City desk

It's Time to Give Social Housing Tenants More Power, Some Councillors Say

As far back as the 1970s, tenants in social housing in the UK fought councils for control of the estates and housing complexes they lived in. They skilled up and took over the day-to-day running of their housing for themselves.

Today there are more than 200 tenant management organisations in Britain, where social-housing tenants run their estates, and oversee things like maintenance, litter collection, addressing social problems.

But here in Ireland, the ethos of empowerment seems to have skipped the social-housing sector. With the exception of housing co-ops, there are few examples of tenants managing social housing.

Independent Councillor Mannix Flynn says he expects his fellow councillors will support his efforts to change that. Indeed, there is support for his idea among other councillors.

Social-housing tenants in Dublin should be given an opportunity to be involved in running the estates and complexes they live in, Flynn says. “This is about equality, empowerment and full participation.”

Flynn wants the council to roll out supports and training for tenants, and adapt so that council tenants in privately owned complexes can join the management companies, and those living in complexes run by approved housing bodies are represented on the boards of directors.

Kieron Brennan, chief executive of Co-operative Housing Ireland, says he prefers a model that goes even further than what Flynn proposes.

“We are a bit more radical than that,” Brennan says. “We believe that the tenant members have the right to own, control and govern their organisation and the management of the estates in which they live.”

Managing It

Under the law, all privately owned apartment complexes must have management companies. They collect management fees for general upkeep, cleaning and maintenance of communal parts of the building.

In the budget for the coming year, Dublin City Council management proposed that social-housing tenants living in private developments should pay a contribution towards the management fees charged to the council.

Flynn saw a flaw in this idea. Why should people cough up if they aren’t represented? “Once people start to pay management fees, I believe they have a right to be on the management committee,” he says.

Where the council owns units in private complexes, it should nominate a tenant to take its place on the management committee, he says.

Only apartment owners can sit on the management companies, as the law currently stands, said a spokesperson for Dublin City Council. Where it owns apartments in mixed private and public blocks, it cannot nominate its tenants to take its place, she said.

Any change in those arrangements would require a change in national legislation, the spokesperson said. “We are not aware of changes being contemplated in this area,” she said.

Workers’ Party Councillor Éilis Ryan says tenants in both privately and publicly managed social housing should be represented on management committees.

In many private flat complexes, the majority of residents are tenants, she says. Of course, it would be better if they had some representation too.

At least tenants in council-run blocks can elect councillors to represent them, she says, so the lack of representation is most pronounced in the privately owned complexes.

Kieron Brennan, of Co-operative Housing Ireland, says the council should look at placing at least two tenant representatives on each management company committee. If, for example, the council has six apartments in a block of 20, why not nominate two staff members and four tenants onto the committee? asks Brennan.

The problem, as Councillor Ryan sees it, is that councillors have less influence with private companies. “We don’t have any leverage to force a private company to manage housing in a certain way,” she says.

In Social Housing

In the UK, tenant management organisations take over real responsibilities from councils, such as “day-to-day repairs, caretaking, empty property, nuisance, rubbish, environmental and social problems”, writes Professor Anne Power, head of LSE Housing and Communities at the London School of Economics. 

“They negotiate a management agreement with their council landlord to take on limited, local responsibilities, paid for out of an allowance from their rents,” Power writes. The tenants get the training they need, and the council retains the ownership and overall responsibility for the properties.

Estate management within the council-owned social housing apartments is “chaos”, says Flynn. He points to the dilapidated appearance of many of the apartment blocks as evidence.

There are ongoing issues with serious anti-social behaviour in some complexes too, Flynn says. He thinks residents would be more successful in their efforts to address these issues if they were represented on management boards. “This is in line with international best practice,” says Flynn.

According to a spokesperson for Dublin City Council, there are no management committees for council apartment complexes. But “generally there would be a residents’ group or association that would liaise with DCC on management issues”, said the spokesperson.

Flynn says residents’ committees are not enough to empower people to make real changes. “It is easy to form a residents’ committee or a tenants’ committee, but you have no power,” he says.

Other Social Housing 

It’s not just the social housing run directly by the council that lacks structures for tenants to manage their own homes, says Flynn.

Approved housing bodies – the non-profit organisations that provide social housing mainly for people from social housing lists – also need to let their tenants sit on boards, he says.

“We supply the clients to these places, and as part of that supply, we should ensure that positions would be made available for tenants to be on the board of management and given the appropriate training,” he says.

Simon Brooke, head of policy with Clúid Housing, says that it is something his organisation is currently looking into, in conjunction with the Housing Agency.

At the moment, tenants aren’t on boards of management of their complexes, Brooke said, and it is a serious issue – in both public and private complexes.

“Eighty percent of people who live in apartments are tenants and they currently don’t have any say on how the common parts are managed,” he says.

If landlords decided not to pay for common areas to be cleaned, the tenants wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, he says. The solution isn’t simple, though, Brooke says.

With the current set-up, the management committee is the actual owner of the building, so if a roof leaks, it is responsible for paying to fix it, he says.

In places where Clúid has apartments in private complexes, they currently have a vote on the management company for each apartment that they own. But if they handed over their seats to tenants, then the tenants would be liable for service charges and any other costs that arose, such as plugging a leak in the roof.

“So, membership of the company is limited to the people who own the company, and tenants aren’t and can’t be members,” he says. Brooke thinks there should be some sort of associated membership, where tenants would sit on the board, but wouldn’t shoulder the same legal responsibilities as owners.

A spokesperson for Oaklee Housing, another approved housing body, says they have one tenant on their board of directors.

It’s a bit different for co-operative housing associations.

All of Co-operative Housing Ireland’s tenants – who total 2,200 households in the country – automatically become members of their local co-op, which has a board onto which they can be elected, says Brennan. That board “has a huge say in the running of the housing”, he says.

Those local boards in turn elect members onto the board of directors of the national co-op, and the vast majority of members of both local and national boards are people who live in the housing, says Brennan.

The buildings are owned by the co-op, and the co-op is owned by the members, he says, who are mostly social-housing tenants.

Of course, there are limits to a board’s budget but staff are answerable to the local co-op at regular meetings, where they can explain what is going on with maintenance, or painting, or arrears, Brennan said.

This model “leads to less anti-social behaviour and people taking a greater interest and pride in their community and better community involvement”, he says.

Laoise Neylon portrait
Laoise Neylon

Laoise Neylon is a freelance journalist. You can reach her at laoiseneylon@gmail.com.

 

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