I want to change a perception which, sadly, too many large housing associations have: “If you’re small, if you’re BAME, you’re not good.” Instead, I want a different mantra: “Being small and being BAME means you’re brilliant.” As the Assistant Chief Executive and Director of Operations of a small BAME association, of course, I would say that. But I do so on the basis of a lifetime of experience.
I am proud that Manningham Housing Association is getting rave reviews for customer service excellence, diversity and inclusion, alongside other areas. In my view, it is because we are a BAME association with a clear purpose of being, a clear social purpose and the foundations of our organisation are built on supporting people who are disadvantaged or being discriminated against. These essential building blocks make up our DNA.
I am sometimes asked, more than 30 years since most were established, is there still a need for BAME associations? The answer is a resounding yes, but I say this with a heavy heart.
When we still have around a third of social housing tenants living in overcrowded conditions, who is going to provide large family homes other than BAME associations? If I had a five-bedroomed house available tomorrow, I could guarantee 50 applicants within three days. Nowhere else in the sector is there a willingness to meet that need. We are also fully committed to neighbourhoods with high levels of deprivation where larger, more prosperous organisations are instead choosing to divest.
Whilst BAME associations have been around for decades, we have had to adapt in order to remain effective. They began emerging during the late 1950s in a small trickle but really escalated in the 1980s during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. She saw community disturbances, including the Bradford riots, and amongst the key complaints were the poor housing conditions and lack of access to good quality homes that BAME communities faced. The Housing Corporation was tasked with addressing the situation and produced a series of five-year strategies, including essentially forcing larger associations to support and grow the BAME movement through the transfer of housing to them. Unfortunately, we are now much less diverse as a sector than we were back then. The political will to support this new group of associations faded and forced some BAME associations to merge with their mainstream counterparts. However, rather than flourish and be used as “Trojan horses” to positively impact the newly expanded business, many were simply asset stripped and killed off. That is why the diminishing number of BAME organisations that remain must continue on our mission. There is a lot the wider housing sector can learn from the BAME housing sector – they only have to ask.
Meeting housing need is just a part of what we do. As well as investing in bricks, we also invest in people by improving health outcomes, creating educational opportunities and providing career paths.
I left school with nothing. I never had any role models and my teachers showed little interest in my future. My only option was to drive taxis. And then along came West Pennine Housing Association which offered me a housing officer traineeship through the Positive Action Training in Housing (PATH) scheme. That gave me the chance to improve my life and teach my children to aspire. I have one daughter who is a pharmacist and another who is going to university to become a lawyer. If I had not been given my chance, perhaps they would not have had theirs. I would have been unable to give my children the quality of life they now have. 28 years later, I remain forever grateful to West Pennine Housing Association and to my first manager, Julie Appleton. She helped me and guided me. It is an ethos that BAME associations keenly embrace.
By giving one BAME employee the opportunity to shine, an organisation is giving a whole family a chance because their children will have a role model to look up to. And this principle passes from one generation to the next. That can really begin to affect a community on a major scale, with one person having a massive impact on many life chances. When I employ a new manager from a BAME background, my first conversation is to say, “do not forget your responsibilities or how you got here. That is your duty as no one else is going to do it.”
But BAME housing associations cannot and should not do this alone. We always strive in our staffing make-up to be representative of the areas where we work. But we are not compromising on quality. Indeed, this approach significantly improves our performance. Not enough non-BAME associations choose to follow this lead.
I once challenged a speaker at a seminar on practice in diversity and inclusion who said: “Leaders want to do the right thing but they don’t know how sometimes, so I feel for them a little bit.” I questioned this and asked that if leaders wanted to grow their business and did not know how, would she also feel for them? If they genuinely care about diversity and inclusion, they will learn about it. She had a “penny drop” moment and put our exchange in LinkedIn. I respected that. If leaders really care about diversifying their workforces, they must do something about it. They will not succeed if they think “small equals not good” and “BAME equals not good enough.”
By giving opportunities to BAME people which they will not receive elsewhere, they work hard for you, have high levels of loyalty and deliver extremely effective performance. We are good because we are BAME and are delivering the lived experience.
Ulfat Hussain is Assistant Chief Executive and Director of Operations at Manningham Housing Association
This article first appeared in Inside Housing December 2021