The Reality of Private Renting

Back in July the Queensland Government released its Housing 2020 strategy, setting the direction for the social housing system over the next seven years. The headline action is the transfer of management of 90% of Queensland’s social housing to non-profit providers by 2020, with the creation of eight to ten large-scale non-profit providers.

The bold scope of this change has tended to deflect attention from other aspects of the strategy, but there is something else here that is of crucial importance to tenants. On Page 6 of the strategy there is a table called ‘The Path Forward’ with two columns. The first is headed ‘The old: Features of Queensland’s old social housing system’ while the second is ‘The new: Features of a flexible, efficient and responsive housing assistance system’. The very first item on this table lists the feature of ‘the old’ as ‘a view that social housing is a home for life’ and ‘the new’ as ‘greater emphasis on social housing as a transitional period on the path to private rental or home ownership’.

This is a change that has actually been coming for a while. Since 2005, new Queensland social housing tenants have been signed up on a ‘duration of need’ basis, with most tenants granted four-year leases with a review of eligibility at the end. The incoming government shortened this to three years. However, it is a long time since a government stated this aim so strongly, or referred so clearly to the private rental market as a destination for social housing tenants.

This change is all about rationing. More than 20,000 households are waiting for social housing in Queensland, many of them in dire circumstances. It’s understandable that the government would want to do all it can to house them. However, this policy direction also shines a light on the other sectors, and particularly the private rental sector. How well is this sector able to meet the housing needs of low income households?

The first issue with private rental is its affordability. The National Housing Supply Council reports that in 2009-10, 60% of low income rental households – over half a million households – were paying over 30% of their income in rent and over 200,000 households were paying over 50%. This doesn’t suggest a lot of hope for those departing social housing for the private sector.

Rental Affordability

Some work we’ve been doing recently for a local client bears this out. They asked us to report on affordable locations in which to settle low income refugees in the Brisbane, Redland and Moreton local government areas. The answer for many households is that there are no affordable locations. For a single person on Newstart allowance, for instance, there are five suburbs in this entire area where the median rent on a one-bedroom unit is less than 40% of their income, and these are outer suburbs where one-bedroom units are rare as hens’ teeth. The only way these clients can afford to rent is by sharing.

Other Issues
However, affordability is only part of the picture. In the July 2013 joint edition of Parity and HousingWorks, Greg Budworth (CEO of Compass Housing Services in NSW) provides an insightful comparison between social housing and private rental. He analyses 24 aspects of housing management under the headings of tenant obligations, tenant rights, landlord powers, landlord duties, application processes and other issues like appeal rights, tenant engagement and quality assurance.

Of the 24 factors he analyses, seven are much the same for both sectors, and on the other 17 tenants are clearly better off in social housing. They have better access (only needing to make one application), more security of tenure, more accountability by their landlord, a greater likelihood that their landlord will work with them to resolve problems and refer them to support services, and much better assurance that their landlord will adhere to good standards of management practice.

We need to do better…
For as long as I can remember, the private rental market has been a backwater of housing policy. Aside from residential tenancies legislation, the market is pretty much left to itself. This works fine for many people, but clearly not for low income households, and particularly not for the highly disadvantaged households who are the main users of the social housing system. If the Queensland Government is serious about the private rental market taking a greater role in housing low income Queenslanders, it might need to take a closer look at how this market is operating.

Strategic Planning

From audits to plaudits: thinking Annual Reports

I’m really liking this year’s annual report by Youth and Family Services, Logan (YFS). They’ve used a poster-style layout that folds down to A5. It includes lots of great photos and a layout that highlights their achievements in 2012-13 without getting bogged down in text about business as usual. Publishing their financial report in a separate document liberated us to be creative with the rest of the report. It was fun working with designer Scott Edgar and YFS staff to come up with something fresh and different.

Over the years I’ve worked on lots of annual reports. My favourites have been for clients who use this “have-to-do” task as an opportunity to position their organisation strategically. For some, that’s been about impressing fundersmall p2s and donors, for others it’s been about demonstrating their corporate partnership credentials or profiling the human impacts of their work to build buy-in from decision makers and their influencers.

A section of the 2012-13 YFS Annual Report

For one memorable project, my brief from the Director General of a Queensland Government department was to win an Australian Reporting Award – I hope he still has the trophy somewhere!

Clients say one of the most common uses for annual reports (beyond legislated requirements) is to help potential recruits prepare for job interviews! I’d like to think annual reports can do much more than that. If you know of any great annual reports, let us know.


Tenant Participation and Engagement Seminar

I had a great day last Tuesday, flying to Sydney to present at the Australasian Housing Institute’s Tenant Participation and Engagement professional practice seminar. It featured a great line-up of speakers on an issue that’s often neglected in the rush for corporate efficiency. As a bonus, the amazing Tony Gilmour from the Housing Action Network quoted from our article on the subject in his opening presentation. Thanks Tony, and thanks Donella and co for putting the day together.


The Dream Client

We like our clients however they come – the more variety, shapes and sizes the better. We have noticed over the years though that clients with certain characteristics tend to get the best results. Some of the secret ingredients are these:

  • They really know what they need. They can spell out why the work’s needed, a very clear objective, what they need delivered by us and by when. This is really whP1040678at gets the cake to rise – worth spending some time to get it right. (See our handy briefing tips)
  • They give us a ball park idea of a realistic budget which means we can work out how to tackle the job in a way that fits the bill. They ask for a quote or proposal and negotiate any reasonable changes which makes sure we are headed in the right direction from the word go.
  • They choose the right person/people to be the project manager and advisor/s. This means things stay on the rails at the client’s end, and the client gives congruent feedback, rather than conflicting advice.
  • They hold the consultant accountable for what they’ve signed up for – although we crack the whip on ourselves so the client doesn’t need to.
  • They have enough time to give prompt feedback on drafts and the layers of approval in the organisation are manageable.
  • They stick to their own brief so the job doesn’t change part way through, which tends to waste the hours available due to re-work, re-drafting etc.
  • They pay promptly for completed work. For small businesses who tend to have low overheads but are watching the cash flow, paying within a couple of weeks is a fair deal.

For busy clients who have rarely used consultants, we often help them wrangle the consultancy if they want us to. For example, we can write the brief with them, help them to sharpen their objective if it is still fuzzy, provide a simple example of a contract to modify if they don’t have their own and so on.

Stay tuned for a new post on The Dream Consultant! We’ve learnt a bit about the dream consultant over the years – we’re not perfect, but we have been dismayed to see some clients very poorly served by consultants who overcharged and under-delivered.


Courting and consorting

We are currently seeing a new wave of consortia, partnerships and amalgamations. Some of these moves are in response to perceptions that current and future government tenders will favour providers that can service large geographic areas such as regions or states. Others are hoping that increasing their size through amalgamation will protect them from the impacts of funding reductions and policy changes.The source!

When we’re working with organisations considering various collaboration options, one of the questions they ask us is how to decide who they should consort with. Given that a business partnership is much like a marriage, I recently turned to my reliable source of wisdom on many topics, the Ladies Guide by J.H. Kellogg M.D. (1895).

Dr Kellogg has some sound advice for young ladies considering who to marry, and this advice is equally relevant to organisations considering consortia or amalgamation. Here is a summary of his advice:
1. The individual should be the possessor of good health and a good constitution (i.e. don’t shack up with a basket case!)
2. He should be a man of good habits (find out whether they have met their commitments and honoured their contracts in the past)
3. He should be of suitable temperament (assess their compatibility with your organisation in terms of values, service model, culture and the like)
4. He should be of good morals and good reputation (find out what others say – get some intel from those in the know and do some research)
5. The individual must be of the proper age (consider how established the organisation is, and that their thinking is from the same era as yours)
6. The prospective husband should be of proportionate size (i.e. consider size and power imbalances and establish roles and governance up front)
7. Take care when marrying a cousin (perhaps the relevance of this is to check that your organisations don’t have the same weaknesses, and that you are not creating conflicts of interest or nepotism perceptions)

A decent time for courtship is recommended by us as well as by Dr Kellogg:
“The primary object of courtship should be to allow the parties to become acquainted with each other’s characters so as to know whether or not there exists such mutual adaptation as to make a life partnership desirable or likely to be a happy one.”

If there’s time, it’s worth considering low-commitment forms of partnership before signing up to a long-term contract or amalgamation. After all, as Dr Kellogg says, “young people can judge of each other’s characters much better by daylight than lamplight.” Working together on a project, or sub-contracting some services for a trial period, can be a chance to experience working together before committing too deeply.

Following Dr Kellogg’s advice will help you avoid the mistake made by a young woman he features, who married a man of obnoxious temperament to avoid being left an old maid: “During the first few months of marriage, when her eyes had become thoroughly opened to the folly of her course and the dreadful slavery to which she had bound herself, reason was nearly dethroned; but it was too late to correct the fatal mistake. She had nothing to do but bear it with as much calmness and patience as she could summon.”


The Future of Tenant Participation

Jon Eastgate presented at the Queensland Shelter State Housing Conference in June this year, as part of a panel on tenant participation in social housing.  Here are some thoughts from that presentation.

Tenant participation in Queensland is at something of a crossroads, with the State Government having recently discontinued funding for its tenant participation program and a number of tenant groups around the State winding up as a result.  Yet there is still great value to be had from tenant participation, both for tenants themselves and for the social housing system.  Whether you see tenant participation as a form of customer feedback, as community building, as political action or as self-help it still has a place in 21st century social housing.

There are at least three challenges for those who want to breathe new life into tenant participation in Queensland, and elsewhere in Australia.

First of all, as needs-based allocation policies kick in tenants are becoming much more disadvantaged.  This doesn’t mean they can’t participate, but it does mean there are more barriers in their way.  Many of the older generation of public housing tenants were low-income workers who had cut their activist teeth in their workplaces or through the union movement.  More recent tenants have not had these opportunities, and many struggle with issues of mental or physical illness, disability and addiction.

Tenant advocates will need to learn the lessons of those who have implemented participation initiatives for people with disabilities, people with mental health conditions, and young people.  This level of disadvantage makes the community development and empowerment aspects of participation all the more important as the task of supporting these people in their local communities becomes more difficult.

Secondly, the relationships within the social housing sector are more complex.  Until recently we had one large State Government provider which made policy and managed housing on a large scale, plus a few small, local level community providers.  This picture in changing rapidly with the development of affordable housing providers, the transfer of stock to new, larger-scale not-for profits, and increased government oversight and policy direction  of community housing providers.

Even full time, experienced housing professionals struggle to keep up with this changing environment.  How can tenants be expected to understand what is happening?  It’s easy for them to get lost in the system as they advocate for change, unsure if they need to change government policy or local practices, and unsure who to talk to in either case.  Yet the changes have a huge impact on tenants and so it is more important than ever to make sure their voice can be heard.  The silver lining in these grey clouds is that the entry of new providers, including many with histories of tenant participation on a smaller scale, can bring new energy and innovation to the task of tenant participation, and we can find new ways of doing it.

The final challenge comes from the progressive dilution of public housing estates.  One of the strengths of the early tenant movements is that tenants lived in the same community, met each other in the same shops or schools, and shared lots of the same local concerns.  Now social housing is increasingly “salt-and-peppered” throughout the community and there are fewer natural ways for tenants to meet and build relationships.  At the same time, the combination of highly disadvantaged tenants and dispersed housing can lead to a tenser environment as people become concerned about neighbourhood relations and anti-social behaviour.

Tenant participation is needed more than ever.  Massive changes to the social housing system mean that the customer feedback and human rights aspects of participation are sorely needed.  Otherwise we could inadvertently make tenants worse off by ill-considered policy changes.  At the same time, the level of disadvantage faced by tenants makes the community development and empowerment aspects of participation valuable tools for improving the lives of tenants.  If social housing is to be more than a parking place for our most disadvantaged community members, it needs to be allied to programs which help people to improve their lives, build supportive community networks and take control of the interventions intended to help them.

It’s hard work, but then it always has been.

Strategic Planning

Yes. No. Maybe.

We recently ran a social enterprise business planning training session with Foresters Community Finance and Moreton Regional Council. Foresters mentioned that one of the biggest barriers to receiving community finance loans was poor decision making by governing bodies. That’s an issue that pops up pretty regularly so Judith, Jon and I sat down to analyse just what can go wrong in decision-making. Here’s what we think some of the oft-repeated scenarios are:
1. Good decisions are made, but staff or volunteers don’t follow through, so before too long, the same issues have to be addressed again. The fixes: Check whether the decisions are realistic and can be achieved. Set an action plan so that the implementation is in doable chunks and can be monitored.
2. There is lack of clarity about the problem, so the scope of discussion expands, people weary and the loudest voice prevails regardless of the merits of the decision. The fixes: Use a simple decision template as a structured way to untangle the issues. Use hard data when it sheds a bit of light on what options are viable. Be clear about when the decision has to be made and do the spade work in advance so everyone is prepared.
3. Emotions skew the view. Common ones are fear of upsetting someone (such as a faithful volunteer/donor, a long-term chairperson); fear of change; and fear of conflict or confrontation, perhaps grounded in a lack of skill in dealing with conflict. The fixes: Name the fears and work out how to mitigate threats or support each other to confront them.
4. A sense of diffused responsibility kills off action because no one in a committee or on staff is willing to take leadership – the buck stops nowhere in particular. The fixes: Get real – don’t waste time on ideas that no one will drive forward. Recruit new board or staff members who are passionate about the work or the vision. Change the vision and goal posts to ones that people really do get excited about.
5. People are unsure about the level of risk involved, or over-state the risks. The fix: Use simple risk assessment tools to agree exactly what the risks are, how likely they are to occur and how disastrous the impact would be if they did occur. Work out if you can dedicate some effort to minimising any risks that are unacceptable. Don’t forget to look at financial risks so your cash flow or bottom line stay healthy. Remember, nothing is risk-free!
Do these scenarios ring a bell? Any others you’ve seen recurring?

Community Facilities

Community facilities: success secrets

Well-run community facilities can make a huge contribution to the wellbeing of local communities. Yet these facilities – community centres, local halls, arts centres, youth centres – are often taken for granted. Planning can be haphazard, and management arrangements are often left to chance.
Our work in evaluating and planning for community facilities suggests the success secrets are simple on paper, but harder in practice:

  1. Clear goals – owners of buzzing facilities can usually articulate why they own the venue, what they want it to achieve and how they know it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.
  2. Fit facilities – lots of older facilities were great dance halls in the 40s, or excellent sales offices for developers, but don’t work so well for today’s community activities.
  3. Responsive management – whether they’re managed by government, community or commercial interests, the best facilities have pricing, access and management that encourages full use and works towards the venue’s goals.
  4. Appropriate intervention – if facilities are meant to achieve community development then programs, partnerships or targeted pricing strategies might be needed. If they’re meant to support cultural development then owners might have to invest in developmental activities.

We’re grappling with some questions about facilities that you may be interested in too. Like:

  • Would we be better with fewer, really great facilities than with lots of run-down facilities that are under-used?
  • How much is providing facilities the role of local governments?
  • Can we ever close (or sell, or – gasp – demolish!) a community hall?
  • Are traditional volunteer facility management models doomed?
  • What are valid, measurable assessments of the contribution made by community facilities?

If you’re interested to talk more about community facilities, we love talking about them!