Using Discretion When Working With Social Housing Tenants

In an article published in Parity (Vol. 35), Unison Housing Research Lab's Abigail Lewis discusses findings from her research which investigated how social workers in the housing and homelessness sectors use discretion and the impact on the people they work with, especially in the context of eviction.

Below is an extract of the article:


Social workers employed on the frontline of the housing and homelessness sectors commonly need to work with limited time and resources, and are faced with human situations that defy programmatic responses. Accordingly, they are required to respond to challenging situations with discretion, managing each case in the way they believe is most appropriate for that individual, and managing their caseloads in a way that allows them to retain a sense of job satisfaction and personal fulfilment.

Social workers use their discretion to allocate services and dispense resources among different households at varying risks of homelessness. From initial assessment and planning to placement in housing, from supporting struggling tenancies to taking action against tenancy breaches, social workers are involved in decision‑making processes that require them to balance their responsibility to prevent homelessness against their personal assessments of how limited assets should be distributed.

This article will present some preliminary findings of a doctoral study that investigated how workers at a large social housing provider in Victoria experienced the process of evicting (and not evicting) their tenants. The study conducted semi‑structured, in‑depth interviews with 14 housing workers (11 frontline staff and three managers) about their practice of eviction, including the processes they followed, the decisions they made, and the conflicts they navigated.

This paper uses material gathered from the frontline staff, whose experiences of using discretion to moderate housing and homelessness outcomes are highly relevant to social workers in the sector and the profession as a whole.

The workers discussed how and why they use their personal discretion during eviction processes to sustain tenancies and avoid homelessness, or conversely to pursue eviction despite knowing the outcome would be homelessness. They described having a relatively high level of discretion allowing them to interpret the social housing provider’s policies on eviction and make their own decisions to initiate, pursue, pause, and abandon tenancy actions. They placed importance on applying policies consistently but also used discretion to respond to the individual circumstances of each case, including their own interpersonal relationships and opinions. Although the project is early in its analysis stage, four patterns are emerging."


The full article is available here. The article was originally published in Parity, Australia's national homelessness, publication, Volume 35 in March/April 2022. 


About Abigail Lewis

Abigail is a PhD Candidate with Unison Housing Research Lab at RMIT. A policy research and advocacy professional with a focus on social policy, social security, social housing, and social justice, Abigail is also Senior Policy and Advocacy Adviser at VACRO - a specialist criminal justice reintegration service in Victoria.


About the Unison Housing Research Lab

The Unison Housing Research Lab is a unique education and research collaboration between RMIT University and Unison Housing. The Lab was established to develop and implement a collaborative teaching program and undertake innovative policy and practice relevant housing research informed by the experiences of services users and providers.

>> Click here to find out more about the Unison Housing Research Lab and to access other research reports and Think Pieces.


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