Tenancy management: are terms and conditions the most sustainable solution?

By Anna Carnegie - on 01/09/2014

As the launch of our report with Yarlington and Trafford Housing Trust draws near, Housing Intern Anna Carnegie delves into the debate surrounding conditional tenancies.

The words ‘conditionality’ and ‘fixed-term’ have proved something of a red flag to a bull where social housing commentators are concerned. Claims of social landlords forcing residents to lose weight or quit smoking lest they lose their tenancy are the stuff media dreams are made of. The reality, as demonstrated by HACT's upcoming report, is decidedly more nuanced; yet it raises the same underlying questions. Is it fair for housing providers to intervene to such an extent in the lives of their residents? Does this signify a departure from the core values of social housing? What happens to residents who fail to measure up to these new standards?

HACT’s research examines 8 case studies from around the country in depth; as well as conducting surveys with almost 50 providers. Given the media interest when certain proposals came to light, it may come as a shock to learn that recommendations as stark as cutting back on the pints or going for a daily jog aren’t frequent features. What is core to the majority of plans is a broader focus on supporting residents.

Yet questions have been raised over the form that this support takes. Even something as seemingly benign as encouraging residents into employment and training has sparked criticism. Despite much of this work already occurring through community investment programmes, conditionality objectors claim that making these arrangements compulsory outstretches the remit of housing providers. The suggestion is that – through the use of terms and conditions – ‘encouragement’ becomes ‘enforcement’ and support moves further into the domain of policing. Some fear that these schemes could prove counterproductive and that ‘sanctions’ may have an adverse effect on unsuspecting third parties (such as the children of non-compliant parents).

As the debate amongst housing professionals, academics and members of the press rages on, it’s important that the voice of residents doesn’t get drowned out. Some of their views might surprise you. When asked about tenancy conditionality as part of this research, one man spoke about the increase in self-esteem that having some part-time work brought about. His initial scepticism gives further sway to the argument that a hint of paternalism might actually – whisper it – prove beneficial to residents in the long-run, encouraging them to try things they may otherwise have avoided.

There’s also evidence that these schemes can promote a genuine partnership between tenant and landlord. In case study Bromford, tenants who had benefitted from the support-based ‘Deal’ became advocates of the approach for new residents. Likewise, Moat’s ‘Promise’ encouraged interaction and prompted a large number of tenants in financial difficulty to contact the organisation promptly, rather than letting things spiral further out of control. Surely, this sense of collaboration is exactly what social housing should be focused on promoting?

Of course, this only tells part of the story; many residents were uncomfortable with the lack of security associated with having a fixed-term tenancy and described the situation as less than ideal. In general housing associations’ aim is to promote the independence of residents and engage in positive conversations with them. These are admirable goals. Yet if some people aren’t buying into the delivery, constructive communication may prove tricky…

There will always be divided opinions, particularly with an issue which has already sparked so much controversy. One thing is clear; if these schemes to have any long-term success going forward, further learning is essential. On all sides.

If you feel like contributing to the discussion, come along to the launch of the report 'Approaches to tenancy management in the social housing sector: exploring new models and changes in the tenant-landlord relationship' on 18th September at the National Housing Federation’s Annual Conference and Exhibition in Birmingham. You can sign up in advance here. 

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