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Feature: Lara Oyedele profile, Inside Housing

There are stirrings of a revival in the black and minority ethnic housing movement. As black history month draws to a close, Lara Oyedele, effervescent chair of fledgling umbrella body BMENational, talks in-depth for the first time about moving on from a troubled past. Caroline Thorpe met her.

‘I want to talk about shoes and handbags and going to the cinema, not playing golf and which football team won,’ says Lara Oyedele. Cropped cornrows bob. Hands gesticulate. Energised exasperation fills the air.

Ms Oyedele is busy explaining why four-and-a-half years ago she traded a senior role at megabucks private housing provider Pinnacle for this: the teensy weensy offices of Odu-Dua Housing Association – five rooms in a converted north west London terraced house staffed by as many people (herself, the chief executive, included).

She says that the four years she spent at Pinnacle, where she took various UK postings and finished up as contracts director, probably taught her more than any other period of a career that has seen her rise from the ‘assistant to the assistant to the assistant’ in Bradford Council’s housing department, to the chief executive’s chair she occupies today. (This via jobs as a housing officer, tenant participation officer and housing services manager for mainstream social landlords along the way). But she quit anyway, fed up of trying to fit in with predominantly white, male colleagues with whom she felt she shared nothing in common.

‘I used to follow my boss’s football team and check how they were doing over the weekend and then drop it into conversation. And I was thinking, “you know I really don’t care”,’ Ms Oyedele says, releasing a tumble of giggles at the memory. ‘You have to relate to people.’

Joining black and minority ethnic landlord Odu-Dua in 2006 brought ‘relief’, she says. ‘I can be me. Just completely, honestly be relaxed about being Lara and do whatever I want with my hair and not worry about what Liverpool did at the weekend.’

Voice of the sector

In fact the move has done far more than set Ms Oyedele at ease and deprive the mainstream housing sector of what a few moments in her company make clear is a vivacious talent. It has catapulted the native Londoner to the position of advocate-in-chief for the country’s BME housing sector. In June 2009 she became inaugural chair of BMENational, the housing lobby group established to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Federation of Black Housing Organisations in 2008.

BMENational chair, Lara Oyedele. Photo: Jon Enoch

The body’s demise – the result of insolvency forced upon it by dwindling membership – appeared at the time to symbolise a deeper malaise slowly bringing the nation’s BME housing sector to its knees. It followed a series of high-profile scandals, including the implosions of flagship BME-landlords Ujima and Presentation, coupled with the gradual erosion of BME landlords as larger, mainstream providers took over almost half the organisations that existed around the turn of the millennium. Some began to question the need for specialist BME landlords in the first place.

‘It felt like there was this whirlpool,’ recalls Ms Oyedele. ‘I was [working] here at the time and it all felt like everything’s going wrong and we’re all going to go into this whirlpool and all disappear or get flattened and not ever speak again. It was a very disheartening time.’

It’s not a place to which she – nor the National Housing Federation, which helped establish and bankrolls BMENational to the tune of £1,000 a year – wishes to return. Together, in the 16 months BMENational has been going, they appear to have brought BME landlords back from the brink. The body boasts around 75 members, 15 more than FHBO when it folded, but still shy of the 110 of its late 1990s heyday.

Clearly there’s further to go. As the declared mouthpiece for their collective voice, BMENational aims not only to halt their decline, but to help them flourish once again. As black history month draws to a close, it seems timely to ask: can Ms Oyedele deliver?

Characteristically of a woman others say ‘takes things on her shoulders’, she herself is convinced that she must. To the naysayers questioning the relevance of a BME sector she has this to say: ‘My argument has always been that as long as groups such as prisoners, people with mental health issues, people living in poverty, people with low educational attainment are dominated by BME communities, then there’s a question.’

Doubters need look no further than the Equality and Human Rights Commission study on fairness, which earlier this month revealed that question certainly remains pertinent to the British population. It reported that more than half of Pakistani and Bangladeshi adults live in poverty, less than 10 per cent of black students attend the UK’s top universities compared with a quarter of their white peers; and black people in their early-20s are twice as likely to be out of work, training or education than white people of their generation.

‘As long as those inequalities are evident, then there’s a need for groups to be set up to support those disadvantaged groups,’ argues Ms Oyedele. Three quarters of Odu-Dua’s 181 households are black African Caribbean. Ms Oyedele calls the remainder a ‘fabulous mix’ including Chinese, Iraqi, Irish and Turkish households. The landlord attempts to help rebalance inequalities, despite its inconsiderable resources.

Though it turns over just £899,130 a year and you can count its staff on one hand, Odu-Dua has found ways to support its struggling local communities. For example, it pays for seven staff to provide admin assistance to local community groups. ‘In the housing world we’re minute,’ acknowledges Ms Oyedele. ‘But if you’re working in the local Bangladeshi Women’s Group or West Hampstead Women’s Aid, or the Kurdish Young People’s Group, they look at me and think “wow, you’re this great big housing association with all this money and all this property”.’

With government cuts set to hammer the poorest hardest, it’s difficult to argue against the need for BMENational to exist and provide a strong national voice for some of the most vulnerable among that group. Ms Oyedele needs no persuading. After all, here is a woman who, homeless at 19 after a private landlord illegally turfed her out, recalls the moment she received the keys to her first council flat, in Bradford, with much pleasure. ‘It was fantastic,’ she glows.

Lara with Inside Housing's Caroline Thorpe. Photo: Jon Enoch.

Seeking equilibrium

BME organisations are as crucial as they’ve ever been, she says. ‘We’re heading into a society where the underprivileged, the minority, are going to get even more underprivileged. Think about cuts to public spending, the people who are most likely to use public sector services are minority groups.’ She warns that equality in Britain is ‘going backwards’.

But this isn’t the only reason why Ms Oyedele believes in reviving and championing BME landlords. She says that BMENational exists to support and encourage a second, equally important group: BME housing staff.

‘Towards the end of my stay at Pinnacle my eyes began to open,’ she says, voice tightening, forehead furrowing. ‘I realised there weren’t a lot of non-white people around me at work. I started to ask myself, “I wonder why that is, what’s happening?. Where are all these people that I started with as housing officers and housing assistants?”.’

The woman now spearheading BME housing in Britain began to investigate. ‘That’s when I discovered there actually is a BME sector, and how come I’ve never heard of it? I didn’t know one existed. I’d heard rumours in the past about this organisation called FBHO, and so I thought OK. I started exploring the options.’

That exploration led her to the top jobs at Odu-Dua and then BMENational, determined to raise the profile of BME housing staff, their work and the opportunities available to them. It’s yet another indication of the sorry state BME housing had reached that Ms Oyedele was the only taker for the chair of London BME Directors, the body which effectively morphed into BME National. ‘There was no competition. It was like, “oh Lara, you’re new, you can have it”.’

Powerful personality

This process, significantly more lackadaisical than it is confidence instilling, hardly does Ms Oyedele’s credibility any favours. Should we be worried? Not according to Bill Payne, chief executive of Metropolitan Housing Partnership which is currently discussing stock rationalisation with Odu-Dua. ‘Lara is a good leader and an intelligent leader,’ he says. ‘She’s a woman of action and because of her [charismatic] personality she holds her own.’

Photo: Jon Enoch

So what has she achieved for BMENational so far? ‘Notoriety?’ comes the first, wide-eyed answer. Then, ‘I think I’ve actually energised and – am I putting too much value on my own contribution if I say motivated my colleagues? Also I think I’ve presented us as rather a more professional bunch of people than before.’

Specifically she’s tried to ensure that everyone leaves one of BMENational’s quarterly meetings having learnt something. At the latest event, held last week, EHRC report contributor Anna Henry came to talk about fairness in Britain. Other sessions have involved media training to counteract a tendency for BME organisations to make headlines only ‘when something goes wrong – there’s a murder or somebody runs off with all the money’. ‘We don’t send off the [positive] press releases, we don’t send the photographs to you guys. So of course you [journalists] are only sniffing around for bad news,’ says Ms Oyedele.

Her next goal is to get Westminster’s attention. She’s yet to meet housing minister Grant Shapps, but she plans to scold him for railing against chief executive pay in his speech to the NHF conference last month. ‘You say, “OK, no one can earn over x”. Then what? Is that going to solve the housing crisis? Is that going to solve the benefits crisis? No. It’s populist propaganda,’ reckons the woman whose organisation’s entire wage bill totals just £156,000.

‘I am planning to have a word with him, so he should be shaking in his boots,’ she adds.

And we’re back again to footwear and a discussion of the striking brown stilettos Ms Oyedele’s wearing today (deceptively comfy, apparently). But not before she dispatches a parting shot: ‘If we get to the stage where the housing issues of BME tenants are all sorted, and there are about 20 chief executives of the mainstream housing associations that are black, male, female, Asian, Chinese whatever then maybe we won’t need a BME sector,’ she considers. ‘But as long as we are grossly underrepresented – then there’s a need.’

Caroline Thorpe

This article was reproduced courtesy of Inside Housing.

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