Alex Taljaard of Sovereign's Youth Panel

We don’t just need TikTok, we need real power to make change happen

First published by HQN  

Alex Taljaard, 24 is a member of Sovereign’s Youth Housing Panel. He’s used the last year to broaden his housing knowledge, and to understand how others of his age feel about their prospects for home ownership among other topics. As an Urban Planning student, he’s also keen to see sustainability built into the future of social housing.

“I’ve lived in a Sovereign home for a year and a half, with my partner who has a shared ownership property with Sovereign. It’s my first time not living at home, other than at university.

I am 24 years old, currently studying an MSc in Urban Planning. I previously studied political and social policy, with a focus on housing and I joined the panel largely because I already had an interest in housing policy. As I was about to start my next uni course it felt like a good way to make some connections and gain some experience. I was keen to have a direct say in policy, to gain experience in the sector, and to work on projects which I think could be beneficial to Sovereign residents.

To be honest, before I joined I was concerned that the panel would be tokenistic, rather than genuinely delegating decision-making power to young residents, but I’m happy to have been proven wrong. From the outset it was made clear to us that the Panel experience was ours to shape and that we would be directly put in touch with Sovereign’s decision-makers, should it be necessary to progress our ideas. From environmental concerns, to addressing loneliness in the community it’s been a fascinating experience hearing what matters to others of my age, and how that connects with the world of social housing.

Personally, I think that generally there is an underlying lack of trust between landlords, social or otherwise, and young people. My own personal experience at university was actually relatively good, but even so I found myself in fuel poverty over the winter months, making the ‘heat or eat’ choice. Almost everyone I knew had a horror story about their landlord, and this pushed me to focus on this relationship for my undergrad dissertation.

I found that young people felt unable to communicate truthfully with their landlords for fear of retributive action, or because they lacked the knowledge to properly communicate what they needed. Obviously I am aware that there are problem tenants as well as problem landlords, but the power dynamic specifically when it comes to young people is so skewed towards landlords that I really think those in the housing sector and in housing policy need to focus on bridging that trust gap.

Things like the youth panel help to do this by giving actual power to tenants. Too often young tenants’ demands are met with placation rather than actual delegation and partnership. Something which I find particularly egregious is when housing providers talk down to young tenants, or think that the only way to get through to us is a flashy social media campaign or making corporate TikToks. In my experience, younger tenants want the same thing as most tenants; to have their needs taken seriously, to be listened to, and to be treated with respect.

I think we’re in a really interesting moment in housing and development, because the housing need is now so acute that people are beginning to explore interesting and innovative alternatives to the standard developer response to need. Self-build, community housing and community-land trusts are really exciting examples of this kind of thinking, and I think housing associations have a part to play in shifting the housing development sector away from the financial viability focused model which has been so ubiquitous in the UK and towards a more resident-centred system.

Personally, I do not have any faith that the government will meet housing need in an effective or meaningful way, and so in my opinion, third and fourth sector organisations need to start pioneering more resident-controlled development. I think it’s important though, that increases in resident control don’t mean that we just end up with governance bodies populated entirely with retirees, and instead organisations seek to engage with residents of all ages.

Having my views taken seriously, considering the options available to me and the resources that organisations like Sovereign have available to really influence the things that matter to me, are all reasons why joining the Youth Panel have been hugely worthwhile. I think it’s never too early to start engaging with housing, asking critical questions about what we build, why we build it the way we do, and how those communities will develop in the future.