A Compact for Renewal Projects: what tenants want from social housing renewal

17 September 2017 | Posted In: #132 Winter 2017, Community Engagement, Housing Types and Issues, Planning for People and Social Issues, Public Housing, Public Housing – Redevelopment, Urban Development, | Author: Bernie Coates

A Compact would represent an agreement about how urban renewal is conducted in social housing areas, and how social housing tenants were to be treated and engaged. Bernie Coates explains the ground rules that emerged from discussions with tenants.

In early 2016, Shelter NSW, the NSW Tenant’s Union and the City Futures Research Centre at UNSW agreed to partner in a project to develop a Compact for Renewal between agencies undertaking urban renewal and social housing tenants affected by such renewal.

It is widely recognised that renewal of public housing areas can be highly disruptive, cause high levels of stress and trauma and lead to significant adverse health impacts for social housing tenants. These effects are compounded because tenants are often highly disadvantaged and disempowered. Moreover, the renewal process is imposed from above; tenants typically have little or no say in the process, and this lack of control compounds these impacts. These adverse impacts were identified in important research conducted by Shelter NSW in 2014 and updated in 2016 as “Issues for Tenants in Public Housing Renewal Projects”[i].

The need for a Compact arises from the variable experience of tenants to date with renewal, and the widely varying policies and practices affecting tenants applied by agencies undertaking renewal in NSW. Projects have been subject to widely differing approaches ever since the first comprehensive renewal project commenced at Minto, in southwest Sydney, in 2002. Some projects have taken tenants interests seriously and tried very hard to include tenants in all aspects of the projects. These projects have actively engaged tenants in planning, sought tenants’ advice about implementation and gone the extra mile to ensure tenants are treated well and fairly when it comes to relocations and resettlement in new areas. In these cases, effort has also been put into strategies to support tenants to cope better with the impacts of change in their own family life and in their communities. Further, these projects have invested in the community and in building the capacity of the community so that tenants get real benefit from renewal, where they could otherwise have been significant losers from the process.

The need for a Compact arises from the variable experience of tenants to date with renewal, and the widely varying policies and practices affecting tenants applied by agencies undertaking renewal in NSW.

In the first stage of the Compact for Renewal project, the partner organisations sought to gain a rich and detailed understanding of tenants’ experience of renewal to date and to find out what tenants want and need to make renewal a better experience. We also sought to identify good practice where it existed. During 2016, a series of focus groups with social housing tenants was conducted in eight social housing areas in Sydney that have experienced renewal programs within the last ten years or so or were scheduled to do so in the near future. Across these areas, the experience varied widely from generally positive through to the highly traumatic and dislocating. The focus groups included a number of tenants who have been highly involved in the renewal processes in their area, some for 15 or more years. The focus groups thereby brought a wealth of experience and rich perspectives on renewal approaches and what works for tenants. A summary of the issues from these focus groups has been published as Tenant’s Experience of Renewal in Social Housing Areas[ii]. Tenants who participated in the focus groups were provided with a record of their focus group discussion and a copy of this summary document, with an invitation to provide any additional comments.

From this rich information base and drawing on the issues raised by tenants in the focus groups, a comprehensive list of what tenants need and want from renewal projects was developed and published as A Compact for Renewal: What tenants want from renewal[iii].

What tenants want starts with five core principles: Respect for Tenants; Acknowledgement that renewal has damaging and disruptive impacts; Impacts will be mitigated and minimised; Commitment to real engagement; and Tenants to receive a fair share of the benefits of renewal.

These core principles are followed by a comprehensive set of requirements. A selection of those requirements are listed below, grouped under four headings.

Planning and setting up the renewal project

  • A social impact assessment to be carried out for all projects, so social impacts are identified early and strategies to mitigate and manage them are set out. Tenants should be key informants for this assessment.
  • Social planning should identify the social and community structures and organisations that are valued in the community and a plan developed for retaining and transitioning them.
  • A Social Plan to be developed alongside a physical masterplan, setting out the community facilities, support services and community services to be provided for the new community.
  • The project team to include staff whose job it is to engage with residents, including bilingual staff. Tenants also want the project leader to accept them as key stakeholders and to ‘meet them as equals’.
  • An on-site office should be provided where tenants are always welcome, where good information is available and tenant’s questions can be answered.
  • Tenants want a Community Reference Group (or similar) to be set up for all projects—a secure and respected vehicle for community input to the planning and implementation of the project. Tenants also want a strong residents’ voice in all aspects of the project, including support for an independent tenants’ group.

Community engagement

  • Tenants to be fully engaged in projects as an important project stakeholder. Agencies should invest in capacity building to support tenants to participate more fully and meaningfully.
  • An engagement plan should be prepared and tenants consulted about it before it is finalised. Project staff should report back to the community on the plan and involve residents in reviewing the plan periodically.
  • Tenants want quality information to be provided about the project and how it will impact on them and the community. This information should be regularly updated and made available in many formats including a regular newsletter (or similar), face to face and at community meetings and events.
  • Consultation should seek to reach all groups including harder to reach groups. Consultation approaches should be creative and varied to appeal and attract participation from the full range of population groups.

Managing change and the adverse impacts of renewal

  • Agencies to provide a comprehensive range of practical, emotional and professional/specialist support services to assist tenants to better manage change and adverse impacts—including physical health, mental health, dislocation, stress, anxiety, grief and loss, and trauma.
  • An independent tenant advocacy service for all renewal projects, spanning individual advocacy and collective or project-wide advocacy.
  • Recognising the damaging affects of a loss of choice and control, tenants want agencies to extend choice and control in as many areas as possible, including choice of relocation areas, replacement homes, home improvements and control over the timing of the move.

Relocation and resettlement

  • Consistently good relocation practice, including a relocation coordinator who will ‘go the extra mile’ to support tenants through the process, and better training for coordinators in issues like trauma, grief and loss.
  • Improved support for tenants to resettle in a new neighbourhood, including better information about services, transport, schools etc., and access to resettlement support services.
  • Support for tenants to downsize and declutter, including access to a service to assist tenants over a period of time prior to moving.

In the second stage of the project, the findings are being presented to renewal agencies in NSW, including Government and community sector agencies, seeking their feedback on the extent to which those agencies believe they can manage projects in line with what tenants want. Subject to the willingness of agencies to engage with the project, we seek to negotiate a compact by which agencies agree to manage renewal projects in social housing areas. In this negotiation, it will be important for project partners to emphasise their willingness to understand what’s important for the agencies regarding renewal processes, and to work through the list of what tenants want from renewal to identify a set of principles and rules that both parties are comfortable with.

This compact therefore seeks to develop a set of ground rules that would make renewal less disruptive, traumatic and dislocating for tenants and would support their active involvement in the renewal project. The compact would outline a comprehensive set of requirements for renewal agencies in how to plan and manage these projects with the best interests of tenants in mind. It would act as a guarantee for tenants that their interests would be recognised and respected in the process. Ideally, it will also increase the chances that tenants may feel able to lend their active support to renewal projects.

Bernie Coates is a Visiting Fellow at City Futures Research Centre UNSW Sydney. He undertook the research project for City Futures, Shelter NSW and The Tenants Union NSW. Until his retirement, he was the Director, Community Renewal at NSW Land and Housing Corporation.

This article appeared in Shelter NSW’s Around the House 109 in June 2017 which can be downloaded from the Shelter NSW web-site. 

[i] Eastgate, Jon (2016) “Issues for Tenants in Public Housing Renewal Projects” Shelter NSW, Sydney. Available at https://shelternsw.org.au/sites/shelternsw.org.au/files/public/documents/rpt1610estateredevelopment-updated-sb59.pdf.

[ii] Shelter NSW et al. 2017.

[iii] Shelter NSW, Tenants’ Union of NSW, and the City Futures Research Centre UNSW. The report is available at https://shelternsw.org.au/sites/shelternsw.org.au/files/public/documents/What%20tenants%20want%20from%20Renewal%2011April2017_0.pdf