believe housing, sponsor of the key worker category at the County Durham Together Awards, has played a vital role itself during the pandemic. Heather Barron reports.

As the chief executive of the Housing Association, believe housing, Bill Fullen uses the word ‘more’ quite a lot. This is because, he says, the organisation’s mission statement – ‘We believe in life without barriers’ – is all about the “power of more”.

“If we can get that basic requirement of good housing and good services right, then it allows people to achieve more,” says Bill. “And if we allow and work with people to get more and expect more, then those tenants have more chance to realise their full potential”.

Bill is a great believer in providing the right environment in which people can thrive and through believe housing, that is what he and his team of around 500 are trying to do.

The organisation came into being in 2015, when Durham County Council transferred ownership of its housing stock to the County Durham Housing Group, as it was then.

The stock consisted of just over 18,500 properties, encompassing close to 100 individual settlements within 826 square miles, stretching from the Pennines through Durham city to the former Durham coalfield area on the east coast.

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They undertook to build more than 700 new homes over the first seven years and to ensure continued improvement of the repairs and general house management services.

Until 2019, the company comprised a parent organisation and three subsidiaries – a structure which was proving to be inefficient. They were amalgamated into what became believe housing, which allowed a much more effective way of working and created a new branding entity.

“To date, we have built more than 350 new homes and within the last year we have picked up a couple of awards for our new build programme. We are on track to complete those 700 new homes by 2022,” says Bill.

“The approach we have had and why we have won these awards is not by building big estates,” he explains. “We look at the communities that we operate in and come to a view about what new housing is required in that area to give it a much more sustainable future.

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believe housing has also developed a new product called Rent to Buy, aimed at people who are in work but would not necessarily see social housing as an option for them. The properties are offered for rent for five years and at the end of that period, the tenant has the option to buy the home.

The work of the organisation’s team does not stop at supplying affordable housing. They also provide a lot of support services. They will work with people applying for housing, by going through affordability checks with them to see if they will be able to pay the rent along with all their other outgoings and they have a sustainment service for new tenants, to provide support for applying for all of the benefits and help they need or getting registered with doctors.

If a tenant does get into financial difficulties, the believe housing team can help them negotiate their way through some of their financial problems.

Bill says: “It’s about working with people in the early days so they can survive in the tenancy beyond that first year. The likelihood is that if they get beyond that first year, it will sustain into the longer period.

“A number of our tenants with problems maintaining their tenancy, or with financial or mental health issues, were showing the signs of not coping and we had an increase in people threatening suicide, so we set up a suicide prevention team.

“The majority of our staff are doing day-to-day work that brings them in contact with tenants, so if they come across an instance where they feel a tenant is struggling, or something doesn’t feel right, then they will refer that back to a member of our volunteer team who will work with the tenant to deliver the support where it is needed.

“It is not just about managing the physical asset; it’s about managing the people in there as well and making sure that they can thrive in the properties that we let to them”.

Even Covid-19 could not stop the ongoing programme of maintenance and repair works for all the properties.

“All through lockdown, our gas engineers were still keeping our tenants safe by doing annual servicing works,” says Bill, with obvious pride. “We knew that most tenants would be in their homes, so it was even more important to keep up to date with the servicing. The engineers had to wear full PPE and the impact on them was huge, but not one of them refused to do the work.

“Throughout the organisation – from front-line gas engineers to the back-office staff, there was a drive to keep tenants safe and make sure we could deliver those essential services.

“Now, more than ever, it’s important that we recognise the people who really make a difference to our lives. During the coronavirus pandemic we have all seen that people who have sometimes been taken for granted, play a huge part in keeping our communities going.

“From delivery drivers to gas engineers, and of course those on the frontline of the NHS, we have all depended on them massively this year. That is why we were so happy to back the County Durham Together Awards, and particularly the Key Worker category”.

believe housing is clearly more than an ordinary housing association…

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