What Stronger Tenant Voices Mean for Housing Organisations Today.
Can tenant engagement help with operational transformation?
In this article, we take a closer look at the industry. Learn from events that have been and provide some clarity on suggestions within ‘a new deal for social housing’.
We want to highlight what tenants think. What Housing Organisations do. And how there’s opportunities to find a balance between cost pressures for housing providers and greater tenant happiness.
Standards that matter to residents
Ed Daffarn, active member of Grenfell United and tenant voice champion, highlights some of the disconnect that caused the tragedy on the 14th of June 2017.
Emphasising housing ombudsman and social housing regulator opacity, Daffarn said “What we feel let us down at Grenfell was the lack of scrutiny. [These organisations] were safe in the knowledge nobody was going to scrutinise them.”
The green paper addressed this front and centre, by proposing that the ‘performance of all landlords to be assessed against a number of agreed and meaningful key performance indicators, relating to standards that matter to residents’
It’s not as simple as that. Tenants that Shelter spoke to about this might’ve responded well to the idea of giving their landlord poorer scores to reflect dissatisfaction with their service - a way to showcase their voices publicly. But a more proactive approach to this might actually offer a better solution.
If tenants are consulted on transfer options, are an active part of neighbourhood upkeep, and are kept well-informed of service delivery on major maintenance works, we believe they will be able to shape housing policy from within and exercise their voice towards bringing realistic change.
Which is why we believe that regular, timely, useful information should be frequently provided to residents through easy-to-access channels. This, so that they can maintain ownership of landlord scrutiny. Tenants should also (and in all likelihood are already) getting support from a stronger regulator placing clear obligations on landlords - read our thoughts about this here.
(Also, if you’d like to chat about this, send us some thoughts here. Let’s discuss.)
Here’s another thing for you to ponder - would it be effective to amend current standards of reporting to encourage housing providers to a) collate b) report more clearly on repairs and issues?
The green paper believes this should happen, and mentions it should consist of: how many complaints were resolved...? How many after repeated requests...? And how many referred to the ombudsman...?
We’d love to see these questions amended to include ‘....to the satisfaction or tenants’ at the end, making the activity more tenant-centric. But also making their need for better services a specific, measurable activity that lends itself to greater empowerment and louder voices emerging from the community.
This would please advocates like Daffarn, who has been asking “Why don’t we have a more proactive regulator - actually designed to listen to problems instead of just responding to complaints raised?”
Daffarn already believes “The change in culture won’t come about because of the impact of Grenfell, it will come from policy and regulation.”
And this would certainly be a step in the right direction towards making that happen.
Issues that matter to residents
Peter Apps, for Inside Housing, recently echoed Daffarn's sentiment in his article reviewing expected reform on Grenfell.
He states that the disaster was about much more than just cladding. Without failures at several other points in the system, the magnitude of the event may not have been as severe.
Dr Barbara Lane, a technical expert on the matter, said a “culture of non-compliance” meant more than 100 fire doors at Grenfell failed fire regulations.
So how does one reform this?
We’ve learned that an immediate, effective approach is putting tenants at the heart of any service offered to them - particularly repairs and maintenance.
National tenant groups have reported that amidst the 1% rent cut/ year, focus on value-for-money and financial pressures to deliver more affordable housing, their concerns are falling through the cracks. Tenant empowerment and involvement in repairs, and general upkeep, can’t be prioritised in a time like this.
(Or can it? Keep reading to see why we’ve found a way.)
The fact of the matter is that many housing providers are operating on long-term business plans. These plans may allocate certain funds for developing new homes but if it isn’t forthcoming - and the homes still need to be developed - cost pressures will undoubtedly have an impact on operations.
Some things will have to go, others might stay, but exist in a stripped-down state. Repairs and responsive repairs programmes are one such service.
The 1% rent reduction per year (starting 2016) was met with an almost instant 1.7% reduction in overall repairs expenditure in the sector. Today, in 2019, this is a worrisome 11.3%.
A social tenant has this to say: “Reported repair issues need to be taken seriously. I gave up trying to get damaged, cracked and stained plaster repaired following a major roof leak, as I couldn’t bear the persistent mansplaining.”
Mansplaining aside, there is an acknowledgement in tenants surveyed - landlords are leaving repairs unattended, simply because they admit to not being able to afford them. These work-in-progress jobs, if you will, raised but not resolved, warrant a whole different section of their own. Fortunately, we've written about this here.
There are a few possible ways to approach this repairs and issue-resolution problem Today.
The government can step in and start giving more resources to tenant groups, like the one Mr. Daffarn champions, for better training and capacity-building in addressing these issues with their landlords. If the residents prefer a levy on their rents in the absence of an adequate repairs service, effective regulation could perhaps make this work. Perhaps.
But it still won’t work for housing providers. Even KPIs becoming linked to funding - as they now are becoming - won’t work effectively to satisfy all the groups constituting a housing ecosystem. They might incentivise providers, but lead to ineffective results in tenant satisfaction.
Leading the change
As the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower Fire draws near, it is important to reassure both tenants and housing communities that things are better, that issues rising from a lack of support or improper listening are all in the past.
Social housing providers are beginning to play a more active role in this post-Grenfell reform, and at Plentific, we are eager to support their vision to do more; to do better by their tenants so that someday, a memorial to Grenfell goes beyond the colour green, and instead becomes synonymous with transformative change.
We’d like to think a ‘Can-Do’ approach goes a long way in targeting two critical issues head-on.
- Communication and the channels used to talk to residents. Also, the usefulness of this communication - reporting, showcasing compliance, capturing voices demanding change, support and better delivery of their services.
- A better supply chain of trusted tradesmen who make repairs quicker, more measurable and less expensive for housing providers than in-house solutions ever could (especially with cost pressures) - so that they may continue to be measured on metrics that matter most to tenants and do right by them.
We believe that accomplishing this will make great things happen. That soon, tenant voices in leading change will be bolder and brighter than any colour ever could.