Radically rethinking the landlord-tenant relationship

There has been much recent research into the implications for public services, such as health, housing and social care, when importing the practices and language of the marke

Much of this research dovetails with that by the Human City Institute, which explores how social housing might be reshaped and firmly moved away from creeping commercialism and approaches to accountability and management built on market approaches (more of this in a moment).

Research reveals how widespread embedded market terminology has become in public life and how unquestioned assumptions that the entrepreneurialism, efficiency, and customer focus of the market enable public services to flourish.

An interesting, and certainly timely aspect of this research, is that customer language is applied in different circumstances. Three scenarios can be identified – when people pay directly for public services, when they have choice over services; and/or when they are treated in an attentive and respectful way (e.g. ‘good customer service’).

At least initially, the majority of social landlords set out to use ‘customers’ in this third way – as a means of trying to show respect to their tenants and attempting to boost tenants’ standing and status.

However, from recent social housing documents – the ‘Shape of the Sector’ review by large social landlords in the south-east being a prime example – this respect agenda now seems to have morphed into a different animal – fuller marketization, adopting customer language to the exclusion of all else, and refashioning the tenant-landlord relationship along consumerist lines, rather than as a partnership between social landlords, communities and tenants.

There are inherent dangers to this approach:

It draws a false equivalence between private customer service and quality improvement. And there’s little scope to make a poor choice and learn from it subsequently. This means the signals service-user send to providers about choices are not a reliable guide to service quality.

A second problem is that customer rhetoric shifts the blame for bad services onto individuals (for example, patients, tenants, care-users). It also potentially provokes conflict between staff and those they are paid to serve.

Thirdly, underpinning the customer rhetoric is the view of public services as a battleground between staff and customers, where customers have to keep their wits about them and be ready to complain, switch and be generally awkward in order to get what they want. It is difficult to build human relationships in this scenario.

Needless to say, stressing human relationships is central to the philosophy of the Human City Institute; especially in terms of community, neighbourhood and housing settings, so we are in accord with the critique of the pitfalls in using customer language.

In the social housing field, what is often surprising is that social landlords have changed their language away from tenants to customers without ever having asked their tenants if this is to their liking.

This is surely the antithesis of approaches that put tenants/customers at the centre
of social landlord activity, but is typical of uncritical acceptance of market norms.

In HCI’s research over the last few years, including more than 6,500 interviews with social tenants and 32 focus groups, we have included questions that try to ascertain what social tenants prefer to be called.

By a long way, tenants like the term resident (64 per cent said this) since it gives them parity with home owners and others in their communities. Second was being referred to as tenants (23 per cent). As many said in our focus groups, tenants have rights and responsibilities beyond the consumer protections afforded to customers. And in a distant third place was customer (at 9 per cent). Last was the term client (at 4 per cent).

Our report, to be published by end October, proposes ‘A New Deal for Tenants’ that does
away with the market as a suitable place for social tenants and landlords to form meaningful, fruitful and long-term relationships.

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