Roundtable: Engaging private tenant communities

Engaging private tenant communities – a new remit for the public sector?

With local authorities having more powers than ever to improve their PRS, it is in their interests to improve dialogue with private tenants. But it isn’t always easy – they are a disparate group, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. The final component of Future of London’s three-year research programme, Engaging London’s Private Rented Sector, is exploring the challenges and opportunities for improving dialogue between private tenants and the public sector.

Our 11 May roundtable, hosted by London Councils, convened local authorities, housing associations, private tenant groups and community engagement specialists to discuss working together to support the capital’s growing private tenant population. A summary of the discussion follows.

What are the benefits/rationale for dialogue?

Participants agreed that the public sector has a degree of catching up to do when it comes to engaging private tenants, most importantly those at the bottom-end of the market who are likely to experience the worst conditions. Dialogue remains inconsistent despite councils’ greater enforcement powers and housing associations’ growing PRS portfolios.

Representatives from local authorities identified two key benefits of dialogue: raising tenants’ awareness of rights and council enforcement powers, and gathering intelligence for enforcement action and property licensing schemes. It was highlighted by a participant from a private tenants’ group that engagement can also help give tenants a greater voice in local policy development.

What are the potential engagement channels?

There are a variety of potential channels for engaging with private tenants; directly, using private tenant groups or forums instigated by tenants/organisations or pan-London advocacy groups; or indirectly, through trusted local networks or services used by private tenants. Participants agreed that each had a purpose; whilst pan-London advocacy groups and initiatives can have a strategic effect, local dialogue enables local authorities and housing associations to understand and respond to specific challenges within their communities. Information from private tenants about properties/landlords via organisations also feeds into GLA policy initiatives, such as the forthcoming ‘name and shame’ database for rogue landlords and letting agents.

Participants highlighted the importance civil society groups, for both receiving intelligence from and disseminating information to harder-to-reach groups. One participant gave the example of local Somali and Bangladeshi organisations, established to support social well-being and community cohesion, often being a place for housing discussions. People may feel more comfortable discussing their situations with their peers, whereas a lot of people renting privately do not identify with the PRS community.

What are the main challenges to dialogue?

Participants agreed the relative transience of private renters discouraged local level engagement. Negative relationships with officials can also prevent dialogue; a participant from the voluntary sector said they could understand why some private renters may be wary of direct engagement with the council, due to the association with housing benefit and right-to-buy.

It was agreed the most significant challenge for the public sector is limited resources. Councils may not be able to act upon enforcement powers, and highly effective deterrents such as Interim/Final Management Orders (IMOs/FMOs) and Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) are rarely deployed. One participant was aware of councils with licensing schemes where reporting was not acted upon, and another said their borough was reluctant to increase public awareness of tenant relations services as the two officers were already at capacity.

On the potential for social and private tenants organising around common issues on mixed-tenure estates, one participant observed that estate-based groups open to all types of tenant were increasing. Social, private tenants and leaseholders may not feel their issues align, having different landlords and managers. As mixed-tenure estates increasingly become the norm, estate managers could offer opportunities for tenants to mix organically, and support mixed-tenure associations if they are desired.

What are the opportunities?

Despite the challenges, initiatives such as the LB Tower Hamlets Private Tenants’ Charter are consulting with private tenants to help raise standards, and Hackney Digs proves tenant-led groups can be impactful and sustainable. Participants raised further opportunities to improve the consistency of dialogue across London, outlined below.

To overcome resource limitations, council social care and housing teams can share intelligence on rogue landlords and sub-standard PRS housing. Cross-borough skills sharing and bringing in community engagement/enforcement specialists on a temporary basis could improve dialogue and support tenants in a context of austerity.   

One participant highlighted that whilst emphasis tends to be on sustaining long-term engagement, the relatively transient nature of the PRS may better suit short-term, ‘pop-up’ type engagement. Hackney Council’s ‘annual PRS fortnight’ is one example, where stalls provide information and advice to those renting in the borough. 

It was agreed that digital platforms are valuable as well as face-to-face organising and engagement. One participant observed the most vibrant, wide-reaching tenants’ forums are increasingly online. It was recommended that housing associations and local authorities also use digital platforms to re-design their customer service offer to better meet the needs of private tenants, whilst being mindful that they will not be used by a minority of people, so should not be the only engagement method. Nevertheless, online portals for reporting, ‘virtual PRS teams’ and local TripAdvisor-style ratings systems are all worth considering.

Future of London is working with LB Brent on improving dialogue between its private sector housing team and civil society groups. For more information, contact Jo Wilson.

Roundtable participants were:

Alicia Frances, NewmanFrancis

Cecily Herman, LB Westminster

Seb Klier, Generation Rent

Lorraine Hart, Community Land Use

Marc Lancaster, LB Tower Hamlets

Portia Msimang, Renters’ Rights London

Glen McMahon, Tower Hamlets Renters

Jo Revett, LB Hackney

Olivia Russell, Future of London

Jacky Peacock, Advice for Renters

Mark Rolfe, BMA Property Management

Rizwan Siddiqui, LB Camden

Roz Spencer, Safer Renting

Eloise Shepherd, London Councils

Lizzie Stevens, Folio London

Jo Wilson, Future of London