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A new approach to hearing the voice of disabled tenants

Habinteg tenant and chair of the  Joint Strategic Impact Group, Cathy Smith (pictured above), explains Habinteg’s new approach to tenant collaboration, why the group is a catalyst for change and the culture of inclusivity the organisation strives to build with its tenants.

I have always been aware of the importance of the tenant voice. Since winter 2021, Habinteg has been transforming its tenant engagement strategy to involve tenants at every step. An amalgamation of board members and tenants has redefined the organisation’s tenant engagement, bringing a fresh approach that is going beyond traditional models.

Tenant engagement

One outcome is the Joint Strategic Impact Group (JSIG), which I now chair. This exciting new development began with Habinteg recognising a need for a complete overhaul in tenant engagement. They enlisted the help of the Tenant Participation Advisory Board to help interview tenants and staff at workshops on how Habinteg can change things to make it more about tenants.

In 2022, the Customer Excellence Board – comprised of board members, senior staff and tenants – reviewed the strategy in its draft form. JSIG came up as they needed and wanted a higher element of tenant engagement and monitoring.

My involvement with JSIG began when I became the tenant rep for my Merseyside scheme. Habinteg had begun the recruitment, and the remit of JSIG piqued my interest as I recognised the importance of this group to the future of tenant empowerment.

Lived experience

I have a background in disability advocacy and activism since the mid-70s and professionally I have been on committees for 40 years, locally and nationally. I felt I had skills to offer and was duly invited to join JSIG. In May 2023 I was made chair of the group.

I see my role as the chair of JSIG as taking the emotion and passion that tenants feel, whether it’s about repairs or planned work, and using it at a strategic level to drive change. You can’t ignore the emotion of the tenant experience. If you do, you are not illustrating what is truly going on at the ground.

The lived experience of tenants needs to be at the forefront of the change that Habinteg is committed to developing, and it’s my role – and that of the JSIG members – to ensure that happens in a meaningful way.

Joint Strategic Impact Group

JSIG’s role is a mix of monitoring and strategic planning. Unlike other groups JSIG focuses on reviewing key performance indictors and mandatory statistics related to tenant satisfaction. We instruct scrutiny activities, shaping the agenda for issues that require deeper investigation.

JSIG participates in various activities, from reviewing audit forms, to contributing to repairs and maintenance discussions. A notable initiative is the tenant-led improvement budget, where tenants decide on the allocation of funds for community-enhancing projects.

We basically look at things that are going on in Habinteg and bring it right back to how that is going to affect tenants on the ground.

A catalyst for change

JSIG has been instrumental in catalysing change in various areas, including repairs and maintenance. A recent scrutiny exercise on repairs and communication led to a comprehensive action plan, further influencing a procurement exercise.

By doing that, we get people to think what the experience is for tenants on the ground. For example, we are a national housing association, but we are very unique in our make-up so having a national contractor work for a large estate isn’t good for someone in a one-bed property. It’s feeding everything into the procurement process.

Habinteg has an inclusive community and that is now coming through in its tenant engagement strategy.

Positive outcomes

I remember when I moved into my Habinteg property in 2003, which allowed anybody in a wheelchair to enter the property and had ramped walkways. That was innovative at the time. 

We’ve come a long way with accessible housing since that time and need to bring our tenant engagement with the changes, too. We cannot forget the influence that Habinteg has developed on accessible housing in the landscape of social housing.

JSIG, through the voice of its tenants, especially disabled tenants, can drive forward the positive outcomes for all if accessible and adaptable housing is available within communities.

The unique blend of board and tenant collaboration is sparking positive change in housing management. Habinteg is committed to tenant engagement, and it has proven transformative in its strategy.

Culture of inclusivity

The focus remains on fostering a culture of inclusivity with its tenants to ensure a positive impact on the lives of its tenants.

I truly believe that JSIG can deliver life-changing developments for disabled people in the same way that the concept of Habinteg delivering accessible homes did for disabled people over 50 years ago. 

I am honoured to be part of the drive to change the way tenants are heard. I hope that in some small way I can alter the way we understand and develop the tenant voice.

This feature was first published in Inside Housing on 22 March 2024.

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