I am writing this nearly three weeks after the dreadful fire at Grenfell Tower. I know from numerous conversations, e-mail exchanges, Twitter threads and the like over the past couple of weeks that this tragedy has had a deep impact on the housing world.
This is true whether we are the custodians of city tower blocks or the landlords of wee cottages in rural communities.
Whether we’ve been drawn into housing as a valuable career choice or with a values-led sense of vocation, what really matters are the tenants we serve.
And when I say ‘tenants’ I mean people and communities. So many of these people are folk who are vulnerable, or who have struggled to find their way out of poverty and the grinding away of dignity, self-respect and self-determination that poverty creates.
As a result, it is all too often that the people who have to live with this end up living messy, and perhaps chaotic, lives.
That messiness, never a deliberate choice on people’s part, is simultaneously why social housing providers exist and an ingredient in how some people working for housing organisations can come to lose sight of their purpose.
In my career I have heard a very few colleagues say ‘Housing would be easy, if it wasn’t for the tenants’. Yet, without the tenants our jobs have no reason to exist.
No matter how uncomfortable, difficult and challenging things might feel at times, we are here to serve people whose lives would otherwise be so much worse and their communities greatly diminished.
I have attended meetings where I have known I will face tenants who will be shouting in my face. I have had colleagues who have been directly threatened with physical violence and death by tenants. I have received strongly worded petitions about concerns a neighbourhood has had over someone who we have housed. I have seen and heard the incoherent anguish of tenants at their wits’ end for one reason or another.
What I learned early in my career to try to listen to what is behind the immediate behaviour. I have not always succeeded, in the moment, but that is what housing professionals must do. It is important that we hear the genuine concerns of people living in our properties, living in their homes.
It is crucial that we recognise the lived experience of our tenants and consider how we might help to sort out some of that mess. In doing so we might restore some fragment of dignity, generate self-respect and encourage self-determination.
Whatever the physical form our housing takes we must acknowledge these are people’s homes. We can listen to the genuine concerns masked behind any surface anger. We can respond with compassion and intelligence.
In doing that we make our tenants’ lives safer and better, and we can lift ourselves by sticking to the values we upheld when we joined this profession.
Calum Macaulay is chief executive of Albyn Housing Society, Inverness