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September 24, 2008

US model of empowerment – a different emphasis

An approach to tackle problems in housing supply being pursued in parts of the US is based on the premise that tenant empowerment is an essential building block for a sustainable community. However an aspect of this approach – tenant screening – creates both winners and losers. A recent article in the Guardian argues that while we need to cherish the legacy of our welfare state, there are aspects of the American system that we could learn from

Harris Beider, The Guardian

Empowerment is about giving someone authority to act and is important because we need to ensure that people have a choice and can affect change. America and the UK share similar problems in housing supply; segregation by race and class and reviving cities in socio-economic decline, but the responses are different.

UK policy is driven by national government focusing on macro policy issues – such as community cohesion – and emphasising the importance of housing quality. The change agents are councils and housing associations. American policy is driven by local government. The focus is on increasing opportunities for home ownership, tackling poverty through regeneration initiatives rather than acknowledging race, and housing quality is not regarded as a problem. The change agents include public housing authorities, community development corporations and private sector developers, who work on barely 5% of the housing stock.

Screening policies

On a recent fact-finding trip to the US, I was amazed at the scale of change, the will to make this work and the impact on communities. However, I was also appalled by how many people were left out by housing policies with no welfare state to pick them up.

Tenant screening is an interesting area of American policy. Public housing authorities and developers work with community activists to decide which tenants access redeveloped public housing. There is competition for places. To qualify, people have to work, be addiction-free and need to support their children through school. New developments are full of people who want to “get on” and success is almost guaranteed given the tenant profile.

But what about those who are rejected? As American housing professionals told me, “they would have come to their own solutions”. Some might see screening as ultimate tenant empowerment but it can also exclude. Some American public housing authorities also stipulate that tenants have a maximum of three to five years in social housing, so they do not become stuck in sub-standard housing. The goal is self-sufficiency in home ownership. Redeveloped social housing is regarded as a scarce resource rather than a “pile it high, sell it cheap” alternative to private sector provision.

Better support

In addition, tenant counselling and support far surpasses our ad hoc schemes. People are given intensive, one-to-one support on debt, drugs, finding schools, health care and gaining independence. It is about unlocking the potential of every household and seeing people as an asset rather than a liability. This could be replicated in the UK.

We need to accept that housing estates symbolise places that many people do not want to live in. There needs to be a step change in creating opportunities for tenants through supporting more people into jobs, education and training and perhaps reviewing tenancy every five years.

The legacy of our welfare state, for all its faults, should be cherished. But we need to integrate America’s entrepreneurial drive and produce diversity and focus on the tenant as a customer. Tenants should be seen less as an amorphous, problematic group on the fringes of society and more as people who can help enrich communities. We have a long way to go before this happens, but tenant empowerment is an essential building block for sustainable communities.