In the March 2009 edition of the Shelter WA newsletter an editorial appeared under the title: “Time for Housing Consumer Participation”. Written by then-Executive Officer Bronwyn Kitching, the article made an argument to consider the “implications for tenants and consumers of affordable housing resulting from policy and programme changes happening in WA”.
“In WA Community Housing providers can include tenants and residents in their Management Committees or Board structure and some Government committees include a consumer representative but for the most part no mechanism exists to consult with and inform tenants of what is happening that may have implications for their tenancies,” Bronwyn wrote.
“Other Australian states have well established tenant unions, regional group tenant associations from public housing estates but WA lacks a formally established group comprised of tenants to actively evaluate and monitor the situation for tenants informed from direct experience.”
In 2009 the WA Peaks Forum was facilitated by the Western Australian Council of Social Service (WACOSS) and comprised of 24 peak organisations that covered a broad spectrum of the non-government human services sector. As a network of peak organisations, forum members that housing is an issue which crossed many service areas and there was a need to ensure consumer perspectives are included in housing policy work that forum members participate in.
With funding granted from Lotterywest, consultant Christina Kadmos was appointed Project Officer to undertake a body of work which would culminate in a report titled “Bringing consumers into the Room – A scoping project to look at establishing an Affordable Housing Consumer Reference Group and other consumer engagement strategies”.
Christina was no stranger to the operations of Shelter WA, in 2001 along with Shelter WA Policy Manager Paul Pendergast, they produced a report looking at the housing needs for people affected by mental health issues.
In this new scoping project Christina developed a discussion paper, followed by consultations and then a final paper. That final paper in its summary found there was widespread agreement amongst consumers and agencies who were consulted that “consumer perspectives need to be considered in the planning and evaluation of housing services and policies”, they also supported “the belief that consumer voices bring a unique and valuable contribution to deliberations”.
It came as no surprise when the main crux of the recommendations was the formation of a consumer reference group or joint working group including consumers in the development of terms of reference, resource requirements and selection processes.
So, what happened? Well, not much. “I don’t recall any outcomes,” said Christina. “But there was a positional change at Shelter WA with their Membership. They encouraged more consumer membership to bring in more affordable housing consumers into the picture of the organisation from then on.
While changes were being made internally, externally Shelter WA was kept busy with a range of economic and policy issues which were having an impact on housing.
“This was the absolute peak of the mining boom,” said Christina. “People were getting jobs on the mines and the mining companies were supportive of advancing Aboriginal employment, which is great. Some of these people though were in public housing and suddenly they were faced with a dilemma. Someone theoretically could get a job, lose their housing then lose their job, due to the boom and bust cycle resulting in them going back on a wait list for affordable housing.”
Christina remembers another example which highlighted the lack of understanding about how different policies impact on people in a way that acts against affordable long-term housing.
“The Department might have offered somebody a house in Donnybrook because that is where there were vacancies. A family might be attracted to this opportunity especially if they had young children, it seemed like a great place for them to grow up. But then there was a danger Centrelink could assess you as moving to a place from high to low employment which would then make your income support vulnerable.”
Looking back on those times Christina refers to the “Shelter people” as having a “strong sense of systemic change”. “They always did have the big picture, strong policy base, good analytical minds, they are the adjectives I thought of when I thought of Shelter.”