Kill Wonga: Or How Could Housing Associations Work With Community Organisers?

By Matthew Gardiner - on 14/11/2012

HACT's Board member Michael Gardiner reflects on his own career in housing and believes that community organisers and housing associations can team together to move the sector forward.

(This blog was originally published on Matthew Gardiner's personal blog on 14 November 2012)

I might have mentioned previously that my time working on the National Housing Federation has come to an end. I hugely enjoyed the six years I spent with the organisation and I’m sure – in fact, I know – that my work with them is not done and dusted, more of which in a later blog. So, how does one fill the void left by the Fed? You might assume it’s badminton, cycling and the occasional documentary about glacial movement? Well, you’d be wrong – instead it’s off to another organisation who I feel encapsulates an aspect of housing I find fascinating, namely, the Housing Action Charitable Trust, or HACT.

There’s a variety of reasons why the work of HACT attracted me. Going back to my experience in housing in the 1970's and 80's, housing associations were very much "of" community. You only have to look at the organisations like Paddington Churches Housing Association (now Genesis Group for any youngsters reading) and its formation out of the North Kensington Amenity Trust to see that new housing organisations at that time were formed by community activists who wanted things to be different in their area. That’s the soul of housing that I first encountered in my impressionable mid-twenties, and it was a soul that appealed. If all you are doing in housing is putting one brick on another and standing back and saying, that’s a nice piece of Flemish Bond then that’s not the whole story. My passion for housing is that it’s about a sense of place and understanding why places work and why they don’t work. All of which leads me to HACT. 

Thus far, I’ve not had a great deal to do, but this week I went to a meeting where HACT people were out in force. It was the first meeting of its kind between housing associations and the 2012 version of community activists - the emerging community organiser movement. For those of you not familiar with what this is, look up to see how it is playing out in the UK, or if you want to feel the real 1970's flavour, go to the works of Saul Alinsky (and as a short cut here are some of his most interesting quotes). There was a nervousness about the meeting. Community organisers are, ultimately, about the transfer of power to communities - instilling an urge to action from unlikely places. For many communities, housing associations are actually part of the power structure that needs to give things up. You can see the potential for conflict...

In practice, it worked extremely well - for those of us in the room, although I can imagine a few housing association CEOs having apoplexy at the concepts! We found we had much more in common with each other than we might have thought and the Minister for the Third Sector Nick Hurd @nickhurdmp was encouraging of our collective endeavour. Jess Steele from Locality (found at @LocalityJess) and Tony Stacey from the PlaceShapers Group of housing associations @TonyStacey (and the fact that they're all on Twitter proves they must be good guys) spoke warmly about the links that needed to be re-made between two halves of what is essentially the same movement. As the afternoon progressed and the conversations flowed, we were able to conceive of a different world.

In that world, no longer do housing associations have an agenda about "what's best" to be imposed on some hapless and needy community. That deficit model of regeneration that has let us down for 30 years - "as a community you'd be fine if only you had a [insert flavour of month] and we can get it for you" - would be replaced by some deep questioning and some real listening about what it is that the people living in areas want. It builds on the unique assets already present within communities, using their hopes and fears, their loves and their hates as a starting point. For even the most disillusioned and disenfranchised can be impelled to action when these strongest of emotions are engaged. It starts small and local, and may never get to any different scale. Its messy, uncomfortable, and by the way, given recent revelations about the scandals of our press, also provides a much more direct and reliable method for "telling truth to power". 

But we also realised that it wasn't going to be easy. For housing associations it requires a quantum leap in engagement and involvement. We will have to get past an approach that too often relies on tick box consultation; quick and dirty surveys; involvement of the usual suspects. We will have to let go, stop knowing all the answers and become curious and questioning instead. And our default "broadcast" mode will have to be re-tuned to one of "listening". We will also need new metrics - regular readers wouldn't expect me to miss the chance to bang the drum again for the pressing need for a good metric for social return on investment. We need this or else how do real community outcomes get measured, how does attribution of outcome get dealt with and how do we build an evidence base that this approach of community organising works to scratch the itch that other regeneration initiatives have left behind? Tough asks - especially at times when the world is about to get a whole load tougher because of welfare reform.

As to the title, I have nothing personally against those who run 'Wonga'; I know that many people survive because of pay-day loans that they and others provide. But nobody who is already on the bread-line can thrive with 2,120% APR loans. Might "Kill Wonga" just give us the first common campaign between housing associations and community organisers?

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