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‘People-first’ winning hearts and minds in Tāmaki

If you happen to speak Burmese, and have a background in tenancy management, chances are there is a role for you at the Tāmaki Regeneration Company.

One of Auckland’s most diverse communities, Tāmaki’s social housing population of around 8000 boasts 10 different first languages. The tenancy managers of the Tāmaki Housing Association – the division of TRC that manages 2600 tenancies and is also responsible for the relocation of tenants into new homes – can speak all but one of them.

Of the THA’s 24 tenancy managers, 20 are fluent in another language. They’ve got Samoan, Niuean and Mandarin covered. The odd one out is Burmese – and they’re working on it.

That institutional ability to communicate with the diverse residents who occupy many of Tāmaki’s social houses in their own tongue isn’t an accident.

“About 1000 of our tenants speak a language other than English at home and [in] about 300, within the tenancy, there is limited understanding of English,” says THA’s general manager of housing Neil Porteous. “So we have been very deliberate about employing tenancy managers who speak the languages of the community.

“When you are dealing with the big machine of government and your first language is Samoan, to have one of the team here talk to you in your first language and to understand and support you and say ‘this is what you need to do’ is absolutely huge.”

The need to communicate effectively is pressing in a community in which major change is inevitable. Tāmaki’s ageing social housing stock is being replaced as part of a major regeneration project, meaning most residents will ultimately be re-housed.

That prospect can be unsettling.

For the THA – which is tasked with managing both existing tenancies and new ones that come on line as the new housing stock is built – it makes communication vital.

“We put the tenant at the heart of everything that we do,” says Porteous. “We are very genuine about that.

“When we set up the THA three years ago [TRC chief executive] John [Holyoake] was really clear that he wanted to do things differently, and that we’d have a really strong customer service culture.

“We employ people very purposefully who are here to serve this community because that is what we are here to do.”

THA's general manager of housing Neil Porteous. Photo: supplied

The THA goes about the business of managing roughly 100,000 interactions a year with Tāmaki’s social housing tenants differently to other organisations that perform a similar role.

The caseload for each tenancy manager is 160 tenancies– a figure significantly below the 380 at Housing New Zealand when THA took over the portfolio.

“We were very purposeful about having smaller portfolio sizes,” says Porteous. “Typically, people can remember names of about 150 people, so for any given tenancy manager we know we can ask them about a particular tenancy or family and they will know about them.”

The lower ratio isn’t achieved by having more staff – but rather by abandoning the typical model of teams of specialists in a “back office” dealing with specific issues.

“We don’t have a back office,” says Porteous. “The tenancy manager is a one stop shop for the tenant. They deal with everything.”

The approach appears to be working. The THA runs quarterly tenant satisfaction surveys, the last of which returned a satisfaction rating of 85 percent. The results are benchmarked against results from similar surveys of 300,000 tenancies in the United Kingdom.

“It’s a really robust tool for measuring tenant satisfaction,” says Porteous. “Every quarter we go out and do 180-190 face-to-face interviews, and we score really well.”

The figure for best practice in the United Kingdom is 88 percent. Given THA has been operating for just three years, 85 percent is a highly encouraging result – however Porteous still views the THA’s community engagement as a work in progress.

“One of the things I’ve noticed in this community is that it can take years to build up trust and you can lose it really quickly. We are very aware of that, so we try very hard to maintain and grow that trust.

“The survey gives us areas to improve on and that is what we are keen to understand.”

The major work-on indicated by the last survey was improving the flow of information to tenants who have not yet become involved in the regeneration process.

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With regeneration requiring the removal of dwellings that have served as family homes for years and even decades, the process is delicate.

“It has been a real hard transition for our community,” says Peter Karaka, one of two tenant representatives on a THA community liaison committee that meets bi-monthly to discuss issues arising from the regeneration process.

Karaka’s roots to the area run deep. His Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki tupuna signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Karaka Bay on the Tāmaki River, and the iwi is one of 11 that hold mana whenua over Tāmaki Makaurau. “We’re descendant families from this area, and to try to understand the nature of what is going on has taken a long time,” says Karaka. “I’ve got to take my hat off to Neil and his team. They do a lot of work in the community to bring people up to speed on what is happening.”

After a rocky start that involved protest marches from residents fearful they would be forced out of the area, TRC has gradually won over much of the community, Karaka says.

“Over the three years they have been operating, I believe the community have bought into it. The hard thing for our community was coming away from that old style of social housing with Housing New Zealand. It is like a big giant over the top of you. Tāmaki Housing, they have a different attitude to our community, and the way that we can come to them.

“They have an open-door policy with all tenants and I think our community is starting to understand that.”

This cultural stone rock feature is located at Point England beach on the Eastern shores of the Tāmaki River where Ngāi Tai and Ngāti Paoa tupuna signed the Treaty of Waitangi also on the Eastern shores of the river at Karaka Bay. Photo: Supplied

TRC’s focus on social outcomes – with initiatives such as a jobs and skills hub and affordable housing programmes – had been well-received by the community.

The biggest challenge for Tāmaki residents who had been re-housed was adapting to being in close proximity to their neighbours, Karaka says.

“I suppose we are all used to the old Kiwi-style quarter-acre living, but those days have come and gone.

“People are going to have to get used to a new style of living. And the rebuild is better than what we had.”

Porteous’ team - which has so far relocated 180 families and has another 100 part-way through the process - is intent on providing as much support as possible for residents during the rehousing process.

“We are really clear around working closely with our tenants ... when we do need the house for redevelopment that we do it in a really supportive way,” says Porteous.

“We sit down with them and find out where their social networks are, where their church networks are, where do the kids go to school, what is it that they need to have access to? Then we’ll start the process of trying to find a house that meets their needs.

“When we find them a house that is suitable, we support them through the move to the new property.”

THA is careful to work to lengthy timelines, engaging with tenants who will be required to move 12 months before the property is required, and ensuring they have been located well before the bulldozers appear at the front door.

“We are very aware of that,” says Porteous.

“The most important thing is to have a team of people in place who can manage that relationship, who can build up a level of trust with the tenant.”

THA aims to relocate tenants just once. When that isn’t possible, tenants whose houses are due for removal are moved into a property that isn’t scheduled for redevelopment for at least eight years.

The process will become more streamlined as more new build homes come online – however it is still an extremely complex juggling act.

“We need to make sure we have got the right pipeline of houses coming through,” says Porteous. “If we have an area where we need 15 five-bedroom houses there is no point building 15 three-bedroom houses in the new development because we have got nowhere to shift those people in the five-bedroom houses. It is a big jigsaw puzzle.”

Despite its best efforts, THA hasn’t always got things right, Porteous admits.

“But when we do get it wrong we say ‘really sorry about that, it wasn’t intended – this is what we are going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again’.

“Although we are owned by the Council and the Government, we have developed a culture here where we can make decisions and implement them really very quickly. We are very agile.”

The most important factor in THA’s ability to engage successfully with a community experiencing massive change was – and always will be – its people, says Porteous.

“When we first started I talked to a lot of people who had experience in community change programmes and the one thing they said was that ‘you need to employ people in customer facing roles who understand and reflect the community’.

“Our staff all have a deep understanding of this community.”

This article was produced with the assistance of the Tāmaki Regeneration Company.

Earlier stories include:

Huge Tāmaki project starts to bear fruit

Tāmaki: Tapping into the wisdom of the crowd

Inside the new Tamaki

Finding four jobs a week

Setting Tāmaki families on a path to independence

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