Published on January 3rd, 2018 | by John OMeara3
PIECES OF THE HOUSING JIGSAW
In pre-Christmas despondency about local frustrations with environmental and housing issues, I was looking around for a glimmer of light. I remembered previous good experiences in Lozells of the support work and training provided by Ashley Community Housing, so I went to see them at their offices on Cape Hill: modest, practical, a bit cramped, a world away from Midland Heart’s edifice on Bath Row. I found staff who were down to earth, seemed more concerned about their customers than themselves, and shared a lot of cultural experience and knowledge with their tenants (they are pictured below at a training event – I didn’t meet all of these!). I found an organisation which is a potential partner in the development and application of good standards, at a time when local residents are looking to exert more influence over the ‘fabric’ of their communities.
Recent local debates have frequently seen concerns about concentrations of people in poor quality short-life housing who are perceived as having no stake in the locality, and therefore contributing to environmental and social decline, and an overall feeling of impermanence which undermines the sense of community. Concern, also, about ‘supported housing’ where the support has been missing. Ashley Community Housing is a housing association which caters for refugees from many countries and has 9 hostels in Handsworth. Its values, expertise and mode of operation make it of particular relevance to those debates.
Ashley’s CEO Fuad Mahamed himself arrived as a non-English speaking refugee before putting himself through a range of professional and managerial training which enabled him to establish Ashley Housing in 2008 (initially in Bristol and since 2012 in Handsworth and Edgbaston). He brings to this task his own experience and insight as someone compelled to leave home and risk his life, and therefore knowing the qualities, motivations, traumas, and potential of others who have done the same. His drive is to reduce the human waste occuring at every stage of this process. He wants us to ‘rethink refugee’ in terms of economic and human potential, and to move away from both humanitarian and punitive responses in which the refugee easily gets stuck (click on ‘RethinkingRefugee’ for more background).
Ashley become involved with a refugee once they have been granted leave to stay and then have 28 days to find accommodation and support. Most referrals are by word of mouth: family networks already live in the area and refugees want to be close to them. Contrary to expectation, then, there is a continuity because the individual later moves to permanent accommodation in the local area in order to keep those same networks. As a result of using the care element of Housing Benefit to fund their support workers (as opposed to the 6 month time-limited Supporting People funding) length of stay can be according to individual need and ranges from 6 months to over 4 years. All this works against impermanence, and encourages identification with the local area.
Contracts with residents cover needs for education, training and employment, and Ashley puts a high priority on gaining funding to enable them to work on both basic and higher level skills – some of this at their own education centre near Cape Hill (open to use by the general public as well), and increasingly through direct partnerships with local employers. New residents are coached in routines of waste management, but every hostel is visited at least once a week by a member of the ‘caretaker team’ to ensure that standards are being maintained; a ‘handyman team’ attends to small scale repairs and maintenance. The 4 images below compare ACH hostel frontages (on the left) with those of neighbouring properties (on the right).
As a housing association Ashley is exempt from the planning application process. Nevertheless, it adheres to the National Housing Federation’s ‘Code of Governance’, part of which is about the development of good relationships with the wider community. They consulted with immediate neighbours when each new hostel was established – leased long-term from existing private landlords, and rarely requiring major alteration in order to accommodate the typical 4 or 5 person household; they feel they have continued to benefit from these relationships. They are keen to hear from other neighbours about issues they may have, while taking care not to compromise the rights of their tenants (see contact details below).
As we move in 2018 towards new forms of local governance, and look at how local residents’ desire for more control over what happens in the private rented and supported housing sectors can be realised in a practical way, Ashley Community Housing can be used as a template for good practice: if they can do it, why can’t others? Some others do – Ashley often work in partnership with Spring Housing, for example, because they find they share the same values. Several local private landlords are now demanding recognition for the high standards they also maintain. When Midland Heart were working in a socially engaged way they became the focus for a range of productive partnerships with local groups which brought resources into the area. We need new partnerships now.
We hope to bring you a second installment of this story in which we will look at the experience of someone living in a hostel and progressing into employment.
If you have any comments for Ashley Community Housing you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org And/or you can comment in the box below, under this article on our Facebook page, or by e-mailing us at email@example.com
Handsworth Wood and West Handsworth Ward Forum, a focus for discussion of housing, waste and planning issues.