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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

'Why can't housing trust tenants’ intelligence and give power back to communities?'


Ahead of her session at Total Housing 2018, community-run housing campaigner Lizzie Spring says the charred husk of Grenfell Tower is a constant motivation to speak out and ask the sector to listen.

I’m something of a Twitter addict and most of my interaction with housing sector people takes place there. I often ask to speak at housing events, usually without any answer. But this year when I tweeted @CIHhousing my usual “Can I come and be a tenant voice?” at Total Housing in March I instantly got a reply saying yes, please do. Oops. So now I’ll have to do it.

I’m on a panel about relationships between tenants and landlords. I’ve been asked to blog about that before the event. Here goes:

I moved to North Kensington in 1975, living for 12 years in the housing co-op I helped set up in a street of condemned Victorian cottages. The original elderly tenants had been moved up the road by the council, to tall blocks which loomed above their little former homes. One of the blocks was the brand new Grenfell Tower. Now its black charred husk is framed in my bedroom windows when I open the curtains. This devastation is mostly why I want to speak out and ask the sector to listen.

My career has largely been in family support management, but decades ago in my thirties, I worked for several housing associations. That was before the term social housing came into common use. We were simply providing good homes for life for working class people. Many of my colleagues rented too and those that didn’t were mildly envious of our affordable, secure, pleasant homes.

I began renting my first housing association flat in 1987; I’d dropped by the office and explained I needed a bigger place as I was fostering a little girl and expecting a baby boy. It took five weeks to be offered a roomy garden flat in a big Notting Hill house. We lived there for 16 years. We rarely if ever saw or heard from our landlord, did our own home improvements and decoration as a matter of course, worked, made school-gate friends, got involved in community projects and lived our family life.

Then I home-swapped to Bath for my son to do his A-levels. He went off to university, I missed him and was homesick and swapped back again to London. But ‘my’ area as it was no longer existed and neither did the dignified lightest-of-touch tenant/landlord relationship I used to take for granted.

I thought I was part of a social contract, where people doing useful jobs across every industry, rented decent affordable lifetime homes into retirement. Much of the housing sector seems to have shifted its story as its funding streams change, and now promotes its own existence by characterising tenants en bloc as needy beneficiaries of necessary social engineering. Has that become a message that incoming housing staff learn as a “truth”? That would explain the refusal to encompass real, tenant-led change, co-production or policy input. If tenants are de facto ‘vulnerable’, ie bad, sad or mad, our knocking on the boardroom door is naturally seen as a threat.

Nowadays I end most conversations with my landlord’s staff feeling oddly demeaned and besmirched, something that does not happen in any other area of my life. It is bizarre to experience.

So at 64, instead of retiring, I am helping set up the Kensington Community Run Housing Forum. It’s a popular initiative; more and more tenants are meeting to explore ways to develop and manage our own housing as we did forty years ago.

I hope to speak at Total Housing about an asset based approach, about how to trust tenants’ intelligence and give power back to communities.

I truly hope other people there will help make this happen.

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