Giving a voice to the social housing community

So much change has taken place across the social housing industry recently that tenants as well as housing organisations have been left feeling rather bewildered. Cym D’Souza, new chair of BMENational and chief executive of Arawak Walton Housing Association, discusses which way the industry should turn in addressing the needs of residents and communities.

The social housing sector as a whole has reached a pivotal moment in its life with the impact of welfare reform, reductions in social housing grant and criticism of our residents by the media. That’s why, since being elected chair of BMENational in May, our membership agreed to form a partnership with the Human City institute (HCi) to undertake a range of research and to run a media campaign in the run up to next year’s general election.

The research will be extensive and will cover a review of BME housing’s legacy – a “shape of the sector” study. This is a major survey of BME residents and includes consultation with key stakeholders and a collection of human success stories arising from the work of BME housing organisations.

We aim to establish an evidence base around the value of the BME housing industry from a number of perspectives, including residents, communities and stakeholders. The stakeholder survey will provide others who work with us, or who would like to work with us, an opportunity to voice their views about our work. We intend to publish our first report in the autumn.

The research will help us to validate our core areas of work in a changing world and will no doubt help to identify new markets for BME housing organisations, as well as fresh work areas. We hope that more effective partnering might be developed with local authorities and other housing associations as a result. We are also keen to explore which emerging BME communities have unmet needs and those which might need further support. The recent Inside Housing article showed a dip in lettings to BME applicants and this made worrying reading.

We intend to run a full campaign off the back of this work to cement the role of BME housing organisations as big players in social housing and the social enterprise industry. We also want to show that we have a role in creating a more equal society and tackling some negative stereotypes of BME communities often presented in the media, enabling the rise of the Far Right.

BMENational intends to have a bigger say about the future of social housing. After all, collectively, we are one of the largest social landlords in the UK. BMENational is the representative body for more than 60 black and minority ethnic housing organisations managing around 60,000 homes and overseeing billions of pounds of assets across the country.

BME housing organisations are one of the major success stories in the European Union for BME communities controlling their own assets. As chief executive of Arawak Walton, a Manchester-based housing association, I see the beneficial effects for BME communities in having an influential, neighbourhood housing partner.

This local connectivity is becoming increasingly important as reduction of local council services gathers pace and some larger social landlords retreat to call centre management, exiting inner-city deprived areas where many BME communities live.

Our deep roots, long-standing support for diverse communities, deployment of our collective assets within the local community and our dedicated service delivery, are what we have to offer community-based housing.

To read the comments, please visit CIH website.


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BMENational meeting agenda, Thursday 31 July

Meeting Agenda


Meeting:     BMENational

Date:           Thursday, 31st July 2014

Time:           11.30 am 4.30pm

Venue:          Lion Court, NHF Head Office, London


11.30                          Tea and coffee available

11.45                          Introductions & Apologies

12.00                          Minutes of the last meeting held 8th May 2014

12.05                          1. Matters arising and standing items

a) Migrant Workers website

b) Marketing and PR – on hold, pending outcome of research

c) Subscriptions 13/14 & 14/15 – payments received – update

12.15                          2. JRF Housing and Poverty Project                         Kathleen Kelly

- Project plans
– Progress to date
– Implications for BME HA’s and their tenants.

1.15                            Lunch

2.00                            3. Good Practice session                                               Mushtaq Khan

- Addressing poverty and worklessness in Oldham

3.00                            4. Language Gym                                               Berhanu Kassayie

- developing language skills for                             Vaughan Jones
non English speakers

3.45                            5. HCI research project – update                                             Chair

- BME Housing Organisations in the UK: ‘Deep Roots, Diverse
Communities, Dedicated Service’

4.00                            6. Any other business

i) Tracey Gore, Steve Biko, has offered to co-ordinate responses to

and the Labour Party’s policy review “Realising one nation –
developing a new race equality strategy for Labour

ii) Drop in BME Allocations – BMEN formal response?

Date of Next Meeting

23 October 2014 (Conference)

2015 dates to be set

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Speaking up for black and ethnic communities


As Cym D’Souza takes the helm after a turbulent time for BME National, she tells Martin Hilditch how she plans to speak up for black and ethnic communities

Cym D’Souza sounds as though she is still reeling from her sudden elevation to the role of chair of BME National.’It’s a bit of a shock situation,’ she says by way of introduction. ‘Here I am.’

Ms D’Souza took the helm in May, following a period of turbulence for the organisation, which represents black and minority ethnic (BME) housing organisations in the UK. Its previous high-profile chair, Lara Oyedele, stepped down after a dispute with the board of her housing association, Odu-Dua.

Ms Oyedele, Odu-Dua’s chief executive, was suspended in October 2013 for allegedly recruiting new board members without the knowledge of the board. Following a disciplinary hearing on 27 January, she was dismissed in February for gross misconduct.

If the reason for the vacancy was a surprise, the fact that Ms D’Souza landed the role should not be. As chief executive of Arawak Walton, a 950-home association based in the north west, she has been a well-respected figure in the BME housing movement for years and was already on BME National’s executive.

Agenda setting
With an approachable, chatty style and a clear sense of purpose, Ms D’Souza appears to be a natural choice. She’s certainly throwing herself into the job.

She fits the interview into her busy schedule – we meet in the offices of housing association Nehemiah UCHA, on the outskirts of Birmingham, rather than her own office, before she has a meeting with its chief executive, Llewellyn Graham.

So is BME National likely to change much under Ms D’Souza, what are her plans for the future, and what does she make of the controversy that led to her landing the job? Ms D’Souza says her initial plan of action is to ‘put ourselves back on the map in a positive way’.

‘BME National has had – let’s face it – a bit of a bad press over the last six months or so. We just need to get back on track in terms of being clear that we’ve got a great deal to offer movers and shakers in housing.’

She doesn’t feel that the circumstances that led to Ms Oyedele’s departure have been damaging, however. In fact she believes BME National should exploit the attention.

‘It has meant that people have been asking about BME National and what it’s been doing, and what’s going on – maybe for the wrong reasons, but at least it means they’re interested. We can use that as a platform, actually, to say: “Hey, here we are still and we’re going to be stronger.”’

She’s diplomatic, but doesn’t shy away from the question when asked about BME National’s relationship with Odu-Dua and its former chair. The housing association is still a key member of BME National, she states, managing its website, for example.

‘I think people have a lot of respect for Lara [Oyedele] and a lot of respect for what Odu-Dua does. At the end of the day, people will come to their own conclusions because I have no idea what was going on in that organisation. That’s their business really.’

That’s the past put firmly to bed, then. And, if Ms D’Souza came into her current role thanks to a quirk of fate, it will not be the first time. A chartered accountant, she landed her initial job in the housing sector – as financial director of Collingwood Housing Association in Stockport – back in 1987, after being made redundant from textiles manufacturer Carrington Viyella.

‘I had just had my son and I needed a safe port of call,’ she says. She was quickly hooked, though.

‘You get swept up in that ethos of wanting to do good,’ she states. ‘It sounds a bit trite, but the first time I went round, doing the scheme visits on my induction, you meet the people and hear some of the stories and I suddenly thought: “You know what, actually, this is something that has values.”

‘When you’re an accountant, it’s all about figures. I had to get my head round the not-for-profit stuff.’ After leaving Collingwood in 1991 she became a housing consultant and later spent a further 18 months at Harvest Housing Association before moving in 1997 to Arawak Walton, where she became chief executive the following year. The 1,000 homes for which it is now responsible is double the number she inherited.

Does she plan a similar expansion of BME National? It quickly becomes clear that, although it will still act as a body that represents its members’ interests, she also sees it as having a broader remit than in the past.

‘It’s got to be about the wider world and sending out messages,’ she says. In other words, BME National will speak out more often about issues that affect BME communities.

‘BME National has a role in addressing the needs of multicultural communities and understanding what those communities need,’ she says.

‘At times like this, when immigrants – and I include myself in that – are getting a really bad press, it’s important that somebody stands up and says: “Well, hang on a minute, here are all the good things that BME communities have achieved.”’

Immigration policy
There are pressing reasons for doing so, she feels – particularly as immigration rises up the political agenda, in part because of the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) campaign for the local and European elections in May.

‘When times are difficult and everyone’s under pressure, then you look for scapegoats,’ she says. ‘That’s what people – dare I say it, the UKIPs of this world – do. They prey on people’s fear.’

Ms D’Souza has personal experience of the fall-out of this, saying that she has ‘suffered racism for most of my life’ – her family moved to Oldham from India in 1964 when she was six years old.

‘I can remember when I was seven or eight, people saying: “Go back to India.” I was the only person of colour in my school for about five years. That was quite hard. Through my school years was very, very difficult.’

Under Ms D’Souza, BME National hopes to influence new allocation policies. Councils were given powers to change their policies in 2012 and were strongly encouraged by the government to introduce rules favouring applicants with a local connection.

Research by Inside Housing, published last month, suggests that since that time, the proportion of new social housing lets to black and minority ethnic households in England has fallen significantly (although it is not clear whether the two are connected).

Ms D’Souza believes some of the changes could lead to policies that allocate homes for ‘families and friends virtually’, unless people are taking up employment opportunities.

National curriculum
Giving specific communities a voice at the national level should be one of the roles for BME National, she feels. And, indeed, on a local level, there is still a need for BME providers who can respond to specific needs.

‘We’re one of the few associations that provide security alarms to all our ground-floor properties because our residents still face so much discrimination and active racism,’ she states. In one example, Arawak Walton housed two Somali families on the edge of one estate ‘and they were facing such discrimination that we ended up having to build fencing round [their home] at what was literally a week’s notice’.

‘People don’t realise that sort of thing is still rife, and racism is alive and well and kicking, thank you very much,’ she says. ‘It cost us a lot of money having to do that. In a mainstream organisation – and that’s no disrespect – there would be some [issues with] budgets.’

The rest of the year promises to be busy for BME National too. In partnership with the Human City Institute, it will be carrying out a series of activities, including chronicling the legacy of how BME associations have improved the lives and life chances of their communities.

There will also be a ‘future-scoping’ exercise to help identify new markets for BME housing associations – collectively ‘the biggest BME business in Europe’ – and how more effective partnering might be developed with councils, mainstream housing associations, as well as emerging BME communities with unmet needs (see box, left). The work, supported by the National Housing Federation, will result in a prospectus later this year.

‘For BME National the research is going to be about how do we maintain our relevance in the new world,’ says Ms D’Souza. Even mainstream social housing providers are struggling to communicate to government that they are about anything other than building new homes, she adds.

History lessons
Talking about the history of the BME movement is vital because ‘it’s important that people understand that there’s a legacy of really good work that we bring with us’.

‘That’s what makes us special and different,’ Ms D’Souza states. ‘We are dealing with disadvantaged groups that have faced disadvantage for an awfully long time.’

And her ultimate goal?

‘Ideally we should all be out of business,’ Ms D’Souza concludes. ‘Surely, in the 21st century, there shouldn’t be a need for BME housing associations? Sadly, I think that’s not the case.’

BME National’s future plans

  • To chronicle the legacy of the black and minority ethnic (BME) housing sector and provide evidence of deep roots in diverse communities on which future work can be built
  • To develop an evidence base of the shape, performance and achievements of the BME housing movement using existing data sets, a survey of BME tenants, focus groups and case studies
  • To undertake a ‘future-scoping’ exercise to help identify new markets and work areas for BME housing organisations
  • To run a media campaign and influencing strategy
  • To create a BME National prospectus for the future linked to recommendations from the research findings

The original article is on Inside Housing website.

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Olmec: Inspiring BME women into enterprise

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Looking at Housing Management Performance Information

westway_logoUnderstanding Performance Information Training For Tenants

Date: Thursday 21 August from 9.30am-4.30pm

Venue: Westway HA’s offices – 1st Floor, Ladbroke Hall, 79 Barlby Road, London W10 6AZ (The nearest station is Ladbroke Grove station.) 

The short session will provide an introduction to understanding housing management performance information. It covers the key principles, terminology and introduces a short practical exercise around interpreting performance information.


Tenants, residents and officer level staff who want to understand how performance information is used in the housing service and how this links to tenant involvement and scrutiny.

Course Aims

That participants will feel more confident in using performance information to inform their scrutiny, monitoring and inspection activities.

Course Content includes

  • Looking at using performance information so you know how your landlord is doing
  • Exploring the terminology used when talking about performance
  • Considering what is meant by performance management, performance indicators and the performance journey
  • Looking at ways of presenting performance information
  • Carrying out a short exercise around interpreting information and asking questions which could be developed using their own performance information

Learning Methods

An interactive and practical sessions that focus on your organisations performance information. A mixture of presentation and groups working and problem solving activities.

To book the training course

There are still a few spaces available which we are offering to other organisations on a first come first serve basis.

A small contribution of £75 per person is required, which includes lunch and refreshments.

Contact Collen Carrington-Miles on 0208 962 3332 or


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