In my role as policy and practice officer at NIFHA, it has been amazing to see the response of our members to this crisis. Since the start of Covid-19, NIFHA’s 20 member organisations have stepped up in their communities and risen to the multiple challenges presented by the pandemic and lockdown.
Across Northern Ireland, housing associations have worked incredibly hard to provide ongoing support for their tenants. Thousands of welfare calls have been made to the vulnerable and elderly, in order to identify any additional support needs. And housing associations have mobilised quickly to deliver countless food parcels, working closely with community groups and local services in order to do so. By mid-April, for example, Apex housing association was delivering almost a tonne of food a week to households in need across Derry and Londonderry, thanks to a partnership with Fareshare.
Yet the response to the crisis among our members has been so much more than just delivering food parcels and making welfare calls, although of course that has been essential to many people. Our members and their teams have been putting everything into making sure that their residents are not just looked after but are happy and thriving; so it’s been the smaller projects, as well as the bigger ones, that have shown the true heart and soul – and social purpose – of Northern Ireland’s social housing sector at this time.
From the community investment side of things, our members have continued to engage with their residents, although they are unable to do so physically anymore. One housing association, on top of welfare calls, has been buying crossword books and started a daily quiz, which has been a great way to reach out to those who are particularly lonely and isolated.
In Belfast, children in temporary accommodation owned by Ark Housing were cheered up by a delivery of Easter Eggs, made possible by the generous donations of Friends Outreach and West Belfast PSNI. Others have been finding equally creative ways of bringing their residents joy during lockdown. At a care home in East Belfast, run by Clanmil, residents have been treated to some very special dinners by a local chef who is currently on furlough.
Given that housing associations in Northern Ireland are smaller, we’ve seen how they’ve been able to work more locally. In Belfast, several football and boxing clubs have even joined forces with housing associations to co-ordinate the donation and delivery of food parcels to local families in need. In Northern Ireland, residents in social housing are such a core part of the community and people can always be counted on to come together when help is needed.
With movement being restricted, that’s been hard. But Northern Ireland is a very social place and the community spirit endures. Despite lockdown, residents at Palmerston Care Home in East Belfast still helped Tom Ferrett celebrate his 100th birthday in style, while residents at a South Belfast sheltered housing scheme celebrated their neighbour Pauline Kieran’s 100th birthday.
While NIFHA isn’t as much at the frontline delivery end as our members, we are at the policy part of it. Through our forums and zoom meetings with members we’re hearing what is needed, sharing best practice and facilitating that sharing of learning. Throughout all of this we’ve been on hand to help our member associations as the need arises.
One of our recent priorities has been to get rapid recognition from the Department of Education and Department for Communities that some housing association staff are key workers. This enabled frontline staff to access childcare which they would otherwise have struggled to get.
We’ve also recently surveyed our members and when asked what they might need right now, and what will they need over the next few months in order to move into a phased going back to work, PPE came up as a major issue. So NIFHA are now looking into that area in order to help housing associations plan in advance and ensure there’s availability.
NIFHA’s Benefits to Society research, which was launched in 2019, showed the commitment there was for social housing providers to benefit individuals and families and work with the local community. This moment of crisis has shown how housing associations are rising to the new challenges and ensuring they do everything to engage with their residents and provide for their needs. It has proved just important social housing in Northern Ireland really is, and just how resilient its communities are.
Going forward we need to build on that resilience and sustain it. Key to that will be building more social and affordable housing. Coming out of lockdown, the economy has taken a hit and building houses can be one of the ways forward, to help the economy stabilise. We need to look at the multiplier effect that building those houses has on the economy, as well as the positive effect of community investment activities on our residents and wider communities.