Industry Leaders
Phoenix Community Housing

Denise Fowler

In the ever-evolving landscape of housing associations, creating an inclusive environment and fostering a sense of belonging is an ongoing journey.

Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, sat down with Denise Fowler, CEO of Phoenix Community Housing, a resident-led housing association in South London, to talk about her personal journey that led her to her current role, her experiences in the housing sector and the key learnings she has acquired throughout her remarkable career.

Luke: Denise, could we kick off with an introduction to yourself and your organisation?

Hi, yes, I'm Denise Fowler, and I'm the Chief Executive of Phoenix Community Housing, which is a resident-led housing association in South London. It's a really unusual and special organisation. We've got about 8,000 homes, all within about 3 miles of our offices. We were created from a large-scale voluntary transfer from London by Lewisham local authority. When Lewisham said they wanted to do a transfer, a group of campaigning tenants in South Lewisham said, "Well, that's fine, but if you're going to transfer us to a housing association, we want to run it." They did some research, attended a TPAS conference, met some people from Preston Community Gateway, and decided to set up their own housing association. We are still a resident-led model. The majority of people on our board are residents. Our chair is a resident, our vice-chair is a resident. We also have four independents with specific skills that we value and two councillors, but it is very much rooted in the community, and it's a lovely place to work.

Luke: That sounds really unique and interesting. What did your journey into your current position look like? How did you end up in the position you're in today?

I was homeless as a very young child. My parents brought me out of the hospital as a newborn baby, with the plan to stay with my dad's parents in their flat in Peckham. However, they were kicked out with a newborn baby and had nowhere to go. For the next six or seven years, we moved between various places, often in appalling conditions. I had a life-changing accident during that time, and we still weren't a priority for housing. This was before the homeless persons legislation.

When I was nearly seven, we finally got a council house, and my life was transformed. Suddenly, we had a lovely place to live with a garden, and I could make friends, go to school, and have a local doctor. Everything became much easier. That home was a springboard for me and my younger brothers, and we've all gone on to have decent careers and good lives, thanks to affordable, good-quality social housing. So housing has always been essential to me.

After leaving university, I worked in the voluntary sector as a welfare rights and housing advisor. Then, I qualified as a lawyer and became a housing lawyer, acting for tenants. I eventually went into government and as a Deputy and then Legal Director  worked with Ministers to develop various laws, including the the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003,  the Housing Act 2004 and the Civil Partnership Act 2005 and advising on housing, regeneration, planning and commercial law 

I later became the Housing Ombudsman for two and a half years. This provided me with a great insight into what was working and what wasn't so good in the sector. I became the CEO of Women's Pioneer, a women's housing association in London, before finally coming to Phoenix as CEO in February 2022. Phoenix has homes very similar to that first council house I lived in, with a real sense of community, quality housing, green spaces, and opportunities to shape and support a thriving community. It's also my local community, and I live just around the corner.

Luke: What are one or two of the main learnings you took from that experience that other leaders across the sector may find useful?

I think a lot of my experience is really helpful in understanding the importance of good governance and regulation I am excited about the new consumer standards that are coming through. The importance of transparency, accountability to tenants, and involving tenants in decision-making. Associations that involve residents in decision-making, rather than just paying lip service, really understand where services are going wrong. They incorporate residents' feedback and work with them to make improvements. At Phoenix, when we don't get things right, we work with residents to figure out what needs to change to make it better. This includes a thorough review of our complaint handling process.

For example, we worked with our twelve most dissatisfied customers in the complaint service last year, conducting customer journey mapping. This process was done with both staff and residents separately and then together. It highlighted the importance of a single point of contact and good communication at every stage, explaining reasons when issues can't be resolved easily, and engaging with residents on their complaints.

Luke: Adjacent to that, one of the themes we discuss is how to establish a sense of inclusion and belonging across an entire organisation. What would you say are the most important things to get right when embedding such a culture?

I don't have all the answers, and it's something we work on every day. But as a CEO, you need to have a clear vision that you've developed with the board and agreed upon. This vision needs to be understood by everyone in the organisation so they have a shared sense of purpose. When people know they are working towards a common goal, they understand why they are doing things. The "why" is crucial.

At Phoenix, we have the concept of "one team" that extends beyond just the staff. Breaking down barriers between different teams and levels of the organisation is essential. It also extends to breaking down barriers with residents and partners we collaborate with. We encourage everyone to work together to help our community thrive.

Luke: What steps can organisations take to support learning and development in the context of inclusion and belonging?

Visibility is essential. Staff should feel that they can be themselves at work, talk about their lives, and understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to being a good member of staff at Phoenix. We use strength-based interviewing to emphasise diversity of thought and experience.

Representation on interview panels matters. We ensure that interview panels are diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability. Induction programs are designed to incorporate the importance of diversity and inclusion.

Regular equality, diversity, and inclusion training is provided to staff, with sessions held across the organisation. It's essential to provide a safe space for staff to have open and sometimes challenging conversations.

Diversity events should go beyond just surface-level activities. It's crucial to have honest and sometimes uncomfortable discussions about the issues and experiences that staff and residents face. These events need to address the why and explore the challenges people have overcome.

Luke: What's the most important piece of advice you've received in your career, and why do you find it valuable?

There are two pieces of advice that have stuck with me. First, it's essential to be yourself, and if you don't fit somewhere, find a place where you do. Struggling to fit in can be counterproductive, even if you love the job. I loved working in the civil service, but I felt like a fish out of water. The culture didn't align with my background, and it wasn't as inclusive as it could have been. The experience taught me the importance of being in an environment where you can truly be yourself.

The second piece of advice for any leader is to watch who's actually making a difference.. Look beyond those who are effective at self-promotion and shine their light upwards. Pay attention to the frontline services and the people that others in the organisation rely on for support. Leadership is about enabling others to thrive and make an impact, not just about your own personal achievements.

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Luke James
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