More Than a Roof over Someone’s Head: an interview with Rosie Gallen

If nine years as Community Action and Engagement Manager at Wellington City Housing has taught Rosie Gallen anything, it’s that engagement of tenants is as important as the housing itself. Angie Cairncross from Community Housing Aotearoa (CHA) gets her perspective.

In her position at Wellington City Housing, Rosie Gallen’s responsibility was to design and implement an inclusive Community Action Programme focused on strengths-based community development, alongside the upgrade of the organisation. But she’s now taken up a new position with the Salvation Army in Porirua as Community Ministries Manager.

In 2017, Rosie won the Australasian Housing Institute’s award for Inspirational Team Member in New Zealand. The Community Action Programme won the Leading Community Engagement category in both New Zealand and Australasia-wide. Other awards have been won too: the 2012 AHI Leading Housing Innovation Award and, in 2010, the nationwide AHI Excellence Award for Engagement.

Changing the hearts and minds of her asset-focused colleagues is something Rosie considers one of her major achievements.

Changing the hearts and minds of her asset-focused colleagues is something Rosie considers one of her major achievements at Wellington City Housing. Through Rosie, they came to see that active participation by tenants in the design process meant a better result for everyone.

The project managers, architects and CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) specialists were all involved over nine years of the housing upgrade.

“The real test of that was when tenants could say ‘I talked to the architect and he changed his design so it worked better for me’,” says Rosie. “As a result, the designs are better.”

Tenant engagement is a philosophical commitment to include the people most affected by decisions in the decision-making process.

Tenant engagement is a philosophical commitment to include the people most affected by decisions in the decision-making process; in this case, involving tenants in decisions about the housing in which they live. Rosie believes it makes for better and more sustainable solutions. It makes for a better investment; safer, sustainable buildings; more effective tenancy management, and more connected communities.

The tenants are the ones who live there 24/7 – we don’t.

For example, at Wellington City’s Central Park Apartments, “The tenants are the ones who live there 24/7 – we don’t,” she says. “They know where the unsafe areas are, who their neighbours are and exactly where the sun sets and rises.”

At Central Park, there were 40 different entrances. Tenants had no idea who was coming in or going out and they felt very unsafe. They discussed their concerns with the architects (Simon Novak from Novak and Middleton) who incorporated safety into the design. Vertical pods were created so tenants shared an entrance between six flats only, accessed by a card system. It resulted in less transience and tenants now stay longer because they feel safer.

Central Park Flats; City Housing; Housing Upgrade Project Opening Ceremony

The engagement process changed the way the community at Central Park interacted. The upgrade also included communal facilities, which enabled communities to be created and sustained through community development activities and tenant leadership.

“Tenants know their neighbours; they know who is away, who is unwell, and they look out for each other,” observes Rosie. “They have a better relationship with their landlord, their tenancy is more sustainable, repairs are called in, and they let their tenancy advisor know when there is anti-social behaviour or that they have arrears. Tenants are keen to stay and they have a stake in the community.”

According to Rosie, we’re missing the legislative framework that would enshrine tenant engagement and participation in New Zealand so, instread, it tends to be deployed on an ad-hoc basis depending on time, resource, inclination or priority.

Tenant engagement is often seen as an extra to core service and resource-intensive.

Tenant engagement is often seen as an extra to core service and resource-intensive. However, there is growing evidence that tenant participation and engagement impacts positively on the bottom-line. There are some unsung heroes, according to Rosie – organisations like CORT Community Housing who have appointed a tenant to the board and are proactive in engaging with tenants.

“We could include it as a requirement in the certification of community housing providers through the Community Housing Regulatory Authority Standards. But, for the Residential Tenancies Act, this would be much harder. That’s such a broad private-public sector piece of legislation,” explains Rosie.

“It could be introduced to all public and social housing [CHRA regulations don’t currently cover Housing New Zealand or local authorities – only community housing providers]. The Residential Tenancies Act is a transactional relationship between the landlord and the individual whereas, I believe, state and social housing is so much more than that.”

If it’s social housing, it’s about wellbeing.

Rosie thinks we may need to think about legislation in this area for all public and community housing: “Fundamentally, it’s about why we do housing in the first place – if it’s social housing, it’s about wellbeing. So we need to think about what the social outcomes are and know why we are involved in this area of public policy.”

Rosie would like to see New Zealand introduce a housing charter, something like the Scottish Housing Charter. It would be challenging for us here, as it sets out quality standards and outcomes for all social housing providers. To make it sustainable, we would need a cross-party agreement for that to be realised.

In 1977, 42% of UK local authorities had some form of tenant participation.

Overseas, tenant participation and engagement is a fundamental part in the delivery of public housing. In 1977, 42% of UK local authorities had some form of tenant participation and it has since been enshrined in the Housing Act 1980, Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 and the National Framework for Tenant Participation Compacts 2005.

Australia has a number of standards and agreements that make tenant engagement a requirement, including the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement 1984 and the National Community Housing Standards 3rd edition 2010.

In the UK, HACT is working within the housing sector to explore how individual organisations express their social purpose, most recently through community investment (1). And Tenants Leading Change (TLC) have also looked at the benefits of tenant engagement (2).

UK Professor of Housing Policy, David Mullins (3), had the following to say about tenant engagement. He states, “Going back to basics, there are four reasons why tenant engagement is important,” which he details as follows:

  1. First and foremost, social housing is there for the residents. If this basic fact were more widely recognised, it would be harder for governments to undermine the principles of social housing.
  2. Second, residents have the local intelligence that boards and executives often lack. They can spot problems and find solutions in a very effective way if they are empowered to do so.
  3. Third, being listened to, and making a difference, improves tenant satisfaction and builds a positive organisational culture, rather than ‘us and them’.
  4. Fourth is a more subtle reason, because successful housing services are ‘co-produced’. This means that housing services cannot simply be ‘delivered’ to residents but must be received and negotiated.
  5. Finally, while tenant engagement is important, it is also difficult to do well. It requires organisation and agreement between all the parties. Residents need to be motivated and see the benefits. Capacity-building and training is essential if they are to become involved in strategic decisions, for example through board membership.

Rosie Gallen has left a very strong imprint on New Zealand’s social housing and, in particular, Wellington City Housing. In the Community Action Programme, the New Zealand community housing sector haa been provided with a model to aspire to, founded on community development principles and the values of democratic engagement.

A final word from Rosie: “Our commitment to the wellbeing of our tenants at Wellington City Housing has been at the forefront of our practice. We have been so fortunate that our council has endorsed this approach for so long, and I’m sure this will continue into the future.”

For more about Central Park Apartments, click here to watch the video, A Most Significant Change.

Angie Cairncross was the Communications Co-ordinator at Community Housing Aotearoa (CHA). Angie was also previously editor of the Occupational Therapy New Zealand magazine, OT Insight. With a background in the social service sector and qualifications in editing, social policy and social work, she has spent many years working within the not-for-profit sector in New Zealand. This includes responsibilities at the interface of housing and mental health for Kites Trust in Wellington, advising on funding with NZCFA and the Department of Internal Affairs, and managing Vincent’s Art Workshop.

(1) – final version.pdf