Elderly, vulnerable, sick, disabled? NO! - We are powerful and we want our rights.
Something inspiring is happening in west Belfast. For a while now, the residents of a sheltered housing complex overlooking the Falls Park - often ignored, patronised and pigeon holed - have been organising.
They are inspirational people exemplifying the self-help ethos that has come to define the community where they have spent their lives.
As far back as 2017, they organised a petition for a new heating system. Several more years of complaints to their landlord about the state of their homes followed. Between August 2018 and November 2020 alone there were:
- 35 heating complaints logged with CHOICE Housing Associations site coordinator
- 10 Out of Hours telecare emergency callouts
- 44 working hours callouts
The residents have been round the houses and back again looking for solutions to basic problems. Amongst other issues they live with an uncontrollable and costly heating system that switches off when you’re cold and switches on when you’re hot, ‘communal’ spaces that residents can’t access and bin and waste facilities that pose health and safety hazards.
These problems represent the daily grind for people living in our broken housing system – a system that has condemned generations to homelessness and poor conditions as buildings that were thrown up at the lowest cost for the highest profits possible are coming back to bite us.
The residents tried everything - complaints, lobbying, meetings - the lot. Then Covid-19 hit and the landlord, who failed to deliver decent homes standards before the pandemic, became an absentee landlord - for health and safety reasons.
With the exception of an on site coordinator, who has no power to make change at the facility, the residents have not seen their landlord or the management team responsible for their 32 homes since before March 2020 – 15 months.
From then until now they have become self-organised, running the housing complex in the interests of everyone to the best of their ability with whatever resources they can put their hands on. By divvying up tasks and responsibilities they have provided a decent standard and some dignity for all. They look out for each other. They clean and and maintain the communal areas. They have even turned their hands to landscaping the exterior of the building - now in bloom with budding rose beds and beautiful hanging baskets - and all of this from their own pockets and labour in the middle of a pandemic!
Last year the heating system, which was designed with money in mind, was turned off and the residents sprang into action. Using the local media, Freedom of Information tools, action research and letters to the CHOICE CEO and the Minister for Communities, they bypassed the broken complaints process to get the landlord's attention.
The residents' story appeared in the Andersonstown News, the heating system was turned back on and residents were reimbursed for overpaid heating bills.
During this challenging year coping with Covid, looking out for each other and campaigning for better conditions the residents have had their story disputed consistently by the landlord. Surveys carried out by residents have shown that a majority of residents are experiencing identical problems and have been complaining for years.
In public, the landlord was denying knowledge of the problems but in private their own records, recovered by the residents using Freedom of Information tools, showed a litany of unresolved complaints.
They don't want the moon and stars, just decent homes to live in with dignity and autonomy. An affordable and controllable heating system with clean and safe facilities shouldn't be too much to ask and the residents won't stop until their rights are realised. However, their campaign raises deeper questions about the kind of housing system we have built where issues like these are routinely denied or ignored until residents mount a campaign and a journalist arrives on the scene.
How much more remains hidden in our housing system? Tens of thousands of people live in under funded social housing provided by Housing Associations and the Housing Executive, including sheltered accomodation. Many more wait for homes that the current system and private market has consistently failed to deliver. If we are going to build a more humane system for the future then the status quo is no longer an option and residents must be at the heart of the change that is coming.
In a positive response to the residents campaign the former Minister for Communities, Carál Ní Chuilín, intervened to monitor the situation and this report has been provided to current Minister, Deirdre Hargey, following her call for evidence to inform a new housing supply strategy.
CHOICE management have agreed to review the residents' report and meet to discuss a way forward. As lock-down restrictions ease, the residents are inviting CHOICE Management for a site visit to see the evidence first hand and hear their story.
With the appointment of Human Rights Campaigner, Dawn Purvis as the new CHOICE Head Of Corporate Affairs, an opportunity exists now to fix the problems of the past and build a better system for the future, because we all want to grow old in comfort and dignity and the residents of Bleach Green Court should expect nothing less.
Seán Brady is Assistant Director of Programmes with PPR.