Building community in new social housing

24 November 2015 | Posted In: #127 Summer 2015/16, Community Development, Planning for People and Social Issues, | Author: Rene McKenzie-Low

The process of building a community, in any setting is a challenge. With social housing developments in the inner city living, the task of creating a harmonious and supportive community can be even harder. René McKenzie-Low brings many years of experience in the field to City West Housing.

cwSuccessful community building always begins with the people as the focus. It is an organic process which requires understanding the people around you, their needs, wants, passions and what they want to gain from the place in which they live.

Any organisation must understand what emotionally motivates people, in order to understand how to create something they feel connected to, and driven by, for them to make a positive contribution.

This can be even more important in the realm of social housing. Often misunderstood, social housing and its tenants find that social stigma can act as a barrier to them forming meaningful relationships with other people who live in the community. In my experience, successful community events and projects are a fantastic way of helping people overcome these misconceptions as they demonstrate the common interests they all share.

Meaningfully connecting with tenants can be a constant struggle for housing organisations because many of its residents have seen staff come and go, promising the world and then not delivering on those promises.

So how do you overcome this? It just takes time and trust. While it seems obvious, organisations must invest heavily in the time it takes to connect with residents in order to build trust.

City West Housing has made a conscious effort to do this by investing resources in its ‘Place Making Initiative’, which has been designed around the community at its latest development, The Platform Apartments, in North Eveleigh, Sydney.

City West aims to ensure it is creating sustainable and successful communities. The Place Making Initiative was specifically designed to foster a group of residents that respects, values and helps enhance each other. This is partly about utilising and valuing tenants’ skills, experience, potential, local knowledge, culture and resources; so that the community can be improved by their involvement.

The success of the community development within The Platform Apartments started with a Housewarming Celebration when the building opened. It acted as a great way for the residents to get to know one another and begin to organically build relationships. It also provided a basis for conversations about other things people might like to do together.

This leads to tenant-led projects such as the ‘Community Garden Group’, which, as a group, planted and will continue to care for the garden, sharing the produce amongst the residents.

The Community Garden has given the tenants a physical project they can all make a contribution to and nurture over the years. Through their participation, the tenants can feel that they are enhancing the place where they all live and share and build upon their sense of community with their fellow neighbours.

I like to relate this process to how it would feel if a stranger came to your home and asked you to be part of something that either you had no interest in or you didn’t feel you had time to support. Most people would politely say “thanks but no thanks” and offer no assistance to the project. Comparing this to a different scenario, if a close friend or someone who you knew was a trusted community member asked you to be part of a project, you wouldn’t say no straight away. You would at least think about it and be much more likely to offer to contribute or be part of the project in some form or another. This way, you are building trust with tenants, this is the cornerstone of successful community building.

Whether it’s in social, community, affordable or private housing, all humans intrinsically have the same desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves. However, in our busy modern lives, it is important to remember that both parties must feel valued in order to remain content within this relationship.

Community projects are an essential part in engaging a new community, breaking down the barriers of fear, initiating contact between people from vastly different backgrounds and demonstrating the common human traits they all share.

While projects that feature shared interests can be successful in engaging the community, they don’t guarantee a harmonious community. Through my many roles in the not-for-profit sector over the years, I have seen failures highlight areas where ego or organisational benchmarks have affected the organic process of community building.

These failures have demonstrated that you cannot push nor can you make community happen, it’s a process that involves; people, listening, time, trust and a genuine interest.

René McKenzie-Low is the Community Engagement Manager at City West Housing.