We sat down with Declan Morris, Project Manager at Extern Homes, to talk about his recent win at the Chartered Institute of Housing Awards, a practical approach to solving homelessness, and working towards effective tenant engagement and participation.
Extern Homes, a social landlord launched in 2016, was created to help move people from homelessness into homes by Extern, the leading social justice charity, and Charity Bank, the ethical bank that exists to lend to charities and social enterprises.
Operating with the help of Rea Estates, Extern Homes offers a tenancy period of up to two years, during which time tenants are provided with tenancy support services and access to training and employment opportunities, with the goal of moving into longer-term accommodation.
An Award-Winning Project
The Chartered Institute of Housing recognised Extern Homes in their ‘More than Bricks and Mortar’ category this year, an apt description of what Extern strives to achieve.
“The big thing for me that was really important was the engagement with tenants”, said Declan.
“I’m here not just to make sure the building is safe, but to make sure they are safe too.”
It’s about engaging with tenants on an individual basis, to meet their needs and empower them to move on to a new phase of their life. Declan stressed the need to work in partnership with whatever agencies or organisations were best placed to help a tenant.
Extern Homes, a newcomer to the social housing scene in Northern Ireland, currently has 10 properties in North & West Belfast, which they use to support people who are homeless to get back into the community - not just back into a home.
Tenants are provided with welfare advice services and the opportunity to avail of volunteering opportunities within Extern. Following on from their time in an Extern Home, Extern helps their tenants to secure longer-term accommodation, based on having developed a positive tenancy history, and having been encouraged to save for a future tenancy deposit.
Declan told us about one particular tenant who has really thrown himself into the project, becoming a great advocate for the Extern approach. He has spoken at several events where he generously tells his own personal story of homelessness and how he has been able to move on to the next phase of his life.
“He was a huge part of why we applied for the award, it was almost a thank you to him because he had given so much of his time to promote the project”, said Declan.
A Hands-on Approach
It’s clear from the way Declan speaks that he is passionate about his work and that he derives real pleasure from engaging with the tenants at Extern Homes. He stressed the need for any landlord, but certainly for a socially conscious landlord, to take a tenant engagement approach to understand the needs and concerns of their tenants.
“For some, particularly for young people who have been in institutional care and homeless hostels, and who have never experienced life on their own in the community, it’s vitally important for any landlord to be conscious of that, and to make sure there is a much, much more hands-on approach.”
Running this new project, Declan is keen to learn what’s working and he is prepared to make changes, even drastic ones, if that’s what tenant feedback tells him is needed. He has implemented several ways to find out what tenants think but the bottom line is simple: “The only way to find out if it's working is if we ask!”
Joining Empowering Communities and the TPPN
Declan joined Empowering Communities as a result of our initial training opportunity around the implementation of the NI Tenant Participation Strategy (2015-2020).
“I could see the fit right away, I could see the connection around what we wanted to achieve”, he said. “It was a great opportunity to lay some foundations and groundwork around the TP Strategy.”
He has also become a regular member of the Tenant Participation Practitioners Network (TPPN), a quarterly forum to discuss and share best practice with colleagues from the housing sector.
The championing of tenant engagement, something that should really be core to everyone’s job in social housing, can often fall to one person in the housing team. The TPPN provides a community of professionals with a common goal to support each other in their work.
“The forum is a fantastic opportunity to discuss what’s working and what’s not working and to pick up ideas and adapt them to your own work”, Declan told us.
We asked what was next for Extern Homes. “We’re not resting on our laurels!” exclaimed Declan. Extern Homes hopes to purchase a further 20 properties and will look outside of Belfast to see how this model work elsewhere without losing that tenant engagement approach.
“The bottom line is, I genuinely believe it works”, explained Declan. “We can see it within the model, and it works because of the tenant engagement approach… when we look at scaling it up, it will require continued support and continued partnership working wherever we go.”
The ten original properties purchased in Belfast are now homes to people who were once trapped in a cycle of homelessness. Already, these new homes and supported two-year tenancies have made a huge difference to their lives, helping them to secure new jobs, enter into training opportunities, rebuild relationships with their families, and believe in a brighter future.