A Career in Housing: Jackie Pivac

Jackie Pivac is the Regional Manager, Wellington South Island for Housing New Zealand. She has a deep-seated passion for people and community – it’s at the core of everything she does – and this appetite has fuelled her career across her eight years in the housing industry and beyond.

Since leaving school and joining the workforce, Jackie Pivac has flourished in the social services sector, including stints focusing on social security child protection and rehabilitation, before her current move into community housing with Housing New Zealand.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, the community services sector was a path she deliberately chose. As she tells HousingWORKS, “I’ve always been in the public service, straight from school. After I left my six years in rehabilitation, it was a conscious decision to look for somewhere else in the public service because that’s the area I like working in. I came across the job of a national relationships manager for Community Partnerships so that’s how I moved into housing. And then, after a restructure, I moved into the regional manager role for tenancy services.”

“When your role is understanding and building communities, you have to take a different lens”

Understanding how communities work has given Jackie an immense source of satisfaction; she considers it the most rewarding aspect of her time in the housing industry. This understanding has also taught her not to take the value of a community and its people for granted.

“When your role is understanding and building communities, you have to take a different lens,” she says. “I’ve really enjoyed a better understanding of the way communities interact, creating healthy communities, and learning from what other people are doing.”

When we caught up with Jackie, it was on the tail-end of one of her regular trips across the ditch to see family and friends in Australia: “I’ve had a couple of trips over to Australia, being particularly influenced by the work I saw going on in Brisbane Housing, and have taken a lot of their ideas back to incorporate into some of the work we’re doing here [in Wellington].”

“I had the chance to go to the UK and look at some of the UK housing associations, and look at the community development work they do in the middle of large, high-intensity social housing developments,” continues Jackie. “I incorporated some of what we saw into our work. It’s really interesting; the sense of being a part of something that big and creating homes for people gives you a great sense of satisfaction.”

These experiences have been pivotal in helping Jackie guide her team through a period of fundamental cultural change at Housing New Zealand. Like many others in the sector, the organisation is transitioning from simply providing homes and tenancy services to an organisation seeking to put the tenant at the centre of all the department’s decision-making. It’s a change spurred on by the election of the Ardern Government in 2017.

“It’s created a very busy environment for us,” says Jackie. “It’s quite stimulating to respond to this amount of change. We’re looking closely at what some of the Australian states are doing.”

Adapting to the changing demands of Housing New Zealand’s client base isn’t the only thing Jackie finds stimulating about her role. The changing composition of people that her team are striving to assist provides Jackie with powerful motivation.

“When I first started in Housing New Zealand, we were building a lot of standalone, three-bedroom houses. That was our New Zealand model. We were providing homes for nuclear families,” she admits. “I’ve noticed a big change in family makeup – a lot more single people requiring housing over the last eight years, in particular – so our model of providing standalone houses is shifting to providing more high-density complexes.”

“The challenge is for people to be housed as close to transport and work links as possible”

“We’re providing a lot more one and two-bedroom homes,” she continues. “A lot more high-rise buildings than we ever have in the past. The challenge is for people to be housed as close to transport and work links as possible, which requires people living in high-density environments.”

Given her interest in the creation and sustainability of healthy and vibrant communities, the by-product of this shift in demand has allowed Jackie to explore firsthand what actually makes a ‘good community’. As she details, “One of the things I’ve particularly enjoyed doing is being able to provide community rooms in some of our developments – deliberately creating ‘bumping’ spaces – so tenants can come together and form relationships. They get to create their own communities.”

The effects of her efforts at creating community are beginning to bear fruit with a noticeable rise in volunteerism: “There’s a free store that provides free food for people who need it. They’ve been delivering food to some of our tenants at one of our inner-city complexes in Wellington, and now our tenants want to give back so they’re volunteering at the free store. That’s a connection that people didn’t have before.”

“And some of our residents have noticed that some neighbours have mental health challenges, and their behaviour is sometimes erratic,” she continues. “So we’ve got a group of tenants who are doing training in conflict de-escalation. I think seeing those things where tenants are owning their environment and wanting to help their neighbours, those are the sort of things that make me feel good about coming to work every day.”

“I’m not sure that we’re responding fast enough to innovative models for housing our ageing population”

On the flipside, though, come a number of frustrations that Jackie often deals with, particularly struggling to meet the demand for community housing. As she laments, “We’re a country where home ownership was everybody’s dream, and things have changed to such an extent now that I feel quite sad home ownership isn’t available to as many people as it used to be.”

“The thing I find really sad is a lot of our single people requiring social housing are older people, and I’m not sure that we’re responding fast enough to innovative models for housing our ageing population. I think we should be doing more community housing, and I think there’s an opportunity to look at retirement housing in the social sector. We have a lot of our older tenants move into rest-home care but it seems to be quite a big leap from independently living in your own home, and then going into some type of rest-home that’s very institutionalised. I wonder if there’s an opportunity there for a different housing solution as an interim.”

To beat the stresses of the office, Jackie pinpoints hitting the gym as a great outlet for letting off steam: “I find, as I’m getting older, I’m doing more exercise. I find that it helps me process things. Funnily enough, it should probably be the other way around but, if I don’t start the day doing some exercise, I don’t get through the day so well. I just go and do little weight circuits and Exercycle. It gets your mind free for the day because your mind does wander. ”

Jackie openly acknowledges that time in the weights room or getting on the stationary bike is not just about de-stressing but also attacking some workplace headaches.

“Exercising allows you to free up your thinking. You sort of go into automatic mode, and it allows your subconscious to do some problem-solving, if you’re worried about something. Sometimes you get a bit stuck over a particular problem, and exercise lets your subconscious do a bit of work for you. Often, you come up with the solution as a result of it.”

As mentioned earlier, travel also rates highly on Jackie’s list of priorities. With Australia, UK and numerous other destinations ticked off, Croatia – which forms part of her paternal lineage – is next on her list of must-visit places.

“I spent seven days in Croatia doing an orientation last year, and I’m taking my family back in 2019. That’s a big family trip – that’s where my grandfather came from – so we’re very excited.”

Jackie’s happy to sum up her career with one word – ‘long’ – but how do others see her? “I asked my boss this the other day because I thought that was the easiest thing to do,” she laughs. “And he said a whole lot of stuff that I wouldn’t say.”

“I think people would describe me as a great problem-solver, and I manage by maintaining relationships. I’m really good at joining up the dots. If someone is having a problem, I will know someone else who can help, so I use networks really well too.”

“I’ve had a great sense of pride over the years of seeing people that I’ve managed and supported go on to become very successful in their own careers”

“The other thing I’ve always loved doing is developing others,” she continues. “I’ve had a great sense of pride over the years of seeing people that I’ve managed and supported go on to become very successful in their own careers. That’s always been one of the highlights for me – seeing my staff do well.”

“I love the people I work with,” Jackie concludes. “They’re a bunch of really passionate people – passionate about doing the job they’re doing. I love meeting the tenants, and interacting with them – the people side of the business – which I think is the thing that’s kept me in the social services and the public service for so long.”

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