By Ross Smith

In 1984, the then NSW Minister for Housing, Frank Walker, gave an undertaking to put the principle of tenant participation into practice. A year later he launched the then NSW Department of Housing’s Tenant Participation Policy to give public housing tenants in NSW a greater say in the planning and management of their homes and communities.

Underlying and motivating the push for tenant participation was the almost intangible concept of social capital; a concept that was starting to shape government policies in the 1980s.

Social capital is about the connections and networks that form among individuals who share a similar identity (e.g., public housing tenants), and how these connections and networks give rise to trust and reciprocity among individuals. It’s also about creating access to and linkages between disparate individuals and social networks. For example, bridging the divide between public housing tenants and the bureaucratic web that was, and now is, Housing NSW.

This desire to bridge the social chasm resulted in the then Minister arranging for a conference to be held where face-to-face discussion between senior bureaucrats and the tenants occurred – for the first time.

Arising from this, the Minister formed the Public Tenants’ Steering Committee to develop recommendations on an appropriate tenant participation structure. These recommendations were subsequently incorporated into the first ever Tenant Participation Policy.

The recommended goals were:

  1. to increase tenants’ knowledge of the Department of Housing’s policies and practices to enable better use on their part of an intricate bureaucratic system;
  2. to inform tenants of the ways public housing resources are utilised and of the financial constraints placed on the Department when making its decisions, with the aim that this would minimise tenants’ misunderstandings;
  3. to give tenants’ associations an advocacy role, to assist tenants who are unable or unwilling to request necessary assistance, or to act on behalf of multiple tenants requesting the same service or facility;
  4. to open and expand lines of communication between tenants and Departmental staff with a view to improving management’s knowledge of problems and their cause;
  5. to foster more effective management techniques in preventing and dealing with tenants’ problems;
  6. to promote the use of existing and potential neighbourhood support networks as an alternative to seeking costly, often inappropriate State welfare assistance;
  7. to help tenants’ groups organise social activities to reduce the isolation and boredom many tenants experience;
  8. to involve tenants in planning and providing essential neighbourhood facilities; and
  9. to recognise tenants’ rights as housing consumers by giving them a say in broad public housing issues and more specifically, in decisions affecting their homes.

Ambitious as these goals were, they were long overdue, and gave a sense of hope to public housing tenants that finally they would have a say in decisions that affected their homes, their communities and, ultimately, their lives.

While the Minister changed, the bureaucracy charged with implementing the new policy did not. The British television program, Yes, Minister, may well have been based on the beginning of the clawing back of control from tenants by the bureaucracy, under the very nose of the new Minister.

How the control claw-back was achieved by the Housing NSW bureaucracy is an interesting study. It started by what I see as the deliberate breaking of undertakings, such as undertakings to repair premises; this resulted in tenants saying, “Why bother? They do not do anything; they are not trustworthy”. Unfortunately, this led to what I call Apathy Generation, with the tenant body disengaging. Whenever it looked like some tenants may consider re-engagement, Housing NSW had another lapse in delivering on its undertakings to reinforce the tenants’ past experiences.

Then in 2008, a near fatal blow was delivered to tenant participation in the State, with Housing NSW implementing a unilateral decision to defund the tenant-driven Regional Tenant Resource Services and the Public Tenant Councils.

Nowadays, the sole Housing NSW funded voice for the tenant body are the Tenant Participation Resource Services (TPRS). The TPRS contracts provide for eight workers to meet the community development needs of the whole NSW tenant body – some 140,000 households. This works out to 17,500 households per worker. Besides the disproportionate worker to household ratio, service providers are only awarded two year contracts; this makes long-term planning impossible. When contracts are up for renewal, Housing NSW is the sole arbiter of who will be awarded the next contract.

And, what are workers meant to achieve for this staggering number of households? The TPRS goals, as outlined by Housing NSW, are to ensure public housing tenants:

  1. are engaged in communities;
  2. have their needs and priorities identified and considered in planning and service delivery;
  3. are informed about their rights and responsibilities;
  4. are supported with their housing needs;
  5. have resources to participate in community life; and
  6. receive services that are coordinated, flexible and responsive to their needs.

This is a much shortened list when compared with the original nine point list. Casualties include the removal of advocacy for tenant benefit, plus the removal of fostering a relationship between Housing NSW and tenants. With the removal of these two key goals from the original Tenant Participation Policy, the aim to bridge social capital was lost.

Twenty eight years later, Housing NSW has succeeded in denying itself the benefits of forming a functional two-way relationship with its tenant body. The bureaucrats have succeeded in denying the wisdom and foresight of their former Minister. They have isolated themselves from those that they are meant to be serving and the cause of their employment – the public housing tenants.

Originally published in Inner Sydney Voice, Issue 116, Spring 2012