June 22, 2017

Sustaining tenancies that are failing makes good sense

Poor property standards

Declining property standards can be a symptom of another issue.

The waiting list for social and community housing properties in Western Australia currently has around 20,000 names on it and it will take someone at the bottom of that list about 8 years to be offered a house by the Housing Authority or a community housing organisation such as Foundation Housing.  Clearly there are many people on the list doing it tough who would appreciate a decent house, at an affordable rate, for as long as they needed it.

Given the demand, organisations such as Foundation Housing who take on the hard task of providing low cost accommodation for disadvantaged individuals and families within a not for profit model  would be justified in rapidly evicting tenants who don’t pay the rent, damage the property or upset the neighbours – or all of the above. There are certainly likely to be tenants who are easier to house on the waiting list.

Because, the true cost of evicting a difficult tenant is far greater to our economy and our society than we may appreciate.  Eviction simply moves the problem on to someone else to deal with and fails to accept that tenancy failure is all to often the result of unmet social and health needs.  The evicted tenant and their family will move on to a crisis accommodation centre, or maybe a relative already struggling to maintain their own tenancy, all the while forcing them into the highly destabilising state of homelessness and its associated problems.  It will almost certainly move them back to bottom of the ever growing waiting list. No one wins.

“Negative exists”, as they are known in the sector, have a significant direct cost for community housing organisations as well.  Abandoned properties and evictions usually entail extensive property damage that must be made good with little prospect of recovering  the cost of the repairs.  Negative exists also usually carry rental arrears that will have to be written off by the housing provider thus decreasing their financial sustainability.

In recognition of this challenge, a new strategy being implemented by Foundation Housing to tackle the shortage of affordable housing by actually keeping tenants, especially difficult ones, in their tenancy.

When Housing Coordinators (a role similar to that of property manager) become aware of a tenancy related problem such as antisocial behaviour reports or declining property conditions, they are able to call upon the organisation’s small but effective Sustaining Tenancies team to help.   It’s the organisation’s view that tenancy issues like these are often the symptoms of an underlying problem; one perhaps the tenant themselves hasn’t yet contemplated.  It is only at the point of self-acceptance that a tenant may seek help but they may well lose their home before they get to that point.  When you are only just hanging on, it’s easy to let go.

While Housing Coordinators focus on the tenant in respect to the property, the Tenancy Support Worker is able to focus on the person and remove the threat of impending eviction if they agree to engage with the program. The workers establish trust with the tenant and identify the underlying cause of their issues.  In the program they will focus on the strengths of the individual and make them a partner in their own recovery. They guide the tenant to appropriate support services and encourage them to continue engaging with the help that’s being given.  Most of the clients of the sustaining tenancies team are socially and technologically isolated with limited awareness of the range of services available or knowledge of how to go about accessing them.   Foundation Housing connects these tenants to agencies such as drug and alcohol services, mental health support, parenting support and financial counselling.

Around 70% of tenants the Sustaining Tenancies team support are able to overcome their issues and stay in their home. Most require little further support once back on track. This approach delivers significant social and economic benefits to the tenant and to the broader community.

The strategy is an extension of the well regarded ‘Housing First’ philosophy which believes that a home is the foundation that allows individuals in crisis to recover and take their place in society.   Working in situ with a tenant who is at risk of homelessness, in partnership with them and other service providers, represents a better investment than accepting failure, making them homeless  and moving on to the next ‘cab off the rank’.