For nearly 30 years, Professor David Mullins has conducted research on a range of topics relating to social housing. He has coauthored a number of books, including Housing Policy in the UK (2006), After Council Housing (2010), and Hybridising Housing Organisations (2013). As a Professor of Housing Policy, he leads the Housing and Communities Research Group in the School of Social Policy at the University of Birmingham. He is a coordination committee member of the European Network for Housing (ENHR), and he will be a speaker at the European Federation for Living’s (EFL) autumn conference in Gent, Belgium. In anticipation for the conference, held 22-23 November, EFL had the opportunity to ask Professor Mullins a few questions about his research interests, the research group he leads, and what he will be discussing at EFL’s autumn conference.
Question: You have performed international research on tenant engagement in housing associations from Ireland, the Netherlands, and the U.K. Can you tell us a bit about your findings?
Answer: Yes, this was an exciting project. It aimed to identify and explore the relevance of a variety of models to engage tenants and residents in the governance of their homes. The purpose was to inform future policy in Northern Ireland. We narrowed our search down to four models that best met existing gaps in Northern Ireland. The models selected came from Austria, the Netherlands, Wales, and England, and we worked with experts on those models to write short summaries to be checked with tenants in Northern Ireland.
The Austrian model filled a gap by enabling tenants to form groups before moving into new housing developments. This model captured the imagination of tenants in Northern Ireland, but the context there was too different to enable an easy transfer.
The Dutch model we selected was the annual system of performance agreements between municipalities, housing associations and tenants. This was introduced in 2015 to help hold housing associations more accountable, while at the same time giving tenants a greater voice. It was particularly relevant in Northern Ireland because of the establishment of 13 new ‘super-councils’ with enhanced housing functions. It made sense to involve tenants in the ongoing dialogue between housing landlords and the new local authorities.
The other two models came from closer to home. The Welsh Assembly had supported the development of 25 new local housing cooperatives in partnership with the Wales Cooperative Centre and the Confederation of Cooperative Housing. These new organisations were giving tenants a voice in all aspects of their housing design and management and were proving popular, as well as cost effective. However, again the model would not travel well to Northern Ireland without reforms to housing allocation policies or the development of capacity building infrastructure similar to that developed in Wales.
The fourth model from England was presented by tenants from Preston Community Gateway and proved to be more transferable. There are 5 tenants on the main board made up of 11 people, a mass tenant membership, an elected tenant’s committee, and local community empowerment projects in all parts of Preston. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive had a similar consultation structure with local, regional, and province wide tiers, and many local initiatives but did not have tenant membership (as it was a public body) or tenant board members. After the links made through the project, peer exchange visits took place between Northern Ireland and Community Gateway tenants with good prospects in enhancing future tenant empowerment.
Question: You will be discussing the subject of tenant engagement at the EFL autumn conference. What do you mean when you say tenant engagement, and why is this topic important for the social housing sector?
Answer: It is clear from the above examples that tenant engagement in governance is a wide-ranging concept that goes well beyond the simple measure of whether there are tenants on a main board. It can involve simple things, like influencing your home and how it is managed and maintained, to organizing community activities in the local neighbourhood. It can extend to scrutinizing the services provided by landlords or even providing some of those services directly. Finally, it can mean tenants having a say on the strategic direction of the organization, procurement, and staffing issues if tenants are given the support and training to take on these issues. The great thing about it is that there are no limits, but it can be negotiated and tailored to the specific contributions that tenants want to make.
Going back to basics there are four reasons why tenant engagement is important. First and foremost, social housing is there for the residents. If this basic fact were more widely recognized, it would be harder for governments to undermine the principles of social housing. Second, residents have the local intelligence that boards and executives often lack. They can spot problems and find solutions in a very effective way if they are empowered to do so. Third, being listened to and making a difference improves tenant satisfaction and builds a positive organisational culture, rather than ‘us and them’. Fourth is a more subtle reason, because successful housing services are ‘co-produced’. This means that housing services cannot simply be ‘delivered’ to residents, but must be received and negotiated.
Finally, while tenant engagement is important, it is also difficult to do well. It requires organisation and agreement between all the parties. Residents need to be motivated and see the benefits. Capacity building and training is essential if they are to become involved in strategic decisions, for example through board membership. On the other hand, professionals often find it challenging to transfer some of their power to tenants. They, therefore, need a similar level of capacity building and training if they are to become better listeners, partners, and enablers for tenants. Of course, all this requires resources, but it can produce savings. A recent report in England showed how tenant involvement is seen by successful organisations as ‘an investment not a cost’ and can deliver clear business benefits. Returning to my starting point, tenant engagement can be seen as a rebalancing of power between governments, market, and community so that housing organisations can make more effective contributions to meeting society’s need for housing as a platform for social progress.
Learn more about the European Federation for Living (EFL) at www.ef-l.eu.
Details of all Housing and Communities Group projects including Tenant Engagement in Governance: Models and Practices can be found at http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/social-policy/housing-communities/about/index.aspx