Alexandra Haggarty: Creating safe havens for domestic violence survivors

Alexandra Haggarty doesn’t just help change lives, she potentially helps save them.

Over the past nine years, the First National Real Estate Maitland managing director has helped more than 200 domestic violence survivors, and their families, transition to safer housing.

Combating domestic violence through housing solutions

The agency works in partnership with Carrie’s Place, a local domestic violence and homelessness service, to identify and swiftly re-home clients likely to succeed in the private rental market.

Ms Haggarty said even though the stigma associated with domestic violence is far less than it was nine years ago, it still exists and can make it difficult for survivors to find private rental accommodation.

“While there’s no reason, in theory, that these clients we work with would not be successful in the rental market, they can find it challenging getting access to them (properties) because of their history of leaving violence,” she says.

“The leading reason women go back to violent perpetrators is homelessness, and it’s Australia’s leading cause of homelessness for both women and children,” Alexandra says.

“So we recognised that our industry is part of the problem, and we’re working with service providers so that we can work towards being a part of the solution as well.”

A prestigious award for social impact

It’s being a part of that solution that recently saw Alexandra awarded the Real Estate Institute of New South Wales (REINSW) Woodrow Weight Award.

The award, named after former REINSW President Woodrow Weight, recognises transformative contributions to real estate and community betterment.

Alexandra says when REINSW President Peter Matthews called to tell her the news, she was shocked, initially thinking she’d been asked to be a part of the judging panel, rather than being awarded the honour.

“This award is so important to me because it’s providing opportunities to spread the word on what we’re doing,” she says.

Since the program started nine years ago, Alexandra says it has been incredibly positive, with every tenancy working out successfully.

“We haven’t had any unsuccessful tenancies,” she notes.

“We’ve had tenancies that have ended, we’ve had tenancies that have moved on, and we’ve had tenancies that are still there years down the track.”

Building trust between landlords and tenants

Alexandra notes that some landlords have expressed concerns their properties could be damaged if a perpetrator went to their properties, but that hasn’t happened.

She says her well-trained team liaises closely with landlords and fully discloses what the program is all about, as well as explaining all of the checks and balances that are in place to protect their investment, including Carrie’s Place providing a caseworker for the duration of the tenancy.

In one recent case, a tenant fell behind on their rent when their father, who they were sharing a home with, became terminally ill and could no longer work.

Alexandra spoke with the caseworker, who accessed emergency funding and Centrelink support to meet the rent, while she found the client a cheaper property.

“The program that we have means full disclosure to the owners and … 95 per cent of them say yes,” she says.

Another part of the program is helping the clients in the rental application process, which can often be confusing or pose challenges.

“When you also factor in things like victims having suffered financial abuse and coercive control, we often find clients don’t have access to rental references or bank statements and things like that, which can make some parts of an application difficult to submit,” Alexandra says.

“That’s where we work with Carrie’s Place, and any products and services that the government or other charities have available, they get applied for and approved for those.

“My staff are trained to know what those products and services mean for the client so we can explain it to our landlords as part of the application process.”

Having a secure place to live means the survivors are not only safe from violence, but have a much better chance of re-establishing their children in school and securing a job.

“I’d like to think that there’s maybe 200 extra families out there that haven’t returned to violence,” Alexandra says.

Empowering property managers for real-world challenges

But Alexandra also notes the program’s success was only possible with the support of the First National network.

She says training at a national, state and local level is outstanding, and property managers and their ability to implement change were widely recognised throughout the network.

While some in the industry may still view property managers as the poorer cousin compared with sales agents, at First National, they are highly trained professionals in their own right.

“Last year, when the CEO, Ray Ellis, announced that we were going to start referring to property managers as Investor Relations Managers, he spoke about the value of the property that our property managers manage across the country and each state,” Alexandra recalls.

“It was nice to have that recognition at that level of the work our teams do.”

Tailoring training and building industry friendships

Alexandra says this extends further with Investor Relations-specific awards in the network’s General Excellence and Marketing Awards system and a dedicated Investor Relations training budget.

First National has also gone from holding annual property management conferences at a national level to two Investor Relations Days in each state and territory each year.

Alexandra says each day provides targeted, useful training tailored to each state’s legislation that assists investor relations managers in real-life situations.

“That includes things like domestic violence empathy training, as well as self-defence training for our teams,” she says.

“At the most recent IR Day, Chris Helder did work with Useful Belief and Colour, Julie Collins did Property Management Strategies: Start with the End in Mind, Fiona Blayney did the Opening of the Mental Filing Cabinet, and Felicity Vance did Dealing with Tenants Who Were Victims of Domestic Violence and Empathy Training.

“Kylie Davis spoke about the RISE initiative, and Honan Insurance came in and gave us an update on the latest property management, public liability claims and what to look out for in properties.

“It’s not just the IR days though, it’s the additional training, it’s the recognition at awards nights, and it’s the award pathway for property management staff that’s very similar to the sales staff.

“They have the opportunity to get their own recognition.”

Recognition and the power of networking

Alexandra says another wonderful result from the IR Days was the camaraderie built with other investor relations managers from other First National offices.

“It’s more than just someone you’ve met at a conference,” she notes.

“They become genuine friendships, and you see each other outside industry-related events and spend time together.

“Having that genuine relationship with somebody in the industry means you can pick up the phone whenever you’re having an issue and get support.”

The First National network has also supported Alexandra in creating opportunities for her to address the investor relations managers through their annual conventions and other property management professional development events.

She says the benefits of those opportunities are two-fold.

“I get to give back to the network that has provided so much to me,” Alexandra notes.

“We bleed blue here, is what we say. We love our network so much.

“And it gives me an opportunity to shine a light and spread the word about what we’re doing with our domestic violence program.

“We’ve been doing this for nine years now, and our goal is to extend it and see it copied and rolled out across Australia.”

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Kylie Dulhunty

Kylie Dulhunty is the Editor at Elite Agent.

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