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The Tenant Experience of Participation: Interview with Jack Close and Billy McKee

Jack Close (Clanmil Housing tenant) and Billy McKee (Choice Housing tenant) are both members of the Housing Policy Panel (HPP), a consultative body to the Department for Communities with a focus on social housing. The HPP is convened by Supporting Communities in our role as the Independent Tenant Organisation for Northern Ireland. Both men have been involved at various levels of the tenant participation structures of their respective housing associations.

Siobhán ONeill and Healy King from Supporting Communities spoke to Billy and Jack over Zoom to get their take on tenant participation (TP), how it benefits those involved, and what they see as some of the next steps for this work in Northern Ireland. 

The excerpted parts of our conversation below have been edited for space and clarity.

First off, tell us a bit about what made you want to get involved with your housing association? Was it pure altruism on your part, or do you get something out of it for yourself?

Jack: I think there is always an element of altruism to it, but of course, there is an element of self-fulfilment as well, or you wouldn’t do voluntary things in the first place.

I got involved because I felt powerless as a tenant. Decisions were being made over my head and without my consultation about things to do with the apartment block that I was living in. The decision-making process was established, and it was not for tenants. I got involved early on with the resident’s association and kept coming up against brick walls being put up by the housing association. I was frustrated and felt I was being side-lined – and I don’t like being side-lined! When the opportunity arose to be on the Tenants Forum, I joined and found it wasn’t doing what I thought it should be and what I thought it could easily be doing. I managed to rattle a few cages because they suggested I join the HPP. Of course, I managed to find a way to link the HPP to the housing association, so they can’t ignore me that easily!

Billy: I can relate to that! I got fed up with my neighbours complaining about the housing association amongst themselves, yet they did nothing about it. I thought I have a few wee things to say myself, but there’s no point making complaints unless you’re willing to take up the slack after they’re made. So, I thought the best way to move forward for our block of apartments was to step up and represent them and put forward my suggestions. I figured that at least I’ll have a voice at a grassroots level and not just sit gossiping with my neighbours about what should be said or could be said. 

And I’m so pleased I did because the wealth of knowledge I’ve gained from working with others and especially getting involved in HPP, it’s absolutely unbelievable. It’s a privilege to be part of it and to be with people who empathise and sympathise with things you have experienced yourself. It gives us a platform to change policy – even if it’s just a small change, you can see it resonate with everyone else. The vast knowledge and cumulative experience of everyone in the room can solve any problem put to us.

Jack: Thinking back, it was when the Lord Morrow Report came out (Tenant Participation Strategy NI 2015-2020) that I got involved. I went along to one of the public meetings about it and got my hands on a copy of the report. Suddenly, here were the answers to my frustrations sitting in the report! And I thought this is what one should get involved with more. This is where policy is made and how we can make change. This is the way forward. That report really pushed me in the direction of thinking about policy as a way to make changes for all social housing tenants. 

How do you think we can encourage tenants to take on higher levels of involvement and move up the ‘ladder of participation’? Do you think tenants would like to have even more say in the business of housing associations, for example, sitting on the board? 

Billy: From my understanding, from my small group, they’re not interested in the board level. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be. It’s a kind of apathy that prevents participation. They all want results, but they don’t want to participate. What I will say is, they do want to see clear guidelines and clear results for participating. They need to understand where to go to get the answers to their issues and then understand why it’s a yes or a no. After joining my tenants forum, I have been overwhelmed with the amount of support and conviction that the participants have in wanting to strive forward and make improvements.

Jack: It’s a question of selling the idea to one’s fellow tenants while at the same time providing them with the training that goes with it. In the English model, the tenants are much more involved in decision making, but they’ve obviously been trained to move in a direction. I don’t agree with some of the ways they’ve done it, but you can’t be involved in decision making without getting the right training. 

So, I think, with good training, it can work, but the problem is in the balance. You need to strike the right balance between the professionals and the tenants in decision making. Many areas are and should be the jobs of professionals, areas where tenants just don’t have the expertise to make some decisions. A balance needs to be struck at the right cut off point. 

I think what we need is more training that helps tenants and professionals work together as a team drawing on the strengths of both to maximise the best outcome. You can only sell that idea if the training goes hand in hand with it. 

Billy: I think a vast majority of people don’t have the capacity to be a board member. The amount of time, physical time, emotional time, and involvement - and the responsibility it takes to be on a board can be overwhelming. A lot of tenants just wouldn’t be willing to make that commitment. 

It’s more important that the board is connected to the tenants in a strong listening capacity. I think that’s happening more and more now through tenants forums and the like. If tenants aren’t raised, or don’t want to be raised, to a board level, there needs to be a way to connect the board to the tenants and to make that connection real.

Jack: To be involved at any level along the way, the training of tenants and staff needs to happen at the same time. And that teamwork idea moving forward needs to be there from day one. The staff are learning new skills, new ideas and new ways of looking at things at the same time and in tandem with the tenants. Then they can raise issues and learn from each other. This way the education is twofold as it works towards the tenant participation ideal. 

The harder side is retraining people who have already been working for a housing association in a certain way for a long time. You are bringing in that awful idea of change. The bigger the organisation, the more resistant it is to change, which I understand. We need all staff to change their mindset and think differently and realise that all interactions with tenants are an opportunity to engage and shouldn’t be missed.

Do you see the Tenant Participation Strategy delivered through the work of Supporting Communities driving this change?

Jack: Yes, I think we’re confronting housing associations with new ways of looking at things. We’re forcing them into change. And with that comes a responsibility on us as tenants too. It’s not them and us. We need to break down a barrier and move forward as a team with a joint goal. We all want to get to the same place in the end.

Billy: YesI think this idea of the ‘tandem training’ breaks down barriers and helps the housing association see tenants as people, not just an address. 

Do you think tenants have the same goals as housing associations? Is there agreement between staff and tenants on how you want the housing association to look?

Billy: Yes. I think in general, yes. In my experience, the goals and aims seem to be going hand in hand. 

Jack: I know there have been situations where some staff have felt that they were going along to the tenant’s forum meeting as sacrificial lambs to face criticism. The forum took the opportunity to grill and shred them, and they were in great trepidation about going before them. They shouldn’t be feeling that way. The tenants were clearly doing something wrong to make them feel that way. The burden isn’t always on the housing staff. But the training needed to be there to show both sides how they can work as colleagues and friends. 

Billy: Tenants can be very forthright in meetings. Some of the staff can take things quite personally and want to defend themselves. We need to find a happy medium.

Jack: A good TP officer needs to be able to go into every nook and cranny of the organisation and show how that part can involve themselves in tenant participation. This person might not always be too popular! 

Billy: In Choice, we have been blessed with a very proactive TP member who goes above and beyond to facilitate everyone’s point of view. I think now that staff have had a chance to see the benefits of TP they are more open to changes. 

What’s next? What are you looking forward to working on through the Housing Policy Panel?

Jack: I think our link to the Department of Communities needs to be cemented and strengthened. We need to focus on the policy part and how we can influence the policymakers. Our ideas should affect their day to day work.

We could also take on more of an advocacy role. We should push more to be involved in the actual policy-making in our advisory capacity. The upcoming Tenant Participation Strategy review is an opportunity to make ourselves more visible to new officials who have come in since the first version was written. We should use our group as a way to progress our ideas and influence policymaking, for example, with something like the Housing Allocation policy. I think this is the type of policy where the HPP could offer advice and guidance which could help ministerial decision-making. If we are recognised as an important advisory body, our opinion should be sought. We wouldn’t be directly involved in making housing policy, but our voice should be heard in an advisory capacity.

Billy: I agree. We need to be more vocal and more visible to the policymakers. Our group should be of interest to Stormont and the Ministers.

At this point, the conversation came back to an earlier discussion we were having before the interview began. Jack had mentioned the anniversary of Grenfell Tower, noting that the people who died there were a broad cross-section of society. People from all walks of life lived there, and that seemed to be surprising to many in the media coverage. He proposed that the HPP has a role to play in shifting negative ideas about the people who live in social housing.

Jack: It’s this image that people have of what social housing is all about. I think it should be part of our brief to look at the image of social housing in the community. I think it’s a big issue. So many people in Northern Ireland have such negative views. Projecting a positive image of social housing should be a strand of our work. 

Billy: I agree entirely. Unfortunately, bad publicity spreads quicker than good publicity! No one listens to the good news. 

Jack: The HPP should look at what methods we can use to put that right and how we can use our position to get others to take up this cause. 

Absolutely! Thanks very much to both Jack and Billy for taking the time and for sharing their thoughts with us. The Housing Policy Panel looks to be in excellent hands.

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