How to mobilise renters to speak out: tenant voice

The Nationwide Foundation has released a report setting out sixteen evidence-based recommendations for making tenant voice heard in debates about the UK private rented sector.

Private renting is in crisis: one in five people now rent from a private landlord, but rents have increased by 12% in the past year and conditions are worse in the private rented sector than any other tenure. Reforms to private renting are being discussed in Parliament, including the Renters’ Reform Bill committed to in the last Queen’s Speech, and the introduction of a decent homes standard for the sector.

Between 2019 and late 2022, the Nationwide Foundation backed a programme of seven varied projects which used different models for strengthening tenant voice and helping lived experience to be considered in policymaking.

From forming advisory panels and empowering tenants’ unions to producing manifestos and organising communities, these tenant voice projects worked to ensure that the voices of the UK’s private renters are heard when new policy is developed. Considerable achievements were made, from contributing to the government’s decision to ban evictions during the Covid-19 pandemic to getting local councils to commit to improving private renting in their areas.

This Tenant Voice Programme provides valuable insight on how to support tenants to have their voices heard. By evaluating the projects involved, the foundation has drawn conclusions about how to optimise a tenant voice project for success and is sharing its findings with other organisations committed to transforming the private rented sector.

Joshua Davies, programme manager for transforming the private rented sector, said, “Tenants’ voices are seldom heard in debate about the PRS, which means decisions which have vast impacts on their lives are being made without their input. This situation is worst for tenants in vulnerable circumstances, who are often most negatively affected by problems in the PRS. Through the Tenant Voice Programme, we have been able to bring together the experience of diverse groups to tell us what works best in amplifying renters’ voices and making sure their lived experience is considered by policymakers. I hope the recommendations help more groups to raise the volume of tenant voice across the UK.”

Tenant voice was amplified in two key ways

Although each tenant voice project took a unique approach, broadly speaking they fell into two categories. Sometimes aspects of these two models were mixed.

Community organising models aim to mobilise large groups of renters, supporting them to challenge their own landlords and collectively call for wider reform. They are often owned and directed by the renters they engage. For example, Greater Manchester Tenants Union involved up to 1,000 renters in developing a manifesto, delivered tenants’ rights awareness sessions and won commitments from the mayor of Greater Manchester. Evaluation found that these types of projects are particularly successful in enabling renters to take responsibility for driving change and mobilising action across larger groups, but were challenged by participants’ worries about retribution from landlords if they publicly campaigned for their rights and by the difficulty of building a diverse group of renters.

Policy panel models, on the other hand, tend to work with smaller groups. They influence policy by bringing panels of renters together to share experiences, voice concerns and give evidence which the organisation takes to decision-makers. One of these projects was Renters’ Voice, delivered in Northern Ireland by Housing Rights, which brought a panel of 10 to 12 tenants together. Through this, the organisation gave evidence on a private bill to the Northern Ireland assembly, hosted meetings with senior officials, launched a campaign and took part in focus groups to influence decision-makers. Policy panel-style projects enabled quick convening, built renters’ confidence and targeted key decision-makers. However, the often-slow process of policy change sometimes proved a challenge for keeping renters engaged.

Sixteen recommendations for strengthening tenant voices

By evaluating these projects, the Foundation has set out a useful list of recommendations for other organisations seeking to amplify the voices of renters.

Overall, it was found that policymakers hearing and understanding the voices of tenants is critical to ensure that policy details and implementation both reflect the real experiences of renters  and address the problems they face. The renters who are the most vulnerable to harm face unique challenges in the private rented sector, and making their voices heard is particularly key to making sure that reform improves their position.

To support tenants to have a stronger voice in personal, local, regional and national decision-making, the report recommends to:

  • Build tenants’ understanding of their individual rights. This can be a first step in developing their confidence to campaign for an expansion of these rights.
  • Provide support to help tenant groups understand how they can influence the complex world of policy-making.
  • Mobilise renters to become advocates for change. This is essential to help them see their own experiences as reflecting broader injustices in the system.
  • Incentivise local political decision-makers to advocate reform, it’s important to highlight the sheer number of renters as a significant voting bloc.

To support participation by tenants who are vulnerable to harm:

  • Long-term projects, working with local community groups and leaders, are key to building trust when vulnerability is experienced by a particular marginalised community.
  • To build trust with groups which have experienced discrimination and exclusion, be transparent about how their concerns will be progressed to action.
  • Recognise that different renters will experience vulnerability at different times, rather than defining ‘vulnerable renters’ by a set of characteristics.
  • Acknowledge that renters who are vulnerable to harm may not feel comfortable speaking out publicly, but may wish to speak in safe spaces and have their anonymised stories told by project staff.

To build tenants’ skills, knowledge, leadership and advocacy:

  • Combine provision of information and advice with support for renters to use their rights and boost their advocacy skills.
  • Bring tenants and local authority teams together. This boosts renters’ confidence to raise concerns and helps them understand change.
  • By supporting individual tenants to challenge letting agents or landlords who have a big portfolio of properties, you can bring about changes in practice that affect broader groups of people.

To build sustainable tenant voice and participation:

  • Take a person-centred approach. Adapt online and in-person tools to different renters’ needs and engage with them in the places where they feel most comfortable.
  • Encourage peer-to-peer support.
  • Allow plenty of time to recruit and develop a representative tenant group. You’ll need to build relationships, commitment, trust and confidence across the group to support them to engage with policy reforms.
  • Highlight achievements! Structural change can be slow, so talk about individual or small wins to keep your tenant movement engaged.
  • Keep reaching out to new members to ensure the group continues. Sustaining consistent engagement in tenant groups is challenging and you should expect some level of turnover.

The work will continue in 2023/4

In addition to sharing its findings with others, the Nationwide Foundation is incorporating the recommendations into a new phase of the tenant voice programme, running from early 2023 to the end of 2024. This will ensure the strengthened tenant voice developed during phase one is maintained and is effectively influencing for PRS policy and practice changes which benefit all tenants.

For more information, please read the full report. You can see a full list of all the projects involved in the Tenant Voice Programme on the projects we fund page.