What Did I Learn From a Year of Visting Social Housing Companies Around Europe

Over the last year I visited 33 German cities, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 EU countries (who is counting?). I through several pictures of my travels in to illustrate and break up this longer blog.   I managed in most of these trips to find a way to meet with a social housing company, a homeless organization, or at the minimal a professor or someone who works in the field of helping people.  I am always excited and pleased to meet with anyone who will dedicate their life’s to helping others especially when a lot of the time it can be thankless at least on the government funding side. My project was to gain an understanding of how social housing is financed and operated throughout Germany.  I believe I met that goal and you can read through my close to 50 blogs to get a taste of different funding and building methods being used throughout Germany.

Today I wanted to take a different approach and pick a few of the coolest or most unique ideals or concepts I saw while visiting around the whole of Europe.  I will freely admit a lot of this is UK based.  I spent quite a bit of time in Scotland and the UK to meet with housing companies.  Read below and let me know what you think!

  1. Social Enterprise- A quick explanation of the social enterprise sector and methods of growing a company is helpful.  According to the website Social Enterprise Alliance, “Social enterprises are businesses whose primary purpose is the common good. They use the methods and disciplines of business and the power of the marketplace to advance their social, environmental and human justice agendas.”[1]  Social enterprises are not government or non-profits but its main mission is to address some public need.  The goal is to earn revenue which differs from many public institutions and the common good is the company’s main purpose.  That means in many instances the extra money earned is reinvested into jobs or ideals that continue to benefit the public.

I found this ideal to be extremely interesting especially what is being done in the UK.  Social Housing companies throughout the UK are creating, supporting and partnering with social enterprises in a way that is almost shocking.  I have seen some social housing companies create enterprises like daycares for their neighborhoods or even a company within their own that handles left over furniture in vacated apartments to help future tenants who might not have furniture. Other social housing companies have supported local social enterprises like one in Scotland I visited that supported a group of disabled persons who wanted to deliver housing authority mailers, magazines and articles.  The social housing company threw its weight behind the new social enterprise and now a few people are earning extra money while the housing company saves money on delivery costs.  The Link Housing Group in Scotland uses its procurement policy to support social enterprises.  I will talk more about that later.  I will not go much further on this topic except to say that public housing authorities in the USA could learn a lot from this model and try to partner with social enterprise networks in their cities and regions.  Check out this newspaper article about social housing companies and social enterprises working together.  http://www.theguardian.com/social-enterprise-network/2012/dec/10/social-enterprises-housing-associations

Visit to Greece in July.
Visit to Greece in July.

2.  Find Ways to change contracting policy to support social enterprises- This falls in line with the first point but I thought should be pulled out on its own.  Public Housing Authorities spend a lot of money.  That is a fact.  Whether its for construction or day to day operations a lot of money is being spent.  Many housing companies in the UK are using their procurement policies to support job creation and opportunities for disadvantaged.  When I spoke with the CEO of the Link Housing Group in Scotland, he informed me that they even had clauses in contracts for people delivering cleaning supplies and toilet paper which allowed Link to get intern placements within the company.  Yes that is extra work and monitoring but what a great idea to get the most out of your money.  I visited the Wheatley Group in Glasgow and they even work with the copier and printer company to get apprenticeships through their contracting process.  Whether its supporting social enterprises or looking for ways to create training opportunities or jobs, public housing authorities do wield power with its contracts.  The key is to find a way to include these provisions while still following HUD rules and regulations.

Visited social housing company in Paris. Also enjoyed the cafes
Visited social housing company in Paris. Also enjoyed the cafes

3. Toy with Idea of putting younger people in buildings with older people: This is by no means a new idea in the USA.  There are multi-generational living projects throughout the USA.  When I lived in the Netherlands in May, I visited a few different housing developments where younger single women with children lived in the same building as older single or widowed women.  The situation grew organically and the older women would help with the children and advice for the young women while the young women helped out with grocery shopping or chores.  I could see where a housing authority might be able to create some really interesting multi-generational living situations if some flexibility were allowed.  For example, how about making an agreement with a University to allow a few social work students to live in a senior disabled building at a reduced rent during their school years?  During that time the social work student would need to agree to do a certain number of projects or plans to help residents of the building with issues or maybe just programming to fight loneliness. Moving to Work agencies would be a perfect fit!

I spent the day in Talinn, Estonia with the social housing organization for the country. Much different than US social housing. Everyone owns!
I spent the day in Talinn, Estonia with the social housing organization for the country. Much different than US social housing. Everyone owns!

3. Strive Towards Being a Modern Workplace- This can be getting rid of assigned desks, flexible work hours, more vacation days or bringing conveniences to the workforce like coffee and exercise.  When in the Netherlands, I came across several housing associations that had small cafes within their buildings.  Some offered massages a few times a month while others had in house exercise hours.  I worked at a social housing advocacy company called Aedes in The Hague for a month.  They had no assigned work spaces which meant every spot had to be clean at the end of the day.  When you came in on the next day someone might be sitting where you were.  It worked and created a sense of flexibility within the work staff.  They also were extremely flexible about working from home.  Many people could work from home as much as wanted.  I will say that the office in the the Hague was so nice, I wanted to be there.  Great coffee, massages and a modern chic work space made it a desirable place to be.

I will now broach the toughest theme for most Americans and American companies including public housing authorities.  VACATION- Yes we have all heard about the European tendency to have more vacation time then in America.  I can promise you it is true.  Here in Germany, my colleagues at the social housing company in Germany  routinely get 5-6 weeks of paid vacation in addition to national holidays. That is from the start.  You do not work 25 years at a company to get this time off.  That means they can afford to take a nice long 2-3 week vacation in the summer and still have time to plan around holidays or take a few more weeks sprinkled throughout the year.  How does that work out for the company?  Is it doom and gloom and mountains of piled up work?  No.  I see an agile, highly efficient team of workers helping those socially disadvantaged while being fully rested up and healed because they take enough personal time to be charged up and do the demanding work required of them.  I know its a big change to American culture, but why not start slow?  How about starting everyone with at least 3.5 weeks of vacation a year and see how morale improves.

Met with a social enterprise in Barcelona that hires homeless to give city tours.
Met with a social enterprise in Barcelona that hires homeless to give city tours.

4. Move Quickly Towards Digitalization of Workflow- I struggled with this one because some of the most digitalized housing authorities or social housing companies I’ve seen in my career were in the USA.  It is hard to beat what is being done in El Paso, Texas.  (Side note, visit El Paso Housing Authority if you can).  I decided to include this category because I did see some really strong work being done in Scotland and the Netherlands towards digitalization of workflow.  Housing Authorities around the world are slow adopters when it comes to moving into the digitization of work.  Check out most UK social housing companies websites and you will see online applications, online maintenance work order systems and online rent payment.  You do see this happen in the USA but nearly as often as the UK.  I visited the Wheatley Group in Scotland which operates over 45,000 units of social housing and was amazed at some of the process improvement projects taking place.  Remember, you don’t need to do it over night but start taking steps.  Without some type of electronic document management system in place, it will be tough to really take the steps needed to move to more digital workflow.

Hanging on a train somewhere with friend from Fellowship
Hanging on a train somewhere with friend from Fellowship

5. Create Excellent Apprenticeship Programs in all aspect of Business- This might be my personal favorite.  If I took away one thing from this year in Germany it is the Germans are the Weltmeister (world champion) at training, shaping and creating the next generation of employees.  They do not see internships or apprenticeships as some awful task that drains time.  They see it as a valuable investment into their company’s and country’s future.  With over 350 different apprenticeship programs developed, youths do not just show up one day with an application hoping to get some experience.  I implore leaders of public housing authorities throughout the world to get an apprenticeship program up and moving!  You and your staff are not too busy to share your knowledge and training with the next generation.

Just Relaxing
Just Relaxing In Porto

6. Demonstrate Your Social Return on Investment (SROI)- Again we must look to the Redcoats in the UK and see how we can better demonstrate our overall value in serving communities.  Quantifying the work we do in housing and running social programs is hard.  SROI gives a great tool to us in how to move this argument forward.  I say argument because some might disagree with the methodology but it gives us ammunition to start the conversation.  If you want more information on SROI, shoot me a message and I will gladly share some resources.

Visited social housing company in Stockholm in Jan.
Visited social housing company in Stockholm in Jan.

At the end of the day, these tips may seem a little light but pulling out ideals that can be implemented in the USA is no easy task.  I could easily talk about social housing construction in Germany and the awesome energy standards but the regulations and funding are in different stratospheres.  Financing of social housing is also completely different from EU country to EU country so these ideas are not apples to apples.  I hope the points listed above are helpful.  At the least, these are 6 ideas I will come back to when I return to the USA and continue my social housing career.

I spent a month in the Netherlands working with social housing companies.
I spent a month in the Netherlands working with social housing companies.

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