t I? From the moment I got my papers, from the moment when I started working and had these things, I felt uncomfortable here. I’d have said, honestly, I couldn’t have found any better if I wasn’t legal.
(Interview no. 67)

13Mr. Y. is waiting for his regular legal status:


Generally [I am satisfied with my living conditions]. Until I get, I get my papers anyway. To have a better life, you know. Otherwise, I’m happy…
(Interview no. 53)

15The unemployed and those who work in the black market also have a tendency to consider their housing problems to be a reflection of those encountered in the labour market and that their situation will improve when they get a regular job. In contrast, those who are socially integrated, who work and have a regular legal status, see the fact that they have not got proper housing as déclassement and as a threat to their symbolic place in society. They have all the characteristics that ought to see them classed in the respectable and working people category, but their housing conditions discredit them and cast a shadow over an image that should have been relatively coherent. [5] Their “virtual social identity” (one that others can attribute to them on the basis of manifest attributes) is out of synch with their “real social identity” (the attributes actually possessed by the individual), from which stems a strong sense of stigmatisation (Goffman 1963). Mr. C., who has a job as a manager, is an example of the disparity between living conditions and the position he places himself in society:


Do you have a sense of being in the most disadvantaged class in Paris?
– Bah, disadvantaged… No, disadvantaged, no. No. Not that. I wouldn’t say that because for me someone who’s disadvantaged is someone who’s got nothing, right? That’s how I see it. A homeless person who’s got nothing that’s who that is. Uh… I’ve got a job though. And a bloody good job! I’ve got a mobile phone. I’ve just been to Auchan where I blew twenty euros on some shopping. OK? I’m not disadvantaged … What I want is [a decent home]. And that’s something I don’t have. And I say to myself: “But hey, this is weird, I’ve got money, but I can’t get what I want.”.
(Interview no. 77)

17Mrs. P., a retired French woman, also feels this permanent mismatch:


When I see people in the street, they say to me: “I can’t believe you live there, a lady like you?” People say to themselves: “What’s this good lady doing in that building?”.
(Interview no. 80)

19These residents thus possess social resources that ought to grant them access to a better housing situation and find themselves in a way downgraded to deprived and stigmatised accommodation. Their self-images (because of their trajectories and the futures they have planned) are better than those reflected by their living conditions. This sense of disparity can especially be found at the heart of the rebelliousness of second generation North Africans, who have enjoyed upward social mobility in comparison to their parents without this leading to an improvement in their situations in terms of housing. Their resentment is born of the fact that their struggle for integration and to obtain educational qualifications does not prevent them from living in slums, like their labourer fathers. Their experiences are similar to those of sons of manual labourers who benefited from the democratisation of education, gained qualifications and hoped to escape the factory world, but realised it was all for nothing (Beaud and Pialoux 1999).

20So, these poorly housed people are particularly revolted by their living conditions. In order to measure the disparity between residential and social situations, an ordered logistic regression was carried out (this is justified because the dependent variable is ordered [Bender and Grouven 1997]). We controlled for factors defining residential position (comfort, salubriousness and space available per resident in the accommodation were taken into account by a synthetic indicator of housing quality [Table 1], and occupational status was also introduced). As might be expected, it seems that quality of accommodation is decisive for explaining dissatisfaction with housing. Similarly, for the “same” living conditions, not having an occupancy title significantly increases the risk of being dissatisfied. Above all??”and this is what interested us in the first place??”, all things being equal, people who sense a disparity between their residential and social situations are more critical than those who think they are consistent. The statistics thus confirm the qualitative observations and highlight the decisive influence of a sense of injustice linked to déclassement in terms of how housing situations are apprehended. In the interviews, the interviewees facing this déclassement do not mince their words when denouncing the conditions reserved for them. Mr. R., a Malian legal immigrant who works as a security guard talks about his “ghetto” squat:

Table 1

Factors explaining dissatisfaction with current housing (ordered logistic regression)a

Table 1
Variables Coefficient Significance Intercept -1.71 *** Intercept -0.66 * Intercept 1.31 *** Standard of housinga Least bad standard of housing Ref. - Average standard 0.84 *** Worst standard 2.09 *** Residency status Tenant Ref. - Owner -0.31 ns Squatter 0.81 ** Other status -0.11 ns
Table 1
Variables Coefficient Significance Presence of children in the home No child in the home Child(ren) in the home Ref. 0.43 -* Sense of injustice with housing situation in comparison to social situation Sense of dissatisfaction (social situation ought to provide access to better housing) Sense of satisfaction (social situation is consistent with housing) Refused opinion because housing is unfit whatever social situation (“no-one should live in such accommodation”) Don’t know Ref. -1.37 1.01 -0.97 -*** *** *** Sex Male Female Ref. 0.13 -ns Age Less than 30 yeas 30-50 years More than 50 years Ref. 0.07 0.01 -ns ns Occupation skill level Unskilled occupation Ref. - Middle level occupation -0.04 ns Skilled occupation -0.34 ns Never worked -0.13 ns

Factors explaining dissatisfaction with current housing (ordered logistic regression)a

Field: People living in buildings that are part of the Paris plan to reduce run-down housing.
Number: 497.
Note: * P < 0.05; ** P < 0.01; *** P < 0.001; ns: not significant.
a The standard of housing indicator is based on factors relating to comfort, salubriousness and space available per person in the accommodation. In this model, whatever the level of dissatisfaction (housing conditions can be deemed “unacceptable,” “very poor,” “average” or “satisfactory”), the explanatory variable acts on the appreciation of housing occupied in the same way. Thus a variable has a positive (or negative) effect on the increase in the level of dissatisfaction.
How to read: All other things being equal, living with children in the home means significantly more dissatisfaction with accommodation than when there are no children.
Source: SIEMP/ERIS Survey: 2005.


This building has no image. It simply means a sort of… marginalisation, which marginalises those living in it.
(Interview no. 81)

22For Mr. B., a Frenchman of Mauritian origin, poor housing is, in his words, a sign of being in a “dominated” position, which gives him a strong sense of humiliation:


I can’t describe it. It’s worse than racism. Racism doesn’t stop you having a roof over your head if you’ve got the money. This is a matter of respect for the individual.
(Interview no. 65)

24Social resentment is especially focused on accommodation when this is considered the only fly in the ointment. A man explains that there is nothing wanting in his progress, except suitable accommodation:


I work, I have payslips, I have a child: I have everything!
(Interview no. 69)

26In these circumstances, poor housing is seen as an anomaly, an intolerable problem, since no justification related to personal failure can be found. Just as some poorly paid executives studied by Dubet (2006) had the impression they were granted a “pseudo status” and were only “false executives,” for the poorly housed, poor housing is an indicator of being “third-rate” in French society. Residential déclassement threatens their social identity. In the same way that the unemployed feel bracketed with layabouts (Schnapper [1981] 1994), they feel relegated to the ranks of the marginal and experience “social stigma” associated with feeling different to others (Gaulejac 1996). Faced with a fear of being judged negatively, they attempt, nevertheless, to save face.

Covering up and social distinction strategies

27As a whole, the poorly housed are attentive to fighting against the status degradation that their housing conditions entail. For the most marginalised, this means avoiding further stigmatisation as a result of their accommodation. The issue for the more socially integrated is to ensure that their residential position “contaminates” their social position as little as possible.

28To achieve these ends, the poorly housed use different strategies. Some try to improve their accommodation in order to make it acceptable, at least from an outside point of view. Mr. D., a Frenchman of Algerian origins who is a delivery driver, makes every effort to make sure his building does not look like a squat:


If you come round here, and you didn’t know the building, you wouldn’t say: “That’s a squat.” You wouldn’t comment because it’s clean.
(Interview no. 78)

30According to the statistical survey, 67% of people have done some work on their homes. However, it is difficult to have a positive impact on these places: the work doesn’t last and efforts at maintenance are soon negated. Many, therefore, prefer to conceal where they live. Nearly a third of the interviewees claim never to invite friends round and 16% only rarely do so. Those people exposed to déclassement particularly fear being mocked and are the most affected by shame (there is a strong risk that the image others have of them will be degraded by their homes). Mr. N., living with parents despite having a regular job, is categorical:


Do you sometimes invite friends round?
– Ah no! That would be embarrassing! I never invite them round. It’s too small. There’s my bed in one corner and there’s my parents’. We see each other outside. I don’t feel comfortable at home.
(Interview no. 71)

32In daily life, Mr. A., who is a production worker, attempts to keep people a good distance away from his home:


I’ve never invited anyone to mine. They could surprise me, but I prefer to go to a café or to friends’, to French friends’. I’ve got friends, intellectuals of all nationalities, but they don’t know where I live.
(Interview no. 67)

34The word “surprised” clearly indicates that bumping into people at his place would be accidental. The shame will sometimes go so far as to entail breaking social ties in order to maintain an identity. For example, Mr. N. did not want his girlfriend to come round to his and, when she insisted, her preferred to leave her (Interview no. 71). These residents also pick between the people they invite to their homes and only allow relatives around who will not judge them and in whom they have confidence. According to the statistics, the influence of poor housing on the probability of receiving guests at home is much greater for friends than for family: [6] people are less fearful of being mocked by close parents than by friendly acquaintances who may be judgemental.

35Another strategy used is to distinguish between where one lives from the negative image this projects. Faced with a place that tends to stigmatise them by associating them with deviant morals and an unstructured life, residents showcase their morality and their exemplary behaviour, evidence of the legitimacy of demands for rehousing. In the interviews, everyone makes an effort to present a trouble-free life, living unobtrusively and on good terms with neighbours:


I would really like to live in a clean place, huh. But there you go. If I had an apartment in a tower block I would show people how I live. There you go. I like being at home where it’s quiet and tidy, huh. … Well yeah, you get back very tired from work. You have a shower, you come out feeling better, you watch TV, and you’ve got peace and quiet. I’m not… I switch my phone off and that’s it, I’ve got peace and quiet. Peace and quiet. I’m looking for peace and quiet basically.
(Interview no. 78)

37Similarly, Mrs. G., a Frenchwoman from Cameroon, who works in a dry cleaners:


I like having my own little place! To have some peace and quiet! With my casual job. I mean, I’m a quiet person, I don’t bother anyone! … I’m a homebody really. When I go out I go to work, when I come home, I’m home.
(Interview no. 51)

39In this way, individuals attempt to avoid their social respectability being tainted by their residential status. Some also develop strategies to distinguish themselves from those just below them in the social hierarchy and whose behaviour is discreditable. Distancing themselves from others is common among those whose social identities are threatened. Those supported by the state categorise others as “undesirables” to give themselves a more positive image and to feel they belong to a respectable group, even though this does not exist in reality (Paugam [1991] 2002). On the high rise estates, people with middle class backgrounds develop these strategies towards the working class and try to recreate a distance that needs to be even more clearly marked given that their actual living conditions are similar (Chamboredon and Lemaire 1970). For the residents in Paris’s poor housing, these strategies are most often revealed in encounters with the most recent waves of immigration. North Africans seek to distinguish themselves from Sub-Saharan Africans who are bearers of all sins: they do not know how to “live,” have too many children, and benefit illegitimately from rehousing and assistance, etc. Another singled-out group is people who live in the working class suburbs. According to the people we met, it is better to be poorly housed in the capital than to live in the suburbs. Mrs. V., a Cameroonian carer, mentions the insecurity that reins in the suburbs:


Here neighbours smoke drugs in the corridors. Because our door doesn’t close properly that’s annoying. But the suburbs, that’s where the dealers are. And also they’re armed.
(Interview no. 59)

41The recurrent depictions of this area as being totally alien are a way of demonstrating that they are not part of “those people.” This rejection of the “estates” has also been observed among people moving from the high rise estates to private housing: their previous life on the public housing estates led them to detest the estates socially, while in their eyes becoming a homeowner is a condition for becoming a respectable family (Cartier et al. 2008). For those living in Paris’s poor housing, it is above all remaining within the confines of the capital that ensures respectability. This is because living in central Paris is the only positive aspect of where they live, hence its use to compensate for the stigma: because a residence hotel has a negative image, only affirmation of a Parisian identity offers self-worth. Such a self-esteem improvement strategy founded on living in the heart of a city can be found in the North African population in the Belsunce quarter of Marseille, who have “salvaged” the bourgeois symbolic value of restored old buildings to raise their status (Mazzella 1996). For the residents of large cities who are exposed to social insecurity, living in a city centre is a means of distinction. For the most socially integrated among the poorly housed, this distinction also involves displaying certain ambitions in terms of housing, referring not to the housing of those who are socially excluded, but instead to the French and, in a general way, to people who are socially integrated. Mrs. G. wants a “French-style” home, in terms of comfort and available space and above all image (Interview no. 51), as the person from PACTE [7] who looked after her case testifies:


This person had a strong desire for a home that was like everyone else’s and to… to get access to housing that conformed to norms, to current social norms. … [Her housing] was not fit for anyone’s way of life today. Nowadays everyone aspires to having a lounge, a parents’ bedroom and a children’s bedroom. A bedroom for each child even. And if you’re in the upper echelon of society then they all aspire to having a spare room that can be used as a study or a workroom.
(Interview no. 14)

43These people want housing conditions that are consistent with their social pretensions. They also demand to be rehoused in a neighbourhood in which they would like to be assimilated. Mrs. M. wants “a place where there are white people” (Interview no. 88). Often people associate their own qualities with their ideal neighbourhood’s: a clean and quiet place with no problems. Mr. N.’s comments are revealing:


Like everyone I’m looking for peace and quiet, a clean building. Because I’m really clean myself, I’m quiet, I’m peaceful.
(Interview no. 71)

45Faced with the stigma that living in poor housing represents, the poorly housed thus attempt to fight against symbolic decline by deploying social distinction strategies in comparison to people who are even more excluded than themselves or by attempting to move closer to the social group they aspire to. In this way they try to limit the negative effects their residential position risks having on their social images. At the same time, not having the means for adequate housing in the private market, all their hopes are based on gaining access to social housing, the only way they can achieve both social and residential reclassement.

The hope for reclassement through social housing

46Unsurprisingly, residents in poor housing have very little room for manœuvre in the private housing market. The amount they would need to spend in this sector to obtain quality housing that is adapted to their family size is evidence that they have few options (Box 2). In this theoretical situation, only 19% of households would devote less than 30% of their incomes to housing and 35% would be in the unrealistic situation of devoting more than 100% (Table 2).

Box 2. Proportion of incomes that the poorly housed would need to devote to rent in order to have better quality housing in the private housing market in Paris (virtual cost ratio)

To what extent can the poorly housed envisage being housed in the “normal,” supposed quality, housing market and not in second-class housing? To determine their ability to improve their residential situation, we calculated the proportion of incomes they would have to devote to renting better housing. In order to determine the space required for households, reference was made to the departmental regulations on the attribution of social housing in Paris, according to which the habitable space for each of the first four inhabitants of a household must be at least 14m2 per resident for the first four residents and 10m2 per additional resident. For simplicity’s sake, we considered that each household requires 14m2 per person. Multiplying this area by the average rent per square metre, which is supposed to grant access to the “ordinary” housing stock and was estimated by the Observatoire des Loyers de l’Agglomération Parisienne to be 17 euros per square metre, excluding charges on the 1st January 2006, we obtain the price households must pay for a priori quality housing in the private market. The proportion of incomes that the latter devote to such housing is the result of the relationship between this potential rent and actual household incomes (including social security benefits). If we take, for example, a family of four with a monthly income of 1,700 euros, the habitable area required would be 56m2 (14 x 4), meaning a rent of 952 euros (56 x 17), the virtual cost ratio would be 56% (952/1,700 x 100).
Table 2

The proportion of incomes the poorly housed would need to devote to rents in order to obtain quality housing in the private market in Paris (Box 2)

Table 2
Virtual cost ratio Percentage of the population Less than 30% 19 30 to 50% 20 50 to 100% 26 More than 100% 35 Total 100

The proportion of incomes the poorly housed would need to devote to rents in order to obtain quality housing in the private market in Paris (Box 2)

Field: Population living in buildings that are part of the Paris plan to reduce poor housing; N = 493.
How to read: 19% of interviewees would need to devote less than 30% of their incomes to housing that would suit their family size in the “ordinary” private housing market. 35% of the interviewees would need to devote more than their total incomes.
Source: SIEMP/ERIS Survey: 2005.

47For the most economically insecure of the poorly housed, there is quasi no room for manœuvre. Social housing is, therefore, their only hope for escaping social exclusion. As for residents with higher incomes, they could certainly devote a higher budget to rents to improve their residential situations, but would be forced to reduce their expenditure on consumption in a drastic way, which would by equivalent to a form of déclassement. Their “disposable income,” that is the budget available for expenses other than housing, risks being transformed into a “survival income” (Vanoni and Robert 2007). According to Mr. C., this situation would be synonymous with “proletarianisation,” that is to say entering a spiral of deprivations:


I’d love my son to have his own room with his own toys; like everyone else. I’ve got enough money to buy him toys or to buy stuff for his room and all that. On the other hand, sadly I don’t… don’t have the means to pay 1,300 euros [in rent] a month. D’you see? In the end, it’s a vicious circle. I wouldn’t be able to buy anything to eat or buy my boy a small toy. So, I’m stuck in an unfair class system.
(Interview no. 77)

49This squatter makes the same observations:


If I earned 1,200 euros, I’d pay 600 euros in rent and that would not suit me either. I’d spend half my income on housing. It’s too much. I’d prefer a quiet little council flat for 400 euros, with 150 euros in housing benefit or whatever. I pay 250 and have money left to eat, money left for clothes, I put a little aside for holidays: I can have a life. … Housing is what destroys people, eh. Sometimes you see people who are paying 800 or 700 euros a month. He’s working, his wife’s not, she’s unemployed or at home. So they don’t go out, they don’t go on holiday, he’s always in dire straits, always unhappy. He’s got problems, he sees others and he’ll say: “They’re alright!” He doesn’t even have a penny for a drink with his friends or to pay for anything, for a trip out. So, he’s unhappy and he says: “OK. I live in Paris but … Pfff!”.
(Interview no. 78)

51Paying too high a rent means entering a period of deprivation. What is the point of having suitable housing if you are obliged to be permanently restrained? The Cornelian dilemma these people face consists of choosing between living and residing in dignity. Most of them do not, therefore, believe that their futures lie in the private sector and all their expectations are concentrated on social housing that offers good housing conditions without the need for undue hardship in return, [8] which in itself is socially humiliating. This housing is basically the only way of moving up the residential hierarchy without resulting in déclassement due to consumption practices. In addition to the financial cost, social housing is also very sought after for the security is guarantees, it is thought of as social protection against the future. Public sector tenants have security of tenure where they live, their rental contracts being indefinite. The poorly housed are very attached to this stability:


Frankly, I’ll tell you the truth. That’s the truth. I’d prefer to live in OPAC [9] housing. Frankly, I tell you, an OPAC or SAGI [10] home, a home on a public housing estate.
– Why? Because…
– Why? Because I have more confidence in it.
– Yes. You’re afraid…
– What am I afraid of? Any day, if I had a private home, any day the man could say “I want to sell my property.” … If he tells the authorities: “My son wants to move in” and his son doesn’t actually have anywhere to live, the authorities are going to say: “Find somewhere else to live, please.” That’s how it is.
– Yes. So it’s for security is it?
– Security. Security, really. It’s about security … Because as foreigners we play it safe.
(Interview no. 76)

53For many interviewees, whose working lives are chaotic and who suffer from discrimination, a council house is inseparable from peace and stability and thus a certain kind of tranquillity. This tallies with Bourdieu’s observations on work: uneducated individuals, with no occupational training and without capital aspire to a secure job and sometimes attach more importance to the regularity of an income than to its size (Bourdieu et al. 1963). Basically, a council house is a way of stabilising social status in the future and offers protection from social risks that could cause social decline. Some also expect some upward social mobility from it because of the limited expenditure on rent, which could be reinvested in other areas of life. In some way, social housing is a way of escaping the privations and the asceticism that are characteristic of the working class condition (Schwartz [1990] 2002). In the same way that public service is a path favoured by children from these categories wanting to improve themselves socially (Gollac 2005), this housing is used by the most vulnerable to access a better social and residential situation.

54For all these reasons, the poorly housed in Paris have a specific relationship with social housing. While this status is currently situated at the bottom of the residential status hierarchy and more often seen as a stigma rather than a positive sign, the opposite is true for this population. This is particularly true for people with immigrant, let alone African, backgrounds. These often compare their experiences with those who have gained access to social housing, which is seen as a form of successful social integration:


Because in our society, I’ll tell you, hey, frankly, if you know about African society, when you have a council house, you have… excuse me if I’m wrong, you’re a little bit privileged. … There are some people here, when they get a council house, it’s like a… it’s a blessing.
(Interview no. 76)

56The aim of rehousing, beyond more comfort, is to become respectable again in the eyes of other members of the community:


Because tomorrow they’ll criticise you. Tomorrow, they’ll say “He’s been in France for thirty years, that bloke, living in a squat, close to the bins.” It’s a total humiliation, so you have to cover your ears and look for a council house, then when you get one, well then you can hold your head up and say to them: “Well then, I’ve got a house now. Come round if you want to chat, I can chat too.” That’s how it is in the African area, it’s like that as far as I know. … So you know what, when you have to go to a residence hotel, that’s a total low! It’s humiliating, the ultimate humiliation.
(Interview no. 76)

58Thus, it is understandable that these communities fight to get access to a council house and, a contrario, reject any insecure solution, such as a residence hotel or emergency housing. Of course, the improved status granted to social housing is also linked to a situation that is very specific to the Paris region. In a context where the most economically vulnerable are pushed beyond the borders of the capital, it is clear that living intra-muros is considered a privilege. But in all cases, it is not out of desperation that the poorly housed turn to the public sector: this is seen as a positive social marker (as is quality housing and also living intra-muros) and as much coveted (for its affordable costs and the stability it entails). These factors explain the substantial use of procedures for attaining public housing and the fact that the moments when they are rehoused are crucial in the lives of these people. It is not just a matter of accessing better living conditions, but also of validating a social reclassement after years in waiting.

Rehousing and reclassement

59Residents in poor housing intend attaining a new place, socially as much as physically. Consequently, the acceptance of social housing phase is a decisive moment during which all the preferences, requirements and also social anxieties of residents are evident. It is not just a matter of obtaining good living conditions but also of obtaining the most “just” place in society in relation to one’s self-image. This regularly results in offers being rejected, even though this behaviour may appear irrational. In addition, once rehoused, and therefore installed in a new “place,” some find it difficult to adapt, above all when they find themselves surclassés and experience a status disparity that is the inverse of the one described above.

Moving to a new place

60At the point when they are allocated social housing, the poorly housed are able to redefine their social statuses and images. Against all expectations and although still a minority phenomenon, it is not uncommon for them to refuse a rehousing offer. The extent of this phenomenon is such that Le Monde published a several page long article on the 12 May 2006 entitled; “The astonishing refusals.” [“Des refus qui étonnent.”]. According to the president of the SIEMP, in 2005, of the 620 cases dealt with, 170 households refused the housing that was offered to them. According to our survey, 20% of people who had already received rehousing offers had rejected at least one of them. Their motivations for doing so are often unexpected and may appear misplaced given their living conditions: hot water tank too small, a kitchenette, lack of ventilation, a duplex, bad layout, fear of higher storeys, etc. Some people turn down an offer even though they risk finding themselves in the street. Institutional actors are totally baffled by this behaviour. “When you see where they come from…,” sighs the SIEMP director of eradication of insalubrity (Interview no. 21).

61These rejections do however follow a certain logic. While they are based on a multitude of reasons, the essential explanation is that obtaining social housing is a process of social reclassement. In general, tenants or potential tenants are looking, not only for a house, but also for accommodation that is endowed with a meaning in order to improve their social standing (Chignier-Riboulon 2006). This attention to the meaning of housing is worthwhile for the most deprived. Candidates for social housing are demanding because they want a new home that signifies the expected social recognition. In these circumstances, the comparison mechanism is important. Knowing people who have obtained better housing leads to demanding accommodation that is as good, if not better. If rehousing constitutes a reclassement, it is difficult to accept an inferior good to the one obtained by those who were previously in even worse housing than oneself or who were more socially disadvantaged. The upheaval in the hierarchy of the poorly housed by institutional decisions elicits a profound sense of injustice and leads to rejections. Given this attention to the social image projected by housing, locations are also as crucial. Even before being offered housing, those living in Paris’s poor housing claim to pay attention to their surroundings. Mr. D. explains that the day he receives an offer, he will take time to visit the neighbourhood and get to know the neighbours to ensure it is a pleasant environment:


For me, before I live somewhere I live with the neighbour first. You have to “live with your neighbour.”
–What do you mean “You have to live with your neighbour?”
– “Live with your neighbour,” it’s a proverb. Meet your neighbour you are going to live with first.
(Interview no. 78)

63Above all these people fear being rehoused in a neighbourhood with “yobs,” labelled an “estate.” Mrs. M. would like to live anywhere in Paris, “but in a part where there are not too many thugs” (Interview no. 88). A young man wants “a neighbourhood with white people, not just blacks and Arabs” (Interview no. 84). According to Mr. E., some people who are housed on the housing estates leave their homes because too many of the wrong people go there (Interview no. 76). The new housing therefore has to be appropriate in terms of comfort and layout, but also situated in a social environment that is consistent with their expected social position, hence some refuse to move despite the quality of the housing offered. As the director of the SIEMP rehousing department explains:


These people were categorised as “poorly housed.” They don’t want to be categorised as “estates” when rehoused.
(Interview no. 26)

65Moving to a stigmatised space would be a form of déclassement, which would negate gains in terms of quality of housing. At the other extreme, being rehoused in fashionable, highly socially valued neighbourhoods and fear of the unknown also give rise to reluctance and can lead to refusals, as an activist for the Right to Housing Association (Droit au Logement–DAL) testifies:


I have a family with eight kids. They were dealt with by the City directly. So, they found them a 122m2 place. So it’s a four room 122m2 appartment in Saint-Augustin. That’s in the 8th arrondissement. Well the family actually found all the excuses in the world, saying “It’s four rooms, but we’re … I want some bedrooms.” But the real reason was that there would be no African shops below her where she could do her shopping. It was because she would have felt lost.
(Interview no. 24)

67People, therefore, want a place that is not especially stigmatised, nor too highly thought of. They want to feel at home. Moreover, once they are in their new home, those who are faced with too great a disparity between social and residential statuses can suffer from these situations.

In a new place

68Moving to social housing is incontestably a process of positive reclassement. Most residents benefit from rehousing. At the same time, this also has financial, social and sometimes psychological costs, in particular for those possessing few social resources. However, it is the most vulnerable, and in particular the poorly housed, who are granted more access to rehousing (Table 3), often in more wealthy neighbourhoods than those they previously lived in. A disparity is thus sometimes created between their social and residential statuses, this time in the form of a surclassement, which can give rise to a new type of malaise.

Table 3

Residential situation following the second phase of the study according to social characteristics of the residents (during the first phase) (in %)

Table 3
Stayed in the same housing Rehoused Moved home with own means Temporary housing Total Born legally in France 60.0 12.0 26.7 1.3 100 Legal immigrant 38.7 41.2 16.2 3.9 100 Illegal immigrant 43.2 19.8 18.5 18.5 100 Very poor (< 300 € per person/month) Poor (300 to 800 €) 40.1 42.6 33.6 31.9 15.3 22.0 11.0 3.5 100 100 Less poor (> 800 €) 61.9 15.9 20.6 1.6 100 Unskilled occupation 41.7 35.7 14.3 8.3 100 Middle level occupation 48.0 28.0 24.0 0.0 100 Skilled occupation 66.7 11.8 19.6 1.9 100 Never worked 33.4 21.2 33.3 12.1 100 No or primary level education only 38.0 39.7 12.4 9.9 100 Collège or lycée education 50.0 28.7 17.3 4.0 100 Higher education 49.4 12.0 33.3 5.3 100

Residential situation following the second phase of the study according to social characteristics of the residents (during the first phase) (in %)

Number: N = 360.
Field: Population living in Paris’s poor housing.
Note: For each of the social characteristics used, Chi2 < 0.001.
Source: SIEMP/ERIS Survey: 2005, 2007

The gains from reclassement

69For the formerly poorly housed, rehousing entails access to much better living conditions. From this point of view, the vast majority of them express strong satisfaction. Of the 65 rehoused people interviewed in the second phase of the study, 71% rate their housing conditions as satisfactory, 24% average and only 6% inadequate. 82% consider their housing to be “much better” than their previous, 15% “mostly better” and only 3% had a more mixed view. Most welcomed the new comfort with a sort of wonder, like Mr. R.:


At night I wake up and ask my wife: “Is this apartment really ours?” [laughs] That’s what makes my wife laugh the most. She tells me: “But it is ours!”.
(Interview no. 81)

7178% of the rehoused go so far as to claim that they are “proud” of their homes. Being able to say “that’s our place” provides a sense of recognition. The comfort and space signify access to a new social status and to an end to indignity: “Rehabilitation means, in its initial sense, reverse decline, remove disabilities resulting from a bankruptcy. It means having lost rights and public esteem returned, it means to exonerate and to excuse” (Davault and Pasquier-Merlet 1992). The new housing is proof that one is capable of taking one’s place in society:


Even though you may not have a dining table in your council house, or you may not have a chair, from the moment that you have your own home, your home you’re paying for: it’s good. Knowing where you’re going to sleep is good. And if you’ve got a wife, it’s a way to honour your wife. OK. That’s it. So. That’s how it is, eh. That’s why, when people get a council house, they’re on the up, they tell themselves they’re on the up. Honestly, for an African living in Paris, council housing really moves you up in the world.
(Interview no. 76)

73For immigrants, after the stigmatised position associated with slums, rehousing represents the first sign of integration into French society, as Mr. R. testifies:


You now feel you’re part of France. You’re entitled to be responded to when you greets omeone, you’re entitled to a certain regard and not to people’s indifference. Because when I meet my neighbours, there’s no… there’s no chat between us but there is a smile and a greeting. Now I feel like I’m in France. … We’re accepted because now we’re greeted. We tell ourselves that because we can pay for a home we’re someone.
(Interview no. 81)

75This is also the real beginning of life in France. Finally, one is able to profit fully from the advantages of one’s host country:


I think that now I can appreciate the true value of living in France. Because frankly, when I was living in the slums… squats and in the particular conditions we were living in you couldn’t really appreciate that this was France.
(Interview no. 67)

77These residents feel like they have “arrived.” They have access to Western modernity and the “white people’s” world. Mr. R. is proud to receive a key:


I didn’t have a key before. Now I’ve got a key for the letterbox and my apartment. I come home just like a Frenchman, or rather like a white man!
(Interview no. 81)

79Social housing thus gives access to a new place as much in symbolic as in physical space. It is striking to note to the extent to which being reclassé in terms of housing means catching up with the “whites” for immigrants. Thanks to rehousing some people get a boost in life. 70% consider that the change in housing had a beneficial effect on their or their children’s health. 83% judge that it had a positive effect on their wellbeing. Some find renewed strength to study or to look for a job. Others can build a family life. These people thus receive much more than just comfort and space: they are socially reintegrated. However, behaviour in reaction to being rehoused is not always as positive and the most socially excluded sometimes have difficulties fully seizing this opportunity.

The financial cost of reclassement

80Mr. R.’s, a former resident in a communal squat in Paris’s 19th arrondissement, rehoused in the 14th arrondissement, testimony (Interview no. 81) is particularly revealing of the ambiguity of rehousing. Many references will be made to him below but, while Mr. R. is particularly frank about the difficulties he encountered (it is not always easy to admit an “inability” to adapt as well as hoped), his is not an isolated case, numerous interviews make these ambivalent feelings clear. Difficulties adapting to a new home are firstly linked to the financial costs, which the most vulnerable struggle to cope with. For example, for former squatters, a council house requires previously unknown expenditures:


A new home demands a lot of effort from residents and tenants. And a lot of discipline. And so many changes in behaviour that you can’t say whether it’s positive or negative. … It also obliges you to accept spending money … When you break something you pay for it. Even if you know how to repair something, you’re told: “You mustn’t repair it.” There’s always a specialist who comes round. Again. There’s nothing you can do; whilst [in my former home] you could do everything. When stuff was broken, you did your own plastering, your own plumbing.
–So it’s this loss of independence in relation to your home that bothers you is it?
–That’s it. So… The price of integration is accepting having to spend money like true French people have to. Spending money. But in comparison, we only have miserable salaries in comparison to French people. We don’t make much. And you have to spend more than half your income on your house. D’you see? So it really requires a lot of self-discipline to succeed. And even then that’s often not enough.
(Interview no. 81)

82In concrete terms, a third of the rehoused say they have difficulties paying their rents. Fewer than a quarter of them spend less than 30% of their incomes on them, 35 to 50% spend half theirs and a little more than a quarter spend more than 50%. Even while these figures should be approached with caution, because not all interviewees declare all their incomes or the support that they receive, they still give one an idea of the financial efforts made. By comparison, according to a departmental association for housing information (Association Départementale de l’Information sur le Logement–ADIL 75) study from February 2009, Parisians devote on average a little more than a third of their incomes to paying rents. 50% of the formerly poorly housed consider their financial situations to have worsened. In addition to the cost of rents, moving up the hierarchy also involves new consumption requirements. One has to align oneself with the new social milieu’s practices:


Would you say that your economic life has deteriorated since you were rehoused?
– As I said, I tried to look like any other Parisian. So that meant incurring other expenses.
– Like what? Can you give me some examples?
– When I was in the squat, I could go out and I could get some furniture: “Na, na, na, finishes with something furniture. They put it in the street.” I pick it up and put it in my place. A table to put the TV on. But where I went to, I told myself: “I’ll have to spend some money because this is a nice apartment.” So everything I’ve got at home is new. It’s new and that’s the noose around your neck.
– And why’s that? Is it because it would be… Does it seem inappropriate to take things from the street to put in a new apartment?
– Here, between us Malians, nobody’s bothered about doing it because everyone does it. But when you’re in an area where they don’t do that, you’re tempted to do as they do. Perhaps you might be prepared to do it, but your children wouldn’t.
(Interview no. 81)

84A new place involves a lot more pressure than former community life, where everyone faced the same difficulties. Maintaining one’s place has a significant cost, and if one cannot manage it one risks once more being exposed to shame and humiliation. Those who are in jobs at the bottom of the social scale and who have low incomes obviously suffer from these new obligations. 43% of the rehoused who are in an unskilled job, or recently had one, have difficulties paying rents, which is the case for only 20% of the few who are in skilled jobs. Nearly a half of the “very poor (receiving less than 300 euros per month, per person), a third of the “averagely poor” (receiving between 300 and 800 euros) and zero percent of the more wealthy (receiving more than 800 euros) are in this situation. Furthermore, despite subsidised rents, the proportion of incomes devoted to rent is inversely related to size of incomes. A third of the “least poor” stated they were more comfortable financially because of rehousing, while this was true for less than 15% of those with smaller incomes. In fact, a good proportion of the most impoverished, formerly lived in a squat and paid no rent, hence the abruptness of the change. These results also highlight expenditure on household appliances. The poorest often never spent anything on this before: 80% of the “very poor” had to buy equipment and 60% of the “less poor.” Those with the least economic capital therefore face the most significant financial strain linked to being rehoused. In Coing’s (1966) study, it also seemed that, for some of the rehoused, the expectations created by their new situation could be undermined by financial constraints resulting from unexpected expenditure linked to a new home. Bourdieu explained this drama excellently: “Housing paradoxically becomes an obstacle to the modern life it seemed to promise. Comfort escapes one at the moment when one believes one can grasp it. One ends up working only for the right to live somewhere while depriving oneself.” (Bourdieu et al. 1963: 372-3). In the survey, many residents are obsessed by the need to make savings. A former resident of a furnished residence hotel only plugs his fridge in intermittently to limit electricity consumption (Interview no. 68). Conversely, the wealthier are prepared to pay more for better quality. For the most poor, residential reclassement may therefore be countered by a déclassement in terms of consumption, a risk that the rental subsidy is supposed to limit. This type of observation is found among the poorest people who obtain property and have to face new expenditures that undermine their budgets, obliging them to accept sacrifices or to defer spending on household items (Cartier et al. 2008). This situation has negative effects on relationships with the world of individuals. Moreover, the cost of moving is not only financial, it can also be psychological. When former slum residents are rehoused in wealthier neighbourhoods this cost is greater, linked to confronting with a new social milieu.

The social and psychological cost of reclassement

85When mobility in the residential hierarchy is too brutal or when people are “placed” in a milieu where they feel they are outsiders, they can feel lost and disoriented. According to Sorokin’s (1927) theory, social mobility generally implies risks, because the individuals who move are deprived of their initial ties and suspended between two identities. [11] Based on the case of a grant holder, Hoggart (1957) described the malaise felt by people from the working class moving to a new social milieu that is higher than the one they came from. As a result of difficulties socially adjusting, these “déclassés by the top” experience anxiety: whilst their educational success was enough to cut them off from their original class, entrance to another social category was not open to them. Situations of social disparity are thus potentially at the root of strong social malaise. Research on the effects of uprooting linked to rehousing make quite similar observations. Immigrant populations, in particular, suffer from a rupture from a protective milieu: when moving occurs before the period of adaptation to a new environment is completed, it is violent as a result of the change in lifestyle involved and has negative effects linked to the destruction of social ties (Young and Willmott 1957; Coing 1966; Pétonnet 1979). It was, therefore, predictable that when the most excluded obtain rehousing they would experience a new form of suffering.

86It is difficult for the former occupants of poor housing to express their difficulties and disappointments with rehousing. How can they not be completely overjoyed at leaving the slums without being misunderstood or attracting disapproving judgements. That is why feelings of frustration are less evident in the questionnaires than they are in the interviews, where the interviewees’ trust is gained and they can justify themselves. Nevertheless, the statistical analysis highlights reservations compared to the general appreciation of rehousing which is obviously positive. It is in the details that individuals’ anxieties and malaise can be found. According to the statistics, people benefit least from rehousing when they make a bigger leap up the residential hierarchy. This is the case when they are rehoused in much more wealthy neighbourhoods than before. The positive effect on their wellbeing is also smaller when they feel different from other people in the neighbourhood. Only 63% of those who feel mostly different to their new neighbours think that rehousing had a positive effect on their wellbeing, against 87% of those who felt mostly similar to them. Feeling mostly similar to others in the neighbourhood means that they feel better there: “only” 67% of people who feel mostly different to people in the neighbourhood appreciate the atmosphere in their neighbourhood, compared to 91% of those who mostly feel similar. In cases where there is disparity, the former poorly housed become aware of their social exclusion, while their former milieu made this perception less stark. A physical proximity to people better-off than oneself aggravates differences and perceptions of inequality. Being poor in a rich neighbourhood is sometimes more damaging than being poor in a poor neighbourhood (Kirszbaum 2006). [12] In fact, making a comparison with someone in a less favourable situation than one’s own has a beneficial effect on wellbeing, while making comparisons with people who are better-off leads to developing feelings of jealousy, hostility and frustration, and contributes to building a negative self-image (Croizet and Leyens 2003). It makes sense that moving to a world where “downward comparisons” are impossible and give way to “upward comparisons” is psychologically costly. On the subject of high rise estates, Chamboredon and Lemaire (1970), thus note that coming closer to and into confrontation with more advantaged groups fuels feelings of relegation and impressions of not being equal to the demands of the new housing. In our survey, these feelings are also linked to the difficulty the formerly poorly housed have with forging relationships in a social milieu that is not their own. They forge more relationships when they move to more working-class areas: 62% of those who live in the North of Paris say they have many contacts with people in their neighbourhoods against 31% of those who live in the South or in central arrondissements.

87During the interviews, the reservations about new residential situations expressed in the questionnaires often turn to disappointment, even to suffering. Mr. R. reveals the disparity he feels with his new place of residence:


It’s a nice area, you know. There are few blacks there. That’s all, I’m not saying the area’s not lovely, but I don’t see any blacks. … The shopping’s more expensive in the 14th. By nine o’clock the streets are deserted. There’s no life. The people are fearful. We’re all strangers. We don’t talk to each other. … In the metro people look at each other but don’t speak. You get a look if you talk too loud.
(Interview no. 81)

89Similarly, a former resident of a furnished residence hotel in the 18th arrondissement rehoused in the 17th said he suffered from a lack of social relationships:


There are no conversations here, only politeness.
(Interview no. 91)

91When he arrived in the neighbourhood, people looked at him strangely, which made him uncomfortable. Many people accuse their new places of lacking human warmth. A former resident of a residence hotel rehoused in a uniquely residential neighbourhood in the 20th arrondissement missed the solidarity of the “lively” street where he enjoyed a sense of “dormitory” living (when talking about this he refers to it as “monotonous urban comfort”). Basically, these people are nostalgic for what Agier (1999) calls the “neighbourly city,” where they can walk about, meet “close friends” and take over the space. Here again, it is those with the fewest social resources who benefit the least from the change and have the most regrets about their former lives. Those having, or having formerly had, a skilled job claim to feel no ill-effects to their self-confidence linked to moving, while this was the case for 19% in unskilled jobs. These effects are more exacerbated for the more economically insecure rehoused as a priority and preferentially in wealthy neighbourhoods in order to promote social diversity. Furthermore, these people experience particular difficulties maintaining relationships with their former social milieus. Nearly 60% see their former contacts less frequently than before, and the fewer the social resources they possess the more this is true. For the most socially excluded, moving thus results in a weakening of the social ties that are a material and psychological support. Mr. R., who previously lived in a communal squat, talks about his attachment to his former lifestyle:


Otherwise, before, while you could criticise its beauty, the niceness of our building’s interior, there was a good vibe, because 90% of us living there were Malian, coming from the same country. No door was ever closed. My children could go around to neighbours whenever they wanted, just as neighbours could come and chat with my wife whenever they wanted. When there’s a problem here, we feel that it’s a problem we can deal with Africanstyle, Malian-style … There was a good vibe. Eh, we weren’t all out of place here. … The only suffering there was, was definitely was what our children born in France suffered, who had to try and make friends outside of our building, who had a bit of a complex about inviting their friends around to the building because is was run down. That was basically our problem.
(Interview no. 81)

93A man talks about the people in his former residence hotel as if they were family:


We stayed out until one in the morning, he comments nostalgically.
(Interview no. 91)

95The loss of closeness with the people who had shared their daily lives represents a loss of security and support. Displacing the poorest in the residential space, thus has twin effects: not only do they struggle to adapt to a new milieu where the social gap is large, but they are also unable to maintain ties with the milieus they had formerly made their own.

96All these factors explain the ambiguous relationships people have with their new places to live. For those who have changed neighbourhood [13] (90% of those who have moved home), satisfaction in comparison with their former neighbourhoods is slightly higher. At the same time, however, nearly half of the people say that they miss their old neighbourhoods. As might be expected, those who possess the most social resources adapt better. 7% of the “less poor” had difficulties adapting, against 31% of the “most poor.” The people in, or having recently been in, skilled jobs had no problems, while 22% in unskilled jobs encountered some. Despite their difficulties in maintaining their old social relationships, the most socially excluded therefore had difficulty in breaking away from everything that tied them to their former places. The fewer social resources people possess, the more they return to their original neighbourhoods. One man systematically made a detour via “his street” when he passed through the area. As for a former resident in a residence hotel, she continued to do her shopping in the rue d’Aubervilliers, in the 19th arrondissement, to see her neighbourhood again. Moreover, many people miss shops they used to be able to go to. Many retired North Africans go back to cafés near their demolished buildings. Thus, people struggle to adapt to a new place assigned to them by institutions and attempt to preserve links with their former ones, but fail to maintain the interpersonal relationships that provided those places with all their richness. For immigrants, therefore, this “twin absence” is doubly felt (Sayad 1999): they experienced it firstly following emigration (they do not feel completely at home either in France or in their country of origin), then being rehoused restarts the process at the neighbourhood level (they are no longer from their old neighbourhoods nor feel at home in their new ones).

97Basically, discomfort occurs when a disparity is created between residential and social statuses: when the social situation does not follow, one does not feel at home in the new space occupied. Understanding the helplessness of the most socially excluded people therefore requires bearing in mind that an improvement in residential position does not much improve a social situation and other problems retain their resonance. Access to quality housing can even bring to the fore problems that had previously been sidelined. During a meeting at the SIEMP on the social support of families, a member of PACTE talks about a “decompression phenomenon:”


Nothing is sorted after rehousing. Problematic situations remain. Sometimes rehousing even exacerbates problems. When people had problems with housing, all their anger was focused on housing. But with a new home, this reason no longer exists, they are laid bare. Other issues return to the fore.
(Woman, PACTE, aged 50)

99On the subject of a recently divorced man who became depressed having received a council apartment offer:


He was in his own “dramatic bubble.” He said he was poorly house and that he had nothing to do with his problems. He told himself he was a victim. Suddenly, we offer him an apartment and everything falls apart.
(Woman, head of the SIEMP social service, aged 45)

101According to Goffman (1963), individuals inflicted with a stigma use it to justify their lack of success for other reasons. When the stigma disappears, they realise that life is not simple, even for “normal people” who do not suffer the same stigma. Many of the poorly housed blame their work, family and integration difficulties on the slums. However, once properly housed, these are no more resolved.

102Furthermore, it is common that an improvement in one aspect of living conditions alters aspirations concerning other sides of life. For example, leaving the council estates and tower blocks to live in a housing development where the middle class is well represented alters relationships with work in the sense that it raises pretentions (Cartier et al. 2008). Similarly, improvements in accommodation lead to greater attention to the quality of the workplace (Ackermann and Moscovici 1959; Zweig 1961) and lead to no longer tolerating certain things that were previously accepted. [14] Our survey confirms these chain effects linked to new living conditions. A formerly poorly housed woman suffered from physical and psychological problems after she signed her lease:


You got the impression that it set everything off. Since she moved home, she could no longer tolerate being dirty, she couldn’t bear her incontinence, explains the head of the social service.

104For those for whom housing was not the “missing piece” for social integration, that is those suffering from many other social problems, the change can cause distress, and other deprivations are felt more painfully than before. Somehow, the surclassement makes social exclusion more obvious and brutal. A female housing officer continues:


Even if the accommodation’s good, people are not necessarily happy.

106Of course, this finding should not ignore the cases of all those people who succeed in profiting for residential reclassement and make a new start in life, but it highlights the limits of state interventions centred mainly on housing.

107* * *

108Today, perhaps more so than in the past, housing is at the heart of issues of status in society. The most socially marginalised are the most affected by relegation in the residential hierarchy. However, because of the increasing housing crisis, integrated people are driven to experience residential déclassement. This is the case for a section of residents in Paris’s poor housing. They suffer this situation in distress because they consider it an injustice and a form of breaking of the social contract, but also because their housing conditions degrade their self-perception and their status in society. Of course these people attempt to counter this social misfortune: they struggle against stigmatisation and the contamination of their social status, and make every effort to improve themselves socially and residentially. The problem lies in the fact that, for the deprived, residential and social positions work like connecting vessels: forced to choose between housing and consumption, it is impossible for them to move up one scale without dropping back in the other. Hence the huge number of requests for social housing. In the poorly housed’s eyes, this housing grants social recognition, provides some security, and ensures a reasonable financial outlay. Thanks to low rents, they hope to maintain or reach a certain standard of living and escape the deprivation associated with working class life. One cannot but be struck by the importance of this housing in disadvantaged people’s plans for social mobility. The residential status hierarchy, which generally excludes social housing tenants, thus appears to be completely relative: depending on the situation, this housing can be transformed from having an honest status (for example for “suburban homeowners”) to having a dream status (for the poorly housed in the private sector).

109At the other extreme, residential surclassement sometimes brings with it a sense of social malaise. The deprivation in terms of consumption that paying rent entails, the awareness of inequalities linked to being able to compare oneself to a higher social milieu and the persistence of work and family difficulties, in some way return these people to the place from which they had hoped to escape. For the most economically insecure, social and residential positions continue to work like connecting vessels despite lower rents. The breaking of old ties can also be an additional factor in this debilitation. If individuals had settled in certain areas, this was because they had put down roots there and found themselves in some way protected there. It was there that they felt at home, because even though they were not necessarily the same as others, at least they were socially accepted and discovered certain support networks. The break with this type of anchorage, especially for people who are vulnerable or ill-prepared, has severe consequences. Destabilised, the rehoused sometimes try to reconnect with their old places. However, the break with the latter is often irreversible and it is difficult to maintain the protection (fraternity and mutual support) that is associated with it. These people, who do not feel at home, suffer psychological and social costs. Certainly, some of the rehoused, often those with greater social resources, adapt to their new lives. But others suffer distressfully from social disparity. Social and residential orders are so intertwined that any change in either of them that is not accompanied by a similar change in the other entails a feeling a malaise. A longitudinal survey would perhaps allow us to observe the adjustments between these two hierarchies. However, these findings show the extent to which housing policy cannot be thought of independently of policies aimed at other aspects of social life. While moving people is often thought of as a solution to social problems, in the minds of policy makers, it appears that upheaval on the housing level alone cannot bear these fruits without a reduction in social inequality, and that social diversity is not assured simply by moving populations.

110More broadly, these findings highlight the largely underestimated role of the housing crisis in the increase in social resentment. It leads us to consider the importance for society of focussing on ensuring that social mobility is accompanied by similar mobility in the residential hierarchy. Social malaise and feelings of injustice arise when these two orders no longer operate in unison. The question that policymakers must answer today is: how do you repair the machine, which during the post-war boom years meant that residential trajectories were “connected” to the social mobility of households in society?


Interviews cited

11114-Woman, Paris PACTE, OAHD coordinator, 37 years.

11221-Man, SIEMP, director for the eradication of insalubrity, 60 years.

11323-Man, SIEMP, director of the facilities sub-department, 45 years.

11451-Mrs. G.: tenant rehoused “because” of lead poisoning, single, 1 child, French of Cameroonian origins, laundress, 40 years.

11553-Mr. Y.: squatter, married, 1 child, Ivoirian, illegal immigrant, black market worker, 30 years.

11659-Mrs. V.: tenant, married, 4 children, Cameroonian, legal immigrant, carer, 45 years.

11765-Mr. B.: squatter, married, 3 children in the country, French of Mauritanian origins, road worker, 38 years.

11867-Mr. A.: squatter, married, 3 children, Senegalese, legal immigrant, production worker/fork-lift truck driver, 36 years (seen again 2 years later: rehoused).

11969-Mr. Q.: tenant, separated, 1 child, Tunisian, legal immigrant, employed in road transport, 38 years.

12071-Mr. N.: living with parents, separated, no children, Algerian, legal immigrant, truck driver, 35 years.

12176-Mr. E.: squatter, divorced, 1 child, Ivoirian, legal immigrant, plumber, 49 years.

12277-Mr. C.: tenant, married, 1 child, French of Moroccan origins, manager, 29 years.

12378-Mr. D.: squatter, married, no children, French of Algerian origins, delivery driver, 40 years (seen again 2 years later: in the same place).

12480-Mrs. P.: tenant, divorced, 2 children, French, retired, 75 years.

12581-Mr. R.: squatter, married, 3 children, Malian, legal immigrant, security guard, 50 years.

12688-Mrs. M.: squatter, married, 2 children in France, 1 in the Ivory Coast, Ivoirian, legal immigrant, unemployed, 28 years.


  • [1]
    According to Castel (1998), exclusion from the labour market may be due to an individual’s specific inability to meet the requirements for a position in society, but in different circumstances may be due to a deficiency in social organisation that does not furnish its members with the necessary means to integrate.
  • [2]
    Peugny (2010) distinguishes three types of déclassement: intergenerational déclassement, déclassement occurring during the life cycle and déclassement that is synonymous with the concept of overeducation, which relates to a situation where individuals are overqualified for the jobs they have. It is in the latter sense that the term déclassement is used here.
  • [3]
    Social suffering “arises when a subject’s desire can no longer be socially realised, when an individual can no longer be who he wants to be. This is the case when he is forced to occupy a social position that excludes, disqualifies eskills, instrumentalises or discredits him” (Gaulejac 1996: 131).
  • [4]
    The residents of the least insalubrious buildings see little change in their housing conditions. Sometimes they get work done, but this is essentially limited to communal areas and, in the case where it is in private areas, it does nothing to resolve the widespread problem of over-occupation. Their position in the residential hierarchy is therefore relatively stable.
  • [5]
    Goffman (1963) claims stigmatic symbols are signs whose effects are to draw attention to a shameful flaw in the identities of their wearers and to destroy what could have been generally coherent images.
  • [6]
    Those living in the worst conditions are those who invite the fewest friends home: only 46% of them regularly invite them, while the figure is 53% for those with average living conditions and 71% for those who enjoy the best conditions. The influence of quality of housing is less great when it comes to family: 35% of those who suffer the worst conditions regularly have them round, compared to 41% who have average living conditions and 51% of those with the best living conditions. The reason people claim to invite family less frequently than friends it that some of them do not have family in France or in the Paris region.
  • [7]
    Mouvement PACT-ARIM pour l’Amélioration de l’Habitat (PACT-ARIM Housing Improvement Movement).
  • [8]
    In the Île-de-France, social rents are on average half as much as rents in the private sector and up to four times lower in the centre of the city (Union Sociale pour l’Habitat d’Îlede-France–AORIF), Chiffres-clés. Le logement en 2006 en Île-de-France).
  • [9]
    Public Office for Facilities and Construction (Office Public d’Aménagement et de Construction–OPAC).
  • [10]
    Limited liability property management company (Société Anonyme de Gestion Immobilière–SAGI).
  • [11]
    For a summary of the effects of social mobility, see the article by Peugny (2006).
  • [12]
    There is an echo here of the “theory of relative deprivation,” according to which discomfort arises when neighbours are more wealthy.
  • [13]
    Here, the notion of neighbourhood is subjective. However, the fact that people confirm they have changed neighbourhood reveals they felt distanced from their old living place.
  • [14]
    Conversely, there is a link between the quality of work conditions and what is expected of accommodation. According to Halbwachs, workers who work in workshops do not have the same expectations of housing as employees and public sector workers, for whom coming home to similarly spartan accommodation would represent a regression in comparison to their workplaces ([1942] 2008).

Based on the example of residents in poor housing in Paris, this article focuses on the importance of housing in social class mechanisms and the interdependence between social and residential status for those in positions of precarity. Housing deprivation entails a downgrading of status in society, especially for those who experience “residential déclassement” (i.e., are unable to house themselves decently because of the situation in the housing market despite being comparatively socially integrated). Far from being passive, the poorly housed fight against this decline and aspire to residential as much as social reclassement by way of social housing. However, for the most deprived, rehousing can bring about social malaise when accompanied by a “residential surclassement,” that is, when social status is not “as high” as a new residential status. In their case, residential and social statuses work like connecting vessels. Obliged to choose between housing and consumption, it is impossible for them to climb one of the hierarchies without slipping back in the other. Social and housing orders are thus tightly interwoven and any changes in one of the orders that are not followed by similar changes in the other have significant psychological and social effects.


  • poor housing
  • social housing
  • poverty
  • social and housing mobility
  • working classes


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Pascale Dietrich-Ragon
Institut National d’Études Démographiques (INED)
133, boulevard Davout
75980 Paris cedex 20
Translated by
Toby Matthews
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