Compared with mainstream social housing, tenant participation in supported housing is typically far less well-developed. The Notting Hill Housing Trust (NHHT) established a tenant participation initiative directed at their supported housing schemes to try and change this situation. The initiative included a tenants' survey and involved user-led consultancies. In a series of research interviews Ken Simons followed up the issues raised by the user-consultants with both NHHT tenants and with professionals from the managing agents and support providers working in partnership with NHHT.
-- Over a third of tenants (37 per cent) said they were not involved at all in making decisions about their house, with a further 39 per cent saying this only happened 'a little'. Many tenants wanted more of a say.
-- Tenants varied in their enthusiasm for the different forms of participation. However, all those interviewed at some stage indicated a desire for some kind of opportunity to make a contribution that was not currently on offer.
-- Despite seeing tenant participation as primarily their responsibility, less than half of the NHHT partnership organisations involved in the study had a formal policy on tenant participation, most had no budget for it, and only one had a member of staff with a specific remit to develop it.
-- Most services emphasised participation at the 'house' level. Yet the extent to which tenants had control over their homes varied considerably between settings.
-- Many services had a relatively narrow vision of tenant participation, with few opportunities for tenants to influence the workings of the partnership organisations or the wider system.
-- Other problem areas included the lack of accessible information for many tenants, relatively underdeveloped complaints procedures, and the effective exclusion of many tenants in temporary accommodation from tenant participation.
-- Despite these problems the study did find some important examples of innovation and good practice.
Mechanisms for involving tenants in the running of mainstream social housing are now well-established. However, although Housing Corporation guidance makes clear such opportunities should be available to people who live in supported housing, tenant participation is less well-developed in this sector.
Conscious that few, if any, of their supported tenants were involved through mainstream tenant participation, the Notting Hill Housing Trust (NHHT) established an initiative to open up participation to a whole range of otherwise marginalised groups.
The initiative had three strands:
-- a survey of tenants
A questionnaire was sent to all the NHHT's tenants in supported housing schemes. Just over one-third responded. Two user-led groups worked to ensure that the voices of all tenants were included.
Over a third of respondents (37 per cent) said they were not involved at all in making decisions about their house, with a further 39 per cent saying this only happened 'a little'. Not all tenants were unhappy with this situation; nevertheless, a very substantial minority (41 per cent) wanted more of a say.
-- user-led consultancies
The two user-led groups worked both with tenants and support staff, raising awareness of the issues, examining existing tenant participation opportunities, and exploring principles of good practice.
-- the development of a good practice group
The 'good practice group' is a forum for NHHT staff to meet with professionals from partnership organisations to try and identify and disseminate local examples of good practice.
Ken Simons, a researcher from the Norah Fry Research Centre in Bristol, followed up these issues in a series of interviews involving both tenants and professionals. The rest of this Findings is based on these interviews.
The views of tenants
Despite the diversity of NHHT's tenants, a number of common themes emerged, including:
-- a lack of choice in housing
While most people were positive about their service, nearly half (48 per cent) indicated that, given a choice, they would have opted for some other form of service. This apparent failure to meet people's aspirations was reflected across all settings. For example, many people in short-term accommodation simply wanted to find somewhere more permanent (and often less communal), while some of those in long-term residential care would have preferred their own flat.
'I was virtually told to come here.'
'Of course we didn't choose to be here. I had no choice ...'
Frustration with this was most apparent in services with the shortest tenancies:
'Just because we are homeless, it don't mean we have no rights.'
-- links with the outside world
A recurring theme was the importance of location and links with friends and family, particularly where people were trying to re-establish themselves in independent or semi-independent settings. Yet, tenants felt some services seemed either not to recognise the importance of these links or even to leave people isolated:
'They [staff] used to ask them to wait in a room. They gradually came less and less. They were effectively discouraged from coming.'
-- Tenants' control over their own homes
Tenants varied widely in the extent to which they felt they had a say in the way their house or flat worked. Some tenants, particularly those living in bedsits, reported having a lot of control of their day-to-day lives:
'There's more freedom here. People don't interfere. You can do what you want.'
However, there was often little collective decision-making in such settings.
In strong contrast, tenants using rehabilitative services had often forgone some rights as a tenant on entering the service. Events like house meetings were often compulsory, and were more a form of group work than tenant participation.
People in residential care often felt they had little control over events:
'It was suggested to me, but I couldn't really refuse.'
However, there were also high-support settings where tenants felt they had a lot of say:
'We all decide the rules. We sit down and have a meeting.'
Most services had instigated some form of house meeting. In some cases these appeared to be run by tenants for tenants but in others professionals dominated:
'Its run by staff ... Yeah, staff are always there.'
-- control over staff
In general, tenants were positive about support staff, although a minority were seen as 'bossy'. However, few tenants had any involvement in either appointing staff or deciding the content of job descriptions.
-- selecting new tenants
Similarly, although the behaviour of other tenants is likely to have a major impact on quality of life in communal settings, few had any involvement in selecting new tenants.
'That can be a bit scary.... when new people come.'
The amount and quality of the information tenants were given varied widely. Much of the information-giving occurred when people first arrived at a service, resulting in tenants feeling overwhelmed and retaining little. Many services appeared to make no attempt to provide information in accessible formats, relying on staff to interpret it for tenants.
-- influencing organisations
While most tenants had at least some say in how their own home worked, few reported involvement in the wider workings of the support organisations:
'We don't see any of the bigwigs.'
-- challenging services
Tenants' knowledge about complaints procedures was, at best, patchy. Many were unaware of their right to take their complaints to people other than the immediate support staff. Some had made complaints which, they felt, had not been dealt with properly:
'It's like I've no right to complain.'
In many instances agencies' complaints procedures appeared underdeveloped, sometimes consisting of little more than a paragraph in the tenants handbook asserting people could complain if they wished.
-- opting in or out?
A number of tenants indicated they were 'not bothered' about some areas where others had been able to get involved. While some felt strongly about particular issues, others were less concerned. However, these attitudes towards tenant participation often reflect their particular context. For example, one tenant was very reluctant to be involved in anything that seemed like challenging services but said she would have been interested if the service asked what she thought about how new schemes should work:
'Oh, I'd be happy to offer advice.'
Indeed, all the tenants interviewed expressed an interest in some kind of participation that was not at the time on offer:
'I'd like to make a contribution.'
The interviews with professionals
Many of the situations described by tenants were also reflected in the interviews with professionals. However, particular themes emerged, including:
-- the lack of clear policies
Most support organisations saw tenant participation as their responsibility. However, less than half had a formal policy, most had no budget for tenant participation, and only one had a member of staff with a specific remit to develop it.
-- a heavy emphasis on the 'house' level
Most developments appeared to focus at a very local level; most services could point to a variety of initiatives at the 'house' level. However, in all the organisations, there were some obvious areas that tenants might legitimately expect to be involved in but were not. For example, one service offered no choice of menus, two offered no choice of holiday and two offered no choice of furnishing or fittings.
Many services also appeared to automatically do things for people rather than with them. For example, it was rare for tenants to be involved in tasks like paying utility bills.
-- a narrow perception of tenant participation
In general, the emphasis on participation at a house level resulted in a rather narrow vision of participation, with relatively few opportunities for tenants to influence the wider system. For example:
-- not all membership-based organisations encouraged tenants to become members in their own right;
-- just one organisation had a current tenant on a management board, with two others having tenants as non-participating observers;
*only a minority of services involved tenants in planning new developments;
-- less than half the organisations provided opportunities for tenants to meet and exchange ideas;
-- few services included tenants in conferences or workshops;
-- few services had any mechanisms to ensure the views of minority groups were heard;
-- there was often little assistance for tenants to get involved with wider structures (for example, local community care planning);
-- relatively few tenants had access to independent advocacy.
-- tenants in very short-term tenancies
Tenants in very short-term tenancies were particularly likely to be excluded from participation.
Staff identified a range of barriers to developing tenant participation, including:
-- 'participation fatigue' amongst front-line staff;
-- a high turnover of front-line staff;
-- a desire on the part of organisations to retain overall corporate control over developments;
-- apathy on the part of tenants.
There were examples of good practice. These included:
-- an organisation which had put a lot of effort into responding to the apparent preferences of someone with learning difficulties who had no speech;
-- a house manager who was able instantly to produce a comprehensive complaints leaflet, who could clearly explain the options open to potential complainants, and who could also point to potential sources of independent support;
-- an organisation which had recruited a tenant to help design their individual planning system;
-- a couple of services which had developed an 'exit survey' as a way of tapping the views of short-term tenants, as well as involving ex-tenants in planning exercises.
The findings highlight the need for organisations to develop much more comprehensive strategies for tenant participation, including:
-- allocating resources to tenant participation;
-- involving tenants in developing policies;
-- offering a wide range of forms of participation;
-- developing user-led services;
-- producing information in accessible formats;
-- improving complaints procedures;
-- providing opportunities for tenants to try and influence the wider system.
The research also underlined the importance of the role of the housing provider in promoting tenant participation amongst managing agents and support providers.
About the study
The researcher attended a range of tenant participation events; held discussions with NHHT staff and the user consultants; interviewed 45 tenants in depth. The tenants were using a range of services, from high support residential care to low support temporary accommodation. Tenants included people with learning difficulties, users of mental health services, and recently homeless people. Fifteen professionals from 11 of the organisations working in partnership with NHHT were interviewed. The user advocates involved were: Advocacy in Action, an informal co-operative involving both people with and without learning difficulties; and Jan Wallcraft and associates, an informal grouping of 'survivors' of the mental health system.
A full report, Whose home is this? Tenant participation in supported housing, is published by Pavilion Publishing (Brighton) Ltd (price£13.95 plus£1.50 p&p, ISBN 1 900600 56 0).