Status update: Feeling Determined

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Note: I work in #ukhousing , all views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent my employer. I tweet under the name @RHoneyJones

After completing her MScEcon at Cardiff University, Rachel started her career in Housing with the Vale of Glamorgan Council where she supported both the Housing Stock Transfer programme and OneVale Programme. Rachel then joined the i2i team at CIH where she held the position of i2i Coordinator for South Wales and Powys. She worked on the Caerphilly Stock transfer ballot as an independent staff consultant and delivered support for community benefits and tenant engagement across her region of work. In May 2013 Rachel joined NPT Homes to work within the Community Regeneration team, focusing on the added benefits the housing investment can make to communities. In her role as Development Officer she has written NPT Homes Community Benefits Policy and is currently focusing on major regeneration plans in priority areas. Rachel is also a Board member of Family Housing Association in Swansea

Council Homes Chat Guest Blog – Rachel Honey-Jones

Status update: Feeling Determined

The last week has been filled with emotions in both my professional and personal life – the majority have been fantastic but, as always when balancing things out, some have been not so brilliant. I followed Nick from National Housing Federation’s speech on twitter and felt motivated….this followed into the wee hours after I’d had a soap box rant. I have been trying to write this post for about 3 months and, finally, had an epiphany at silly o’clock this morning when reading a post on Facebook that one of my dear friends had put up – more on this later ….

I had a privileged upbringing aboard with self-made middle class parents. They both work in education and both have worked their way up the ladder through their careers to the top of their game. However, they were both the first people in their families to go to university. Both were Council estate born and bred. Dad is from Penlan in Swansea; one of 6 children and they all lived in a 3 bedroom council house. My grandfather was in the army during World War 2 and met my grandmother when she was evacuated from London to Swansea during the blitz. My mother also lived in a 3 bed council house in Hendy, Carmarthenshire with her parents, sister, grandmother, step-grandfather and uncle until she was 18. Everyone in both households worked from the age of at least 13 but most from about the age of 10.

I did not realise growing up the absolute devastating poverty faced by individuals in other nations; my parents reminded me frequently how fortunate I was to be from a first world country however with rose tinted glasses, it was only when revisiting the countries I grew up in did I truly understand that the lady sitting on the side of the street would not be eating today, nor would her very young baby. My extended family didn’t struggle – far from it, it was a time when families and communities pulled together and learnt to be frugal.

I suppose, due to this upbringing when I was a teenager, I was what is known as silver spooned Tory..(stay with me here!) I went to boarding school at 16 and was surrounded with some very blue affiliated individuals who had absolutely no idea of the value of money – students would drive their brand new BMWs and Mercs onto campus straight after passing their driving tests, only to write them off a few weeks later without so much as an “oh well”, knowing they’d be bought another.

If you’re rich that’s fantastic – you have worked your a** off to be a success and I applaud you for it – or it’s family wealth so someone has worked their a** off. However, PLEASE, I urge you to use this for good. Shop local, support your independent retailers; this will bring more money into YOUR local economy, which creates more jobs, more wealth for the area and everyone benefits. The local multiplier effect is amazing – if each of us spent £100 a year more on local businesses instead of national chains it would put and extra £3m a year into OUR economy….and would create thousands more jobs in return.

If you own a business then try and ensure that vacancies are advertised as widely as possible to the local community and give someone a chance – you do not know their life story or why they are currently unemployed, in a low earning job or are facing hard times- bringing up children, caring for parents, mental health issues, general bad circumstances, a domestic violence victim; the list is endless. This extract really struck a cord…..“Millions of low-paid workers are trapped in an unbreakable cycle of poverty and are even turning up at food banks in their lunch breaks asking for help to feed their families” 5.2 MILLION people or 21% of all working individuals are being paid below a living wage – forcing them to food banks. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/working-poor-trapped-in-unbreakable-cycle-of-poverty-turn-to-food-banks-in-their-lunch-breaks-9117820.html

Back to my original point. One of my oldest and dearest friends, who I have known from about the age of 6 months, lived around the corner from the house my mother grew up in. She is my age, was in the same year at school and we would spend hours and days doing everything that kids do – falling in the river, building forts, playing the price is right, making perfumes from flowers – we did it all! I only ever got to see her during school holidays when I came back to Wales but it was like I’d never left. She grew up on a Council estate; she was bullied severely at school and lost all confidence in herself. I saw one of my best friends crumble. She decided to do something about it and I witnessed one of the most amazing journeys I think I will have ever witnessed in my entire life. She is a constant inspiration to me; her determination and attitude to never give up has got her where she is today and she deserves this a thousand times over.

This friend now owns an extremely successful business; she works all of the hours god sends and cannot do enough to help her customers. She wears her heart on her sleeve and has a huge smile on her face no matter what issues she is going through. She utilises social media extensively as her products’ target market is teenage girls and she is very successful at doing this. She also asks her customers what they think of certain campaigns she plans on running and, last night, she asked what everyone thought of offering a 10% discount for those on benefits ………………………Now I’m sure you can all imagine the stereotypical comments that were being made; how dare “they”, “they” should live within their means, why should “they” get special privileges when “they” get enough and won’t get off their backsides to find a job, “they” “they” “they”– one customer even said she would boycott the shop if this campaign went ahead….but then an amazing thing happened, people were fighting back. Saying “they” were not “shirkers”, they were not work shy, they were either in low paid jobs or had personal circumstances (as I have mentioned previously) that meant they were on benefits and “they” hoped that the initial individuals never had to face the eating or heating dilemma that so many do on a daily basis.

That made me start to process my thoughts on the media’s portrayal of those on benefit with the likes of Poverty Porn that is ever so popular. Can you honestly say that you nor a member of your family has never received any form of benefit? Just to test the water here’s a quick list off the top of my head:
• Working Tax Credit
• Child Tax Credit
• Child benefit
• Maternity Grant
• Maternity Allowance / Statutory Maternity Pay
• Paternity Allowance / Statutory Paternity Pay
• Benefits for Adoption
• Guardian’s Allowance
• Child Trust Fund
• Winter Fuel Allowance
• Attendance Allowance
• Carer’s Allowance
• Disability Living Allowance
• Housing Benefit
• Income Support
• Jobseeker’s Allowance

Not all of these are means-tested. Should they be? In my humble opinion – yes, yes they should be. Why aren’t they? Well, things like the Winter Fuel Allowance would affect the stereotypically named “Grey vote” – those who have retired or are close to retirement. Why does this matter? Because that generation usually always exercises its right to vote; some would have even fought for that right during their lifetimes – why would a government shoot itself in the foot by changing any of the “Grey Vote” entitlements?

Same goes for social housing and welfare reform – it only affects those of a working age AND YET the majority of “spare bedrooms” reside in households of a retirement age. The “spare room subsidy” or “bedroom tax”, whatever you prefer to call it, has been proven through the pilots to increase rent arrears and, therefore, debt for Social Housing providers. It’s a lose- lose situation.

We CAN change this. We need to ensure that social housing is on the upcoming Government’s agenda for the national election. We need a vast increase of house building for our future generations, homes for those on low incomes and support for those not in work. We need a Right to Buy policy that works and replenishes any homes that are bought. . We need to stop the working poor and non-working poor and challenge these whenever we see them. We need a government that sees Social Housing for what it is – HOMES for PEOPLE. We need politicians who understand the complexities of everyday working life – not Eton & Oxbridge graduates making the decisions which they have no idea how they will pan out on the ground (but they sound good!). We need more politicians who are firmly embedded within grass roots if anything is going to change. Carl Sargeant, who was Minister for Housing & Regeneration until last week’s shock reshuffle, is an excellent example of the type of character we need in government. Those who actually care and understand the issues.

One main criticism I hear about the Social Housing sector is that we are insular. I agree; we’re great at talking to each other but not so great at getting those conversations outside of our sector. We need to SHOUT more about the amazing work we do. When we hear someone with an opinion that is stereotypical – challenge it and educate them on the reality rather than just nodding and allowing stereotypes to continue. It’s the only way we will prove that benefits street is the minority and that more people are on benefits than you think.

I am, first and foremost, a realist – yes, the system will be abused – we are all human and I’m not going to go onto a political theory rant but read for yourself what our forefathers – Aristotle, Hobbes, Plato et al had to say on the matter. There are some factions of society that will always find a loophole to gain from, however, you can’t base a system on this – you have to base it on those in the greatest need. There was an excellent article by Andrew Rhynam on the benefits of social housing versus the Private Rented Sector and I would urge you all to read it:
http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/09/it-time-recognise-benefits-social-housing

Thank you Kylie, my oldest friend for being such an amazing and inspiring person. Thank you Nick Atkin (@nickatkin_hht) for his speech at the National Housing Federation Conference for motivating me and getting my mind focused, and finally thank you Cheryl (@Ctracy861) for reminding me why we do this.

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I vow to not get angry – just to do something about it. I hope you join me.

– Rachel

Amazing campaigns to follow on twitter:
SHOUT for Social Housing – @4socialhousing
SOCIAL HOUSING UNDER THREAT – The Campaign for Social Housing. England.
Yes to Homes – @Yestohomes
“We say Yes to Homes and want our Council, councillors and MPs to commit to delivering more of the right homes, in the right places, at the right price.”
Council Homes Chat – @Councilhomechat
Busting myths about Council Housing by providing a platform for people’s stories/experiences
#HousingDay – @HousingDay
#HousingDay celebrates the positive impact of social housing on thousands of people across the UK. Stories by #ukhousing landlords, staff & tenants. 12-11-14.

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Tackling Perceptions

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Marty Downey 22 years old from Northern Ireland, Co Down, Magheralin, about to start my final year of Housing Management at UUJ having almost finished a 15 month placement with South Liverpool Homes and hopefully will be seeking full time work in housing in May 2015, optimistic that my views will be shared by others and spark some debate on pressing housing issues. Please feel free to contact me.

Twitter -@MartyD21
Email -Downey-M5@email.ulster.ac.uk or m.downey@hotmail.co.uk

With two years of my undergraduate Housing Management course and a 12 month placement, which turned into 15 months along the way with South Liverpool Homes under my belt, I am still on training wheels so to speak in terms of housing. However with so many positive experiences, along with meeting many passionate people in the sector I felt I could convey some of my observations in-spite of recent media portrayals of the social tenants and indeed social housing providers.

First of all I think that the general public and the current government at their own peril, severely underestimate the role that most housing associations perform for the most vulnerable people in society. Front line staff for associations up and down the United Kingdom will testify that when many of these people have issues be they trivial or of the highest importance they contact their housing providers first and foremost. Providers are sign posting these tenants, offering advice and truly going above and beyond. The same goes for the loneliest people on the fringes of society who depend and cherish the services and contact that many associations offer ‘as standard’, including; Benefit advice, help with debt, schemes for children, utility bill help, computer classes, and food bank vouchers just to name a few. This is indeed a far cry from the depictions constantly cast out by the media time and time again. One group of people that the current government neglects are those working class families just above the threshold of state help yet fall desperately short of attaining an affordable mortgage, if not for social housing many of these people would be pushed into the private rented sector which is not always affordable, however this is argument for another day. In short many associations are carrying out work that is really going unnoticed at a governmental level, anti-social behaviour and supported housing for those who need it including things like furniture packages affordable options along with adult and child safeguarding I would include on this list.

In regards to how many of these television programs represent social tenants I would​ like to think most people could look past this complete and utter misrepresentation. These production companies and tabloids are first and foremost in the entertainment business and with technological advances along with almost everyone having the internet in their pockets, unfortunately mean these people must constantly find new ways to shock yet intrigue to capture viewers. This is where the folly of these programs takes shape as many of those given a spotlight are highly individual case of people in real need who do not directly benefit from the way they are depicted. Worst of all is the potential backlash this leaves other tenants open to in social housing, it is unfair on them to have to deal with passive judgment based on a handful of families put under what effectively is the entertainment industry’s blurred microscope.

Social housing in my opinion is the most underrated area of welfare and somewhat of a social backbone in the United Kingdom for many reasons, it is the most malleable resource of the public sector constantly flexing to the changes around, be it ground-breaking welfare reforms or some trivial matters that arise day to day, the good organisations seem to take all of this in their stride. The reason behind this is that housing is driven by some extremely passionate individuals and leaders that can be found in most social housing providers from the bottom up. I think those of us currently within housing owe it to ourselves, our continued good work and our tenants not to let an untrue typecast even attempt to define us. Thankfully positive and innovative responses such as Council Homes Chat which is characteristic of true housing professionals rising to yet another challenge posed to our tenants and our services.

Hidden Talent: Behind Closed Doors

Zoe Rooney
35
Single mum 2 kids, one who has special needs. Live in Yeovil Somerset. Have mental health issues.

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When we are little we all dream of owning a big house, married to the perfect man, with beautiful kids and perhaps a dog. The hard truth of life is that this is unlikely to happen. I would never have thought that I would one day be on benefits as a single mum in a housing association house. Suddenly I am faced with the ‘council house’ label. On every form, we tick the ‘council box’ like it is some measure of who we are and what we are all about.

While many do conform to the stereotypical image of a council house tenant, the majority do not. I am typical of the stereo type. Two kids, single, benefits… but does anyone really look past that and see the person behind the label? I had the perfect life. I had everything. I looked down on others as if I was superior to them because I had the 2.4 family. Then one day my world came crashing down and life as I knew it would never be the same.

Luckily we do live in a country where there is a safety net, although this is far too often abused. Like a performing dolphin, I jumped through the hoops, endless form filling and many temporary accommodations and finally got my Holy Grail… my own little 2 bed for my children and me. Life was hard and I settled into an existence of housework and coffee mornings. As my children grew, I realised that I was existing and not living. Many people fall into this trap. Looking around at the people I mixed with, it shocked me to discover that I had now become a stereotype. The bi-weekly Costa mornings, being the highlight of my week. But at 30 with two pre-teens, could I change my life? Could I teach my children that anything was possible if you tried hard enough? The biggest challenge is having the confidence to start your journey.

Today, most housing associations are not just landlords. They have many departments to aid with training, employment and even starting your own business. I have only ever been with Yarlington Housing Group and until 2 years ago had never interacted with them. If I saw my housing officer coming, I would take a superman dive into the nearest bush just to avoid them. I had no interest in engaging with them… I mean why would I? My rent was being paid, the house was in a good state, so like the weird uncle at Christmas, you put up with them but avoid at all costs.

Yarlington look past the label and actually want to help the residents, which I found to be an alien concept. From benefit advice to a well-being officer, they seemed to have it all covered. Perhaps the label assigned to housing association residents is soon to be a thing of the past. But does social standing and employment responsibility lie with housing associations? With so many government cuts and hope at an all time low, maybe the social landlords could challenge the future for those who are resigned to council homes. Could improving the options for today’s generation significantly change those of the future? All the research shows that children with at least one working parent, vastly improves their chances of succeeding life. I cannot work. I have significant mental health issues that restrict employment. For years I accepted that the future was sitting down with a cuppa, watching Jeremy Kyle and letting the money enter my bank account with no effort from me. What was this teaching my children? With employment being seemingly impossible, my options were limited. Then came the light bulb moment. I was getting a ‘wage’ but I was doing nothing to earn it. The community around me was paying me to do nothing. I decided that it was payback time. I had skills. If no one would employ me then I would ‘earn’ the benefits I was receiving in any way that I could.

I joined forces with my landlord, Yarlington, and threw myself into improving my community and helping other residents. Two years on, I am now heavily involved with a large cross section of not only residents but all in my home town. I am still not employed but I work harder than ever. Everyone needs a helping hand out of the rut they are in. Showing someone the way forward and holding their hand to do so, can give them the confidence to achieve beyond their dreams. Mental health may still carry a stigma and limit life options but it is not the barrier it once was. For those who look down on council house residents, I feel pity. Everyone has a skill and some of the poorest people on earth are the most caring and give more back then they can ever expect to receive for themselves. The old saying ‘You never know what goes on behind closed doors’ is never more true than now. A wealth of talent and skills are lying dormant behind council house doors and is just waiting to be tapped… and perhaps our social housing landlords are the key to doing this?

More than Bricks and Mortar: A lived experience of a Liverpool Council Estate

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Jon Daley

Neighbourhood Officer for Regenda Group, working hard to cut stigma in social housing and making the a North West a better place to live.

As an academically minded neighbourhood officer, it is easy to get lost in ‘patch trends’ and national statistics in search to better understand the housing sector. However, I can’t be grateful enough for social housing for more than just giving me my dream job.

I grew up in an area called Dovecot, in Liverpool. An area although associated with a high crime rate within a largely deprived geographical ward…I fondly remember. I spent the first 12 years of my life in a Local Authority owned home with my Mum, Dad and Brother. Although statistically there was ‘nothing down for me’, I feel that social housing gave me a way against the grain of the stigma that it is associated with.

Community

I couldn’t have asked for a better youth than what I experienced. All of my school friends lived within a quarter mile radius (thank you state schools), our neighbours would help us more than just a Ned Flanders-esque borrowing of power tools and of course my parents would never let me want despite hard times financially (it was the 90s). What this experience taught me was a strong sense of community, despite the negative press. Sure there was antisocial behaviour and it wasn’t a Makkah of living standards, however It taught me that people would be cooperative beyond measure when affluence didn’t stand in the way of others.

Investment

It was at this time that I developed a near innate urge to invest in community. One of my earliest memories was telling my Mum walking to school that despite living in a run down area, if there was any way to make my area a better place to live in which not just my Mum but others told me “the sky is the limit if you put your mind to it”. With this, I noticed that the stigma lied in bricks and mortar and nothing else, that social housing is judged by its cover rather than its content. I felt that the area needed to be as beautiful on the outside as much as the inside. It was at this time that I gained an interest in housing, community and urban regeneration, I just didn’t know the practice of it due to both my young age as well as a limit of academic education with in my community. However it wasn’t just the physical area that was my dominant interest, it was the people I cared for and still do today, years after living in social housing,

Progression

This sense of community provided for by Social Housing helped me with a lot of things over the years. I never forget the opportunities it gave me including the confidence in joining a local football team, starting my martial arts journey and the strange sense of communal accomplishment when someone done well. My own experience came when I obtained a school place at the prestigious Bluecoat School. I don’t know if it was because I was the first to achieve the feat or if others were happy to see one of their own progress, I knew it was the time to make it a mission to stand up for social housing no matter what. Despite seeing first hand that social housing contained tenants who were benefit reliant or in low paid jobs, it provided a platform for people to focus on what really matters. My own experience led me to feel that the removal of financial complexities brought out the best in people and to be proud of their community.

You can take the man out of community…

Even now, away from the community I grew up in, the community stills lives inside of me. As I never saw the stigma of social housing due to being raised in it, I seen an equality that is sadly declining due to ideals of ownership. Even when moving to a privately owned home at age 12, those values never left. I spent each waking moment committed to gaining skills that one day make a difference in the community. Whether it was organizing a play out day with my friends, helping my brother with his homework (he helps me now!) or supporting people through difficult times, social housing provided an experience that I wouldn’t have gained if my family was wealthy from a young age. 20 years after having that first conversation with my Mum around urban regeneration, I still have that fire burning inside of me. As a neighbourhood officer, I aim to use my skills to ensure the same loss of stigma in other communities to provide a similar experience for others even if that means doing this by changing one opinion at a time.