At the very beginning of social housing, with the Peabody Estates in the 1860s, prospective tenants faced imposed requirements that we would now consider to be extraneous to the tenancy: Mandatory smallpox vaccinations; curfews; and cleaning rotas before 10 am for communal areas, sinks and WCs. But even the Victorian paternalists didn’t lower themselves to the patronising, small minded and teeth-grindingly passive-aggressive approach apparently in vogue for 21st century social landlords
Since the Localism Act, there has been a clear tendency for some local authorities to set conditions on access to social housing and retaining it which go into the realm of prescribing behaviour. Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, Wandsworth and Barnet, for example, have or are seeking to introduce allocation policies or tenancy conditions requiring tenants to be in employment or training, not to be earning too much, or too little, to be making a ‘contribution to the community’, or not to allow their visitors to cause a nuisance or commit an offence anywhere in the borough (this last did not work out well for Wandsworth…). Renewal of flexible tenancies can depend on such factors
Now a housing association has got into the act. Yarlington Housing Group, with some 9000 properties in the South West, has introduced a ‘Household Ambition Agreement’ for all prospective new tenants. Yes, anyone taking up a 7 year fixed tenancy with Yarlington will have to sign an agreement to, well, better themselves. The kind of things Yarlington have in mind are
gaining employment, adopting a healthy lifestyle, getting a qualification or contributing to their local community.
A healthy lifestyle? The future of your tenancy relies on your ‘salad and brisk walk’ score? The ’5-a-day’ tenancy condition?
The tenant’s performance against the ambition agreement will apparently be a factor in assessing whether a further tenancy will be granted at the end of the fixed term.
Yarlington understand that not everybody might be keen on the idea of their landlord setting and monitoring their aspirational achievements, so:
If they decide that they do not want to take advantage of this opportunity [sic], they will be advised to bid for homes offered by other housing providers who do not have a similar scheme.
Yes, it is the 5-a-day way or the highway. Yarlington’s executive director, the euphoniously named Phyllida Culpin, expects
everyone entering this with us to do the very best that they are able.
Tenants are to be the very best that they can be! And eat more fruit! This is tenancy management by way of motivational poster come passive aggressive post it note stuck to the fridge.
It does not appear to have occurred to Yarlington that some prospective tenants might not need or want to have ambitions or aspirations beyond what they already have. All must aspire, regardless. It might well be that some tenants might have ambitions and aspirations that Yarlington don’t think should count. Who gets to determine the terms of the agreement? I suspect we can guess the answer.
It also doesn’t appear to have occurred to Yarlington that, well, stuff happens. People suffer life crises, relationship breakdown, major health issues and all the other vicissitudes of human existence. Does the Ambition Agreement review come with an extenuating circumstances box?
Yarlington have not committed the error of including the ambition agreement in the terms and conditions of tenancy. As Wandsworth found out, such extraneous terms, not directly bearing on the occupation of the property, are likely to be unenforceable, as per RMR Housing v Combs  1 K.B. 486
However, if Yarlington’s assessment of the tenant’s progress against their ambition agreement is indeed a factor in deciding whether to grant a further tenancy at the end of the 7 years, this thing is serious. Yarlington’s policy and management of the project may well be open to challenge, potentially under public law (if Weaver v L&Q applies) or possibly via Article 8. In addition, it is not hard to imagine circumstances in which Equality Act 2010 and Article 14 may come into play.
Exactly how much of a factor in the decision to offer a further tenancy would living up to your aspirations be? How measured? What is the mechanism for comparison with others on a scale of performance? What specific grades would result in what specific effect on the tenancy review?
What if the tenant disagrees with Yarlington’s assessment of their performance? Is there a review process? Would Yarlington be under an obligation to provide reasons for its findings on the tenant’s performance?
If you haven’t been the best you can be, but have been quite good at it, on the whole and by and large, would you lose out to someone who has definitely been the best they can be, or possibly better? Is this a perverse incentive to under aspire in the first place, so the targets are easier?
Support for tenants to develop, to learn skills and to aid them in management of their household, is undoubtedly a good thing. However, codifying ‘improving your tenants’ into a passive-aggressive housing management scheme, with a very real penalty for the tenant, is unworkable, probably unfair and, I suspect, open to challenge unless very, very carefully thought through.
[Update 3 May 2013. I have had a discussion with someone from Yarlington on twitter. The discussion can be found here. They were very pleasant, but I'm not sure what light if any it generated.]