Including social housing tenant voice in policy leads to better outcomes

18 Apr 2024

Enabling social housing tenants to participate in social housing policy and services that affect them can lead to a range of positive benefits: from improving the way housing and associated essential social services are provided to giving tenants a heightened sense of autonomy and a stronger sense of belonging within their communities, new AHURI research has highlighted. This is especially relevant as social housing tenants increasingly present with more complex health, housing and social care needs.

The research, ‘Social housing pathways by policy co-design: opportunities for tenant participation in system innovation in Australia’, undertaken for AHURI by researchers from Swinburne University of Technology, University of Tasmania and RMIT University examines the participation of social housing tenants in developing social housing policy.

‘The guiding principle for tenant participation is that those most affected by a policy or organisational decision ought to be involved in the decision making process,’ says research author, Professor Wendy Stone from Swinburne University of Technology. ‘Internationally, there is a relatively well-established understanding that complex systems, such as social housing systems, require the viewpoints of multiple stakeholders and that evidence-based policy making is best supported by including diverse voices such as lived experience experts and advocates.’

Although there are very limited tenant participation strategies operating in Australia, international findings show that, besides participation giving tenants increased autonomy over their living conditions, tenant participation fosters the acquisition and development of valuable skills such as communication, negotiation and problem-solving. These skills can positively contribute to education, employment and societal engagement for highly vulnerable groups living in social housing.

But international tenant participation programs have had mixed success regardless of the structure of the program or length of time such programs were implemented. 

‘Our research identified some keys for successful tenant program and outcomes,’ says Professor Stone. ‘These include understanding that tenants and housing providers can have different ideas of what participation should look like and what it should achieve; programs can be compromised by power imbalaneces between tenants and housing providers, which can limit tenant autonomy and also lead to conflict; and there is a need to consider the factors that motivate tenant participation and reasons why some tenants may not participate.’

‘The culture of the organisations involved in these programs, together with broader public beliefs, can shape the way that people living with housing assistance and other forms of welfare can be perceived. In some cases, there can be an underlying belief that welfare recipients, such as social housing tenants, don’t deserve having a voice at the table. For policy co-design methods to work well, there must be respect and recognition of the expertise of all participants involved in the policy making process, which may require workforce training and changing cultural norms.’

As well as housing organisations having a commitment to having a culture that supports participation, it is essential that the outcomes of such processes form a genuine component of policy development. There must be transparency around how information that has been co-developed is used in policy design and innovation, with participants recognising their voice within outcomes or, alternatively, having a clear understanding as to why their contribution was not able to be part of policy solutions.

The research proposes that sharing of best-practice examples of tenant participation and program practice guidelines between housing organisations and across sectors through a new Australian Housing Clearinghouse model could be very effective, especially when such Clearinghouse models are resourced well; accessible to a wide range of stakeholders; and owned and managed by persons of direct relevance to the policy and practice field. 

Read the research

Social housing pathways by policy co-design: opportunities for tenant participation in system innovation in Australia