The Future of Tenant Participation

Jon Eastgate presented at the Queensland Shelter State Housing Conference in June this year, as part of a panel on tenant participation in social housing.  Here are some thoughts from that presentation.

Tenant participation in Queensland is at something of a crossroads, with the State Government having recently discontinued funding for its tenant participation program and a number of tenant groups around the State winding up as a result.  Yet there is still great value to be had from tenant participation, both for tenants themselves and for the social housing system.  Whether you see tenant participation as a form of customer feedback, as community building, as political action or as self-help it still has a place in 21st century social housing.

There are at least three challenges for those who want to breathe new life into tenant participation in Queensland, and elsewhere in Australia.

First of all, as needs-based allocation policies kick in tenants are becoming much more disadvantaged.  This doesn’t mean they can’t participate, but it does mean there are more barriers in their way.  Many of the older generation of public housing tenants were low-income workers who had cut their activist teeth in their workplaces or through the union movement.  More recent tenants have not had these opportunities, and many struggle with issues of mental or physical illness, disability and addiction.

Tenant advocates will need to learn the lessons of those who have implemented participation initiatives for people with disabilities, people with mental health conditions, and young people.  This level of disadvantage makes the community development and empowerment aspects of participation all the more important as the task of supporting these people in their local communities becomes more difficult.

Secondly, the relationships within the social housing sector are more complex.  Until recently we had one large State Government provider which made policy and managed housing on a large scale, plus a few small, local level community providers.  This picture in changing rapidly with the development of affordable housing providers, the transfer of stock to new, larger-scale not-for profits, and increased government oversight and policy direction  of community housing providers.

Even full time, experienced housing professionals struggle to keep up with this changing environment.  How can tenants be expected to understand what is happening?  It’s easy for them to get lost in the system as they advocate for change, unsure if they need to change government policy or local practices, and unsure who to talk to in either case.  Yet the changes have a huge impact on tenants and so it is more important than ever to make sure their voice can be heard.  The silver lining in these grey clouds is that the entry of new providers, including many with histories of tenant participation on a smaller scale, can bring new energy and innovation to the task of tenant participation, and we can find new ways of doing it.

The final challenge comes from the progressive dilution of public housing estates.  One of the strengths of the early tenant movements is that tenants lived in the same community, met each other in the same shops or schools, and shared lots of the same local concerns.  Now social housing is increasingly “salt-and-peppered” throughout the community and there are fewer natural ways for tenants to meet and build relationships.  At the same time, the combination of highly disadvantaged tenants and dispersed housing can lead to a tenser environment as people become concerned about neighbourhood relations and anti-social behaviour.

Tenant participation is needed more than ever.  Massive changes to the social housing system mean that the customer feedback and human rights aspects of participation are sorely needed.  Otherwise we could inadvertently make tenants worse off by ill-considered policy changes.  At the same time, the level of disadvantage faced by tenants makes the community development and empowerment aspects of participation valuable tools for improving the lives of tenants.  If social housing is to be more than a parking place for our most disadvantaged community members, it needs to be allied to programs which help people to improve their lives, build supportive community networks and take control of the interventions intended to help them.

It’s hard work, but then it always has been.

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