by Sheenagh McNally
The housing crisis sweeping across this island is not only a wake-up call to our governments but also an opportunity for us to recalibrate our attitude towards social housing. In the past social housing has been looked down upon as a tenure of last resort for the financially unstable or less fortunate, but now it is time to change that outdated perception and see it as an opportunity for active, involved tenants to create the kind of vibrant, sustainable communities we’d all like to live in.
With rising housing costs exceeding many household incomes, fewer people can afford to buy a home or rent privately. Social housing is starting to be seen more widely as an attractive alternative, even as a tenure of choice for its long-term stability. We must recognise that in addition to being an affordable place to live, social housing presents an opportunity to build places where people are invested in their surroundings and feel a sense of community.
For this to work, however, it is imperative that those living in social housing have a real say in what happens. Residents must have the opportunity to be part of the decision-making process of their landlord, where they can suggest changes and make their voices heard on issues that affect them directly. The involvement of residents in the business of housing ensures that policies and practices are attuned to the needs of the people who live there - something that cannot be achieved by landlords or policymakers alone.
Tenant engagement is the key to making this possible. By providing residents with the tools and resources to actively participate in the governance of their communities, social housing can be transformed into a space that residents are proud to call home. This approach can not only improve the quality of life for tenants but also promote sustainable practices that benefit the wider community and the environment.
At the first-ever All-Ireland Tenant Engagement Conference, held on 13 June, Colm McDaid, CEO of Supporting Communities, challenged the assembly of social housing providers, tenants, and policymakers present, to take their tenant participation efforts further.
“We cannot rest on our laurels”, he declared. “There is always a ‘next level’ for tenant participation. Until we can honestly say that tenants are genuinely empowered to have more involvement and control over all aspects of their housing and live in empowered communities, our work is not done.”
The conference, the first of its kind for Ireland, featured experts, practitioners, and tenants with a shared goal of increasing the effectiveness of tenant engagement. We heard from a range of housing providers at all stages of the ‘ladder of involvement’. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive, who, in partnership with Supporting Communities, has been a pioneer in tenant engagement for over 40 years, gave the opening presentation detailing the work of the Housing Community Network, the largest tenant engagement structure of its kind, made up of over 500 community groups across Northern Ireland. The conference also heard from housing associations that are just getting started but who are committed to taking tenant participation to the board level, such as the event’s headline sponsor, Circle VHA. Several landlords featured presentations from their tenants who spoke about their personal circumstances and reasons for getting involved, which really hit home with the audience.
The keynote address from Lesley Baird, former CEO of TPAS Scotland, assured the audience that tenant participation is both the right thing to do AND the smart thing to do for everyone involved and gave ample evidence of the success communities have had in Scotland.
In his closing remarks of the day, Colm McDaid issued a challenge to the room. “New levels around empowerment and citizenship are happening elsewhere”, he declared. “I would like to see how we can enable that here by creating new legislation in the Republic of Ireland and by refreshing and improving existing legislation in Northern Ireland. I would love to see the island of Ireland become the benchmark for tenant engagement across these isles and, indeed, further afield.”
The time is right for change. Investing in social housing and tenant empowerment can build a more equitable society where everyone has the chance to contribute and thrive.
About the author:
Sheenagh has worked in housing and community development for over 30 years after graduating from the University of Ulster with a BSc in Social Policy & Housing Studies. She joined Supporting Communities (formerly NI Tenants Action Project) in 1992, having previously worked for a Local Authority in England as a Housing Officer.
Sheenagh has since held many positions within Supporting Communities, working closely with tenants, communities, and social housing providers, empowering them to make participation a meaningful and effective two-way process.
Now, as the Head of Corporate Services, Sheenagh has put Supporting Communities on the map as the tenant participation expert working to raise the standard of engagement for all tenants across the island of Ireland.