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Feature: The modern role of BME housing associations

Thumbing through the newsletters provided by England’s array of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) housing associations is like embarking on a whirlwind tour through the world’s most unique cultures. Resplendent with vibrant colours, the publications leap at the reader, full of inspirational stories of people – migrants and their descendents – who now call England their home.

Born in the late 1970s and early 80s out of a need to counter discrimination against immigrants – signs of “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” were commonplace in towns and cities across the country only 20 years earlier – today’s BMEs represent the whole spectrum: from Jewish Orthodox to Kurdish, afro-Caribbean to Pakistani. BME HAs are now recognised as an irreplaceable part of a diverse and tolerant England.

However, now the challenge for BMEs is finding their role in 21st century Britain as rising numbers of mainstream housing associations are responding to the needs of their diverse tenants. Accordingly, many have tweaked their services and are representing their minority tenants admirably, but BMEs can no longer claim to exclusively offer culturally-sensitive services.

Clare Winstanley, the eloquent chief executive of Innisfree, believes they still have a prominent role to play. Originally created to care for an Irish diaspora that felt ostracised from British society, Innisfree, like many other BMEs, now caters for the wider or non-BME community.

Inspired by William Yeats’ evocative poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, a tale of a man yearning for peace and tranquillity, the London-based association is still unwaveringly proud of its origins and its value-driven focus on housing and care for tenants – with acclaim appearing from unlikely quarters.

Two years ago Clare noticed that a tenant’s survey filled out by a Somali family indicated it was “very important” that Innisfree was an Irish organisation, so she sent her housing director to discover why. “They said that because we understood the importance of identity we were more likely to respect other people’s.”

“The majority of staff and board members are Irish or of Irish descent,” she adds. “There’s an unspoken understanding between people, a shared culture and history. The sense of community and identity – it’s a particular issue with older and vulnerable client groups.”

Des is a tenant with Innisfree, a BME housing association with Irish roots.

Clare cites the example of Clochar Court in the London borough of Brent, an “incredibly happy place” that houses older and elderly Irish tenants. She believes it would be different if the staff and most of the tenants weren’t Irish. “Memory becomes very important when you’re older,” she says. “It therefore becomes important to be with people for whom those memories are relevant.”

Des, 63, is a Clochar Court resident from Dublin. Made redundant in 1986, he travelled to London the following year where he juggled bartending and labouring to earn a living. For nearly 18 years Des lived in a flat in Wembley, north-west London, until his landlord suddenly decided to sell.

He hadn’t the money for a deposit or enough points to qualify for council housing and found himself homeless. Following nine months in an emergency hostel, he was referred by the Brent Irish Advisory Service (BIAS) to Innisfree. “When I turned 60, purely by luck, a flat came available,” he says. “I’ve been quite happy here ever since.”

“It’s not everything, but it’s nice,” he says, responding to whether being housed by an Irish organisation was important. “It makes a huge difference to some who find it more difficult. As people get older and a bit more vulnerable they appreciate the closeness of their community,” he adds. “There’s a lot said about integration, but how’s a 70-year-old woman going to integrate?”

Integration with the local community and British society is a key issue for BMEs and a topic that regularly develops into a contentious public debate. As Steve Hodson, Oldham-based Aksa HA’s director of operations, saw in Oldham during the 2001 race riots, emotions can boil over spectacularly – in this case, partly due to misunderstandings over the regeneration of areas inhabited mainly by Asian families.

A burnt-out car in the wake of the Oldham race riots.

Aksa was praised by the consequent Ritchie report, a major race-relations review commissioned by the government following the troubles, and they regularly meet with Oldham borough council on how to promote integration: a product of recent consultations is a new school merging a predominantly Asian school with a predominantly white school.

“We make sure that we don’t simply build in areas that are, at the moment, exclusively Pakistani or white British. We’re keen to provide homes on the periphery of those areas,” Steve says. “We also have joint events with our tenants like our Christmas event where we bring 150 tenants together and celebrate Eid and Christmas. Some of our non-Muslim customers, for the first time, understand and appreciate what Eid is about and vice-versa.”

Kaye, 32, was the victim of an abusive relationship with her ex-partner while also battling alcoholism. A mother of two, she was struggling to find a way out of her situation until she was introduced to Adele Stretch, an Aksa housing support officer, two years ago.

Kaye stands beside one of her paintings. She one day hopes to practice art therapy for children. Photo: Sean Hansford, Oldham Advertiser

“Adele’s support was massive,” Kaye says. “It’s not just about housing. I wouldn’t have been able to go through all this on my own. With Aksa there was no judgement; a lot of compassion, understanding and genuineness.”

Kaye took her mother to a Bollywood event organised by Aksa at a time when their relationship was severely strained. “It was a great experience because I saw the other cultural side of things. We were made to feel very welcome,” she says. “There was also a discussion about the estates and what people wanted to change.

A key issue to integrating ethnic minorities into British society is communication, a problem which housing associations have been attempting to combat by holding English classes. Encouraging participation is not so straightforward, as Bashir Uddin, chief executive of London’s Bangla housing association, explains.

“Our staff speak Bengali, Hindi, Urdu,” he says. “They’re bilingual and that helps build a relationship of trust, especially with the women, who tend to be more reserved.” Women like Nasima, a 32-year-old mother of three who followed her husband from Bangladesh in 1998. For the first six years Nasima was mostly at home looking after her children. She rarely ventured out alone, embarrassed by her poor English language skills.

“I felt very lonely because I couldn’t speak. I had no friends,” she says in English. Nasima then met a member from Bangla and received help and guidance, even though she wasn’t a tenant. “They could explain things in Bengali I did not understand.”

Bangla HA's female tenants attending English language classes.

Bangla organised female-only English classes for Asian women as many families don’t allow them to attend mixed classes. “I slowly built up my understanding of English and now I’m studying childcare in college.” Nasima hopes to get a job at a local nursery, a clear demonstration of empowerment that, according to Bashir, emphasizes the value of local, culturally-aware organisations.

“There are lots of things that our colleagues in the mainstream probably wouldn’t understand,” he says. “Like taking your shoes off when walking into an Asian, particularly Muslim, household. The women also tend to retire, go to another room. It’s just the custom: that’s the way they behave, how they’re brought up and you have to acknowledge that.”

Many in the BME HA community see themselves as the crucial, trustworthy link between migrants and their local communities and they continue to work tirelessly in promoting social cohesion. However, their raison d’etre is driven by goals that, if met, would cancel the need for their autonomous existence. It’s a paradox that’s not lost on Ed Duguid, chief executive of Manchester’s Tung Sing, a BME formed 25 years ago to address the needs of an ageing Chinese community.

“What we’ve tried to effect is the attitude of the mainstream housing organisations towards integration and towards equality,” he says. “But in another generation you won’t have BME HAs any longer – they’ll disappear as a brand. Gradually you’ll get a complete overlap; bigger associations that remain culturally sensitive and very aware of how to deal with people appropriately – which applies to customers in any business. But it won’t happen yet.”

Ed believes that BMEs still have plenty issues to address. “Discrimination and prejudice remain and as long as people come to us because they feel we can deal with their cultural issues and be more sensitive, then there’s still a job for us to do.”

Robert Szmigielski

This article is reproduced courtesy of 24Housing magazine.

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