Published by ‘Inside Housing magazine’ 11/06/2019.
There is a greater need for housing organisations to be more commercial, but ‘housing people’ are still heroes, writes Simone Russell
As we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which aimed to provide ‘homes fit for heroes’ in the aftermath of World War I, I am reflecting on our ‘housing people’, who, in my view, should also be celebrated as heroes.
For it is our housing people who deliver not only the ‘bricks and mortar’ of housing to those who may not otherwise be able to access a decent, affordable, secure place to live, but also so many different community, social, educational and employment opportunities that they would not otherwise have, to the detriment of themselves, their families and – I believe – our society as a whole.
When I reflect on my 25-year housing career or indeed (as a result of my social history/housing geekiness) on the beginning of the social housing movement itself, it is clear that the role of housing people has changed – adapting itself to our ever-changing social, economic and political environment.
For example, the role of the Octavia Hill-inspired housing manager in the socially and economically turbulent Victorian era, and the management approach taken in the workers’ villages such as Bourneville, Saltire and Port Sunlight founded by industrialists, focused on righting social ills and instilling ‘moral goodness’ into their tenants.
Then the traditional local authority housing management provision (there was only really local authority housing provision up to the late 1970s) was focused on rules and procedures and the strictest enforcement of standards.
During this time council housing was earmarked for the ‘respectable working class’ and the highest of standards were expected from them in the way they ran their homes, and up until the introduction of the ‘secure tenancy’ in 1980 tenancy enforcement could be much sterner.
Following the introduction of the rent rebate (also known as housing benefit) in the 1970s and the introduction of Right to Buy in 1980, which saw the most affluent tenants buying their homes, there was a shift in the demographic profile of council tenants, with more and more social housing being occupied by people who were economically inactive and who needed support to help manage not just their housing but also other aspects of their lives.
Housing people were therefore needed to take up support-related roles not only for the specialist housing schemes that were springing up but also in general to the sector, to meet the growing demand for more than just basic housing management.
In the past decade or so, things on the face of it have changed again, thanks largely to ‘austerity’, the ending of the prescriptive housing inspection regime and now all the Brexit uncertainty which has resulted in many social landlords battening down the hatches and focusing on core service delivery.
“I know that behind the scenes our housing people are still as passionate about supporting and caring for their customers as far as they can”
I don’t dispute that there is now a greater need for housing people to become more commercial in their approach.
But what is so important is that they do not lose sight of why we are here.
I have heard from many a sheltered scheme manager (yes, they do still exist here in the leafy suburbs of Welwyn Hatfield) that they miss being expected to provide pastoral and practical support to residents, largely because of historical changes to funding rules and new legislation such as the Care Act and the dreaded GDPR.
However I know that behind the scenes our housing people are still as passionate about supporting and caring for their customers as far as they can.
Housing people are a unique breed. Many are housing managers, social workers, mediators, benefits advisors and event managers, all rolled into one. I think that it takes a really special (if often quirky) individual with a desire to change things for the better, to make their career in housing.
Even the most commercially minded, hard-dealing property/development-type person will, once they have been around long enough to become part of the fabric of our sector, take on this housing-esque attribute, and here’s to them!
So, from an employer’s perspective, what do we need from our housing people and how should this be reflected in our recruitment processes?
Although our sector has indeed become more commercial, and quite rightly so, we cannot dismiss the importance of our housing people being socially responsible and understanding the outcomes we are aiming to achieve as social housing providers.
Also, we need to consider the anticipated regulatory changes in light of the terrible tragedy at Grenfell Tower and the recommendations of the Hackitt Review and the measures that will come from the Social Housing Green Paper.
On the horizon is much greater resident involvement and a drive to help reduce the stigma of social housing.
The key qualities we should be looking for in our housing people is a real drive to improve our society for the better, a willingness to be flexible and a great attitude.
Life experience and empathy for people in a range of settings is also something that my managers and I look for. These are things we cannot teach people. Of course many roles require technical skills but often skills are transferable.
For example, a recent recruitment drive we undertook in response to the Homelessness Reduction Act led us not to compete with all the other local authorities all seeking homelessness specialists at the same time, but to recruit people with a wealth of life experience, drawn from a wide and diverse pool.
“Life experience and empathy for people in a range of settings is also something that my managers and I look for. These are things we cannot teach people”
Among them we have a former businessman who ran a number of retail outlets, a paediatric nurse and a former teacher. What they all have in common is a passion to make a difference, natural empathy and great problem-solving skills.
In closing I would like to share one of the proudest moments of my housing career – and it was all about our housing people.
I received a letter from an older resident of the borough telling me that although he is not a council tenant, he called into our office in a distressed state last thing on a Friday evening because his benefits had not come through and he had no food.
Our team did a whip-around from their own food in their desk drawers and made him up a hamper to keep him going over the weekend.
I rest my case.