Since the body that spoke for black and minority ethnic landlords went quiet for the final time in November last year, a cacophony of voices have been striving to fill the void. Who will be heard above the din, asks Caroline Thorpe?
Leslie Laniyan is struggling to come to terms with life after the Federation of Black Housing Organisations. ‘It’s like being divorced,’ says the man who - as it turned out - was to be that body’s last ever chair. ‘I’m quite pissed off with what happened with the FBHO. I’m stepping back from everything.’
Mr Laniyan’s recall of the date it was all over for the organisation representing black and minority ethnic housing providers couldn’t be swifter were it tattooed on the inside of his eyelids: ‘12 November , that’s when we decided we’d no longer trade.’ The ‘death knell’, as Mr Laniyan puts it, came when the FBHO’s annual conference was cancelled due to lack of interest. Traditionally something of a cash cow, the event’s fate brought to a close the 25-year-old history of an organisation already struggling to pay the bills.
Despite this, it didn’t take long for several organisations to start vying to become the new voice of BME housing. Though BME landlords make up just 1.3 per cent of registered social landlords in England, if there’s one thing that people agree on, it’s that they need a voice. The candidate line-up is mixed, including existing BME member groups, the National Housing Federation and even the Tenant Services Authority. As the contenders discuss potential ways forward, their challenge is simple: figuring out what the collective voice of the modern BME sector sounds like.
Closer inspection of what went wrong at the FBHO is a good starting point: if an organisation with 25 years’ experience representing the sector can’t fathom how to stay relevant, then who can?
The FBHO’s membership had been falling away for years, and subscription revenues with it. At its demise it had about 60 member bodies, almost half the 110 of its heyday a decade or so ago. Mr Laniyan blames lack of commitment from members, describing meetings called to discuss reviving the FBHO’s fortunes as ‘abysmal - four or five people would turn up’.
You say this, they say that
But as with any relationship breakdown, others tell a different story. The common thread is that as the BME sector evolved, the FBHO failed to keep pace.
Many BME professionals suggest that the FBHO fell asleep on its watch as more and more specialist landlords were absorbed into mainstream housing associations, and the proportion of BME housing associations governed exclusively by BME boards was gradually eroded from a high of 38 per cent in 2005 to 31 per cent today. ‘The FBHO did start losing its focus,’ admits Munir Ahmed, a housing and diversity consultant and former FBHO director.
‘I don’t think they were up-to-speed as an organisation or a group of staff,’ says someone close to the situation. ‘They were relevant when they were set up, and then maybe for 10 years afterwards… what has happened is that as other housing organisations have grown bigger they have taken on quite a lot of [BME] need as well.’
Mr Ahmed acknowledges that much of the BME sector’s initial purpose to overcome the discrimination and racism which poisoned parts of the housing sector has been resolved in many cases, and the task of addressing BME housing need is now shared with mainstream organisations. ‘But even so there are vulnerability issues that need to be addressed,’ he says, adding that it’s imperative to find a new ‘collective voice’.
The National Housing Federation is among those looking for a piece of the action. Even before the FBHO went under, the housing association industry body was considering ways it could better represent BME groups. About 80 of the NHF’s 1,200 members call themselves BME landlords, around 25 of which have been attending regular meetings to discuss whether a revived FBHO could speak for them at a national level. ‘Members are [talking about] the kind of support they feel is right for them as a sector. There have been discussions about whether there should be… a new NHF group supported by us, or whether it should be something more independent,’ says policy officer Anna Dent. ‘We haven’t come to any conclusions.’
But she suggests that one important aspect of representing today’s BME landlords is showcasing their good practice. ‘There are things that have been developed in the BME sector and have become more mainstream - for example culturally sensitive services or [creating] flexible houses for different family sizes. Those things are becoming more widespread, and having the BME sector able to deliver those ideas and spread good practice is still a good thing.’
Lara Oyedele, who attends the NHF meetings, is also attracted to the idea of any new body publicising BME practice. ‘[BME landlords] have a lot of expertise to offer the big boys,’ says the chair of the London BME Directors Group. A former FBHO member who admits it wound up struggling to make its voice heard, she is adamant that a new representative body for BME landlords is needed: ‘We feel like the little nephew that sits in the corner that no one remembers to give a piece of the pie to.’
But if any new body is to survive, it needs to offer more, she adds. ‘Training, reviews, surgeries. Those things are available for example through the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, but I don’t think colleagues tap into them.’
And she believes passionately that just as the FBHO was born in response to specific circumstances (see box, overleaf), a new organisation could be founded to tackle a modern issue that is in urgent need of attention. ‘One of the things I want to campaign for personally is the right for associations to be created for new immigrant groups,’ says Ms Oyedele.
The rules no longer allow landlords wishing to register with the TSA to exist solely to service the needs of specific ethnic groups. ‘So for example you cannot set up an association and say we are going to be set up to provide homes for single women from Somalia, which we know is a real need,’ says Ms Oyedele.
While keen to explore the potential benefits an alliance with the NHF and its resources could offer a nascent BME body, like others Ms Oyedele is wary of getting too close. ‘We want to have the freedom to say, “actually, that’s crap”.’ But Ms Dent says the NHF is happy to entertain the possibility of supporting a body which maintains its independence, if that is what is required.
BME housing professionals’ leadership and policy group The Forum - another voice in the mix - has fewer qualms about establishment links. Last year it received around £70,000 from the government which, along with voluntary contributions from BME and mainstream providers, put eight BME housing professionals through a leadership development programme. That cash runs out this month, and discussions are ongoing with the HCA and TSA about potentially securing more and expanding the programme from April.
Run by a board of volunteers, including Places for People director Aniekan Umoren, former Midland Heart director Olu Olanrewaju and Notting Hill director Femi Adewole, the group has ambitions to become a self-funded membership organisation. ‘We aim to establish ourselves as a credible forum to be consulted by key players like the Chartered Institute of Housing,’ says Ms Umoren.
Then again, it’s not necessarily touting itself as the be-all and end-all of BME representation, adds Ms Umoren. ‘We are quite supportive
[of the NHF’s plans] because we are very clear that there’s room for a number of different representative organisations.’
She sees a need to focus on community cohesion and sustainability, issues that she thinks affect BME people disproportionately. The Forum aspires to address this by ‘developing talent and influencing policy’ and filling the ‘real gap’ vacated by the FBHO.
Sound and fury
Yet there are those that challenge the notion of a void in need of plugging. ‘I think there’s also a need for black organisations to [join the] mainstream,’ says Kate Davies, chief executive of Notting Hill Housing, which by June should have incorporated three BME associations into a new subsidiary arm. ‘There have been some people in the black housing movement who think they’re the only people who can do it… The important thing is to bring all the best practice together.’
Though she questions the role of a collective BME voice, Ms Davies is certain that BME landlords themselves remain relevant. ‘As long as there’s racism there’s a need for a specific response. I firmly feel that the discrimination black people face is really quite strong,’ she says.
Notting Hill’s as yet unnamed new BME component - a combination of Presentation Housing Association, Pathway and Croydon People’s Housing Association - ‘will look at what’s around’ in terms of BME representation, adds Ms Davies. ‘But there is as much to do on the ground with tenants as there is with the representation.’
No one is yet ready to predict the successor - if any - to the FBHO. Having witnessed the decline and fall of a once formidable representative voice, the stakes are high. ‘What we don’t want to end up with is four or five forums which are trying to satisfy what is still a minority audience,’ considers Ms Oyedele.
Mr Ahmed is upbeat. ‘The FBHO has done its job. This is now a new era for the BMEs to reshape themselves for the 21st century. There’s a massive opportunity to look at what’s ahead.’
BME housing representation
The Federation of Black Housing Organisations is co-founded by Louis Julienne, the manager of a Reading hostel for young black rough sleepers.
Initially a self-help group for similar hostels, it is later joined by Asian refuges and developed into an umbrella group for housing associations as the black and minority ethnic housing sector evolved.
Louis Julienne becomes the FBHO’s first employee.
The FBHO initiates the first black housing strategy with sympathetic backing from Housing Corporation chief executive David Edmonds.
Positive action training in housing schemes begins to address the under-representation of BME communities in social housing management.
1998 to 2003
Membership peaks but starts to fall away thereafter.
The FBHO closes due to lack of funding.
Several new and existing organisations – BME, mainstream and government-assisted – vie to become the new voice of BME housing.
BME by numbers
Members of the FBHO when it folded
NHF members identifying themselves as BME
BME registered social landlords in 2006, that number fell to 64 in 2008
10.2 per cent
Amount of BME households that are social housing tenants
14 per cent
Amount of new social housing lettings that were to BME households, July to September 2008