If there has been one positive to come from the tragedy and upheaval of the past month, it has been the revival of public awareness that yes, we do need our NHS, social security and public services, and yes, cutting these institutions to the bone may have been a false economy after all. More local to home, social housing tenants’ federations, increasingly running on little or no funding, are proving their worth.
Like other community and voluntary sector groups, many Tenants and Residents Associations (TRAs) across the country have come into their own during this crisis, helping vulnerable neighbours and finding social distancing-friendly ways to keep children entertained.
Many others, however, have faced higher obstacles: committee members may be older or vulnerable themselves and self-isolating; some do not have access to the world of computers, smart phones, social media and WhatsApp; others are burnt out. Coming after a decade of ill-advised austerity measures and three years after the Grenfell Tower fire, Coronavirus is the latest in a long series of disasters to disproportionately affect social renters and those on lower incomes.
This is where borough-wide and housing association-wide tenants’ federations can really come to the fore: by uniting TRAs across a landlord or local authority area to share resources, information and moral support. Unfortunately, almost all have lost their funding over the past fifteen years, as landlords seek to cut costs and favour more one-to-one consumer-style approaches to engaging with tenants. Some boroughs have now cancelled all meetings involving their tenants until September. Just when they are most needed, many borough-wide tenants’ organisations in London have fallen quiet – with some truly inspiring exceptions.
Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations (SGTO), exceptional in that they are one of the last independent borough-wide tenants’ federations in London to still be funded and hire staff, have risen to the challenge of Covid-19 with outstanding local knowledge and foresight.
“Previously, the council were talking of cutting our funding,” says Rhiannon, SGTO’s Campaign and Research Officer. “They’re now finding that they need us.”
Here are three ways SGTO have stepped up to support communities in Southwark:
1. Connecting mutual aid groups to TRAs
In London, tens of thousands of fit and ready furloughed workers have joined a mutual aid revolution, forming groups across the capital, all seeking to help neighbours who need it. But are they able and equipped to reach those most in need?
“TRAs always welcome active members,” says Rhiannon. “Meanwhile, lots of people want to help their neighbours but don’t know about the TRA world and they might not be aware of important safeguarding issues.
“SGTO have been forming links with mutual aid groups in Southwark, connecting them to TRAs who appreciate an extra hand and helping them to develop safeguarding policies so they are able to help in a safe and sustainable way.”
2. Ensuring TRAs have the resources they need to help
Local authorities are setting up virtual community hubs to work with community groups to help people who are vulnerable. In Southwark, as elsewhere, staff whose normal jobs are for now on ice have been re-apportioned to run support lines, assessing people for vulnerability and getting food and prescriptions delivered. Some TRAs have been helping by taking bulk food deliveries from the council and voluntary organisations, to share with neighbours.
“That’s the beauty of the TRA world,” says Rhiannon. “It feels better for it to be framed as sharing rather than receiving charity. The support is open to everyone. The TRA’s attitude is: this is what we have, we’re here to share.”
To ensure TRAs can manage this new responsibility safely and sustainably, SGTO have been contacting tenant reps to find out what resources they need. “We’re thinking about practical things like personal protective equipment but we’re also thinking about the less visible things: self-care and mental health. What can we put in place or recommend to make sure neighbours don’t burn out.”
3. Sharing ‘new’ ideas to keep people involved and reach vulnerable neighbours
SGTO held social media training earlier in the year, a move that will mean more TRA reps will be better equipped to use apps like WhatsApp to keep in touch with one another, or websites like Twitter to hold their landlords and councillors to account, many of whom also have Twitter accounts.
But lots of tenants rely on traditional media and modes of communication; radio, TV, newspapers and phone calls. Some do not have the internet at all. How do we reach out to and include those neighbours when public meetings and knocking on doors are both off the cards?
“We’ve found too that older tenant reps have seen crises like this before and had the answer at their fingertips: a phone tree,” said Rhiannon. “Everyone’s allocated numbers and they phone people daily or every few days.”
SGTO are also running a weekly print room for TRAs to print urgent information for their neighbours.
And another analog solution? Local radio. “We’ve been doing weekly interviews with the Southwark cabinet member for Housing,” says Rhiannon. “We put a shout out to tenants for questions they want answers to. Then we’ve been putting those questions to him in a thirty minute Zoom interview, which we record and send to the local FM radio. Loads of people aren’t online, so it’s reaching them – and there’s a podcast for those who are.”
Questions have evolved each week, beginning with lots of queries about the eviction ban, with some now looking ahead and asking how Southwark will help the temporarily housed homeless people once the lockdown is lifted.
Now is the time to invest in tenants’ federations
‘Joined-up working’, ‘resilience’ and ‘sustainability’ have been buzzwords in the social housing and social care worlds for the past decade or more. Rare shocks like COVID-19 put to the test whether we’re meeting these ideals. SGTO’s response to COVID-19 is yet more evidence that – given just an inch of funding and support – tenants’ federations really go the extra mile, not just for tenants but for local authorities, landlords and the wider community. LTF and its members believe, now more than ever, housing associations and councils across London should be investing in and nurturing federations for their TRAs and estates.