Unison Housing … what are you thinking?!

Unison Housing … what are you thinking?!
Simon Harvey

Many will know that our Kensington Community Network (KCN) meets regularly to share news, perspectives and needs in the community. This committee is jointly managed and chaired by Unison’s Deb Wilson and Rebecca Smith from Kensington Neighbourhood House (KNH).

The KCN has a long history. It was originally a community development sub committee, appointed by the Minister for Housing, to function as a steering group for the Kensington Public Housing 10-year redevelopment.

Sometime before our recent KCN meeting, many of us knew that one of our co-chairs, Deb Wilson (Unison Housing community engagement place manager), who works on the Kensington Estate (just east of JJ Holland Park), was retiring from her role after 17 years.

At the meeting, which was Deb’s last day, we got a shock when we heard that Deb did not know if, when, or by whom she was being replaced! How can that be?

Unison Housing itself says, “place managers are at the heart of the delivery of our housing services”.

Importantly, she also had a unique community engagement role. This role, in particular, was critical to the “coal face” work that often dominated Deb’s schedule.

 

Yes, you got it. Unison Housing, which is a very important housing manager working on behalf of the state government, clearly hadn’t planned to appoint a successor for Deb.

 

Make no mistake, over her 17 years she is leaving some big shoes to fill. She was a key person connecting the community with the Kensington Estate. She was a go-to person for residents, particularly for renters on the estate. One would think that a role so critical would be immediately filled, with a hand-over period to help the successor.

Deb had also been the leading light in organising community festivals. In 2019 the Kensington Food Forest, a project set up by Deb and Jacqui Van Heerden from Transition Town Kensington (TTK), received both a Victorian and National Best Practice Community Engagement Award.

Also, more recently, Deb has been a leader in two further significant achievements:

First, a community engagement award from the Kensington Somali Community, and secondly, a super-progressive initiative together with TTK, KNH, the Town Hall Compost Hub, and the Kensington Urban Farm Collective, where she helped secure nearly $150,000 for a circular economy project in Kensington.

Having a community engagement role should be a “feather in the cap” for Unison Housing. Governments are beginning to understand just how critical having someone with community development nous is.

Does Unison understand this? It doesn’t seem they do. I understand that community engagement positions are not thick on the ground in Unison Housing.

Having a further look at Unison Housing’s website, in its value statements a key “value” jumps out at me: “We put the customer at the heart of what we do, we value each other and welcome diversity”.

How can this oversight occur if “the customer is at the heart” of what Unison is doing, and place managers are ‘”at the heart of the delivery”?  The community engagement role was clearly “people” and community wide focused, as opposed to “property” focused.

Unison Housing has an obligation to deal with both. Community engagement and placemaking should clearly be at the “heart” of this. The renters at the Kensington Estate (Unison’s clients), are some of the most vulnerable members of the community; they are juggling their lives amid a housing crisis.

Unison Housing CEO, James King, has responded to our questions saying … “We are currently assessing what is needed for the role/community engagement [Deb’s position] more broadly before we decide on next steps.”

Kensingtonians will be listening and watching. •

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