An interview with the new Tenants Forum Chair and the new Community Engagement Officer at Newington Housing Association.
Carmel Grant has been a Newington Housing Association tenant for nearly 25 years. This past summer, she put herself forward to be the first chairperson (it will be a rotating role) of the newly established Tenants’ Forum.
Carmel tells us she first got involved after overhearing a woman in a local shop referring to her area as ‘the dirty streets.’ Looking around, she had to agree there was rubbish in the area, and it could do with a clean-up.
“If I’m living in this community, I want to make it look presentable, and I’m not having people coming in and calling it the dirty street!” she exclaimed.
Carmel started by organising a litter pick and other clean-up days, and when she heard about the new Tenants Forum starting, she was eager to join.
Supporting Communities helped the new forum to get started through a programme of training sessions aimed at giving them the skills and confidence to play an active role in influencing service delivery at Newington. The group covered topics such as Tenants Forum training, Team Building, Getting your Message Across, Effective Meetings, and Volunteering.
After meeting over Zoom for about a year, the group has made plenty of plans that they are excited to start putting into action now. Carmel is enjoying the work so far, and she credits both her fellow tenants and Newington staff.
“The forum is all about teamwork,” she says. “We all want the same thing; we all want to make Newington a better place.”
Carmel says repairs and maintenance are a concern for many residents after a recent delay in expected delivery times. She says the Tenant’s Forum asked for an explanation and has been able to convey to tenants why the delays occurred and what they can expect now as part of their goal to improve communication with the housing association.
Anti-social behaviour is something else they’d like to address. They’re planning to organise more events in the area that will bring people together to build a sense of community pride. Michael Cunningham, the new Senior Community Engagement Officer at Newington, remarked that even though he’s only been there a few months now, he finds that the organisation is very proactive in dealing with any issues. For example, when there were delays to the repair schedule, several of the senior management team including the CEO met with residents to discuss the problem and address their concerns.
“One of the things that comes back strongly from our tenants is the importance of being honest and managing expectations,” says Michael.
Newington is a small housing association that manages 719 homes in North Belfast. The organisation has been a part of the neighbourhood for over 40 years.
Michael says it’s an interesting dynamic for him working with tenants. “The Tenants’ Forum is there to hold us to account, to hold our feet to the fire. I’m very conscious of the need to empower Carmel and the other Forum members to do that. At the same time, over 50 percent of the staff and board at Newington are from North Belfast, so we are also invested in making this a better place to live both professionally and personally.”
Being situated within the neighbourhood they serve makes Newington all the more accountable to its tenants. Carmel and Michael joked that staff have to go out and get their lunch sometime. Carmel laughs, “I live about eight doors down from the office, so I’ll see them coming!”
Finally, we asked Michael and Carmel if they have seen a change in how things are done since the introduction of the Tenant Participation Strategy in Northern Ireland. Going much farther back, Michael told us that his grandfather was actually the first trustee of Newington in 1975. That connection and the culture of the organisation are why he works there now.
He explained, “The ethos at the time it started was very much about helping people in this area, and it’s still the same today. Newington was never dragged into tenant participation. If anything, I think they were ahead of the curve. We don’t want tenant involvement to be tokenistic. We want it to be part of a structure that makes things better for tenants.”
Over her 25 years as a tenant, Carmel has seen many changes. “They have got a lot, lot better. I think that has to do with the staffing. I couldn’t fault them at all now. They are a brilliant housing association.”