Belfast Telegraph

Helm holding £3.8m while tenants suffer

by Bob Malcolm

Helm Housing has reported a £3.8m surplus in the last year and awarded staff generous wage increases — yet many tenants claim they are being left living in damp, mouldy conditions.

The Community Telegraph has been contacted by a number of tenants in recent months accusing the housing group of failing to alleviate their problems.

Jennifer Gills, who lives in London Street, said: “My sons both suffer from respiratory problems.”

Another, Lindsey Haddock, said: “I've had to take my 14-week-old son to hospital six times so far because of the mould and the respiratory problems it caused. My wee boy Brooklyn has had to use an oxygen machine in hospital too. They don't seem to care and don't want to do anything about the problem.”

However, Richard Buchanan, interim chief executive of Helm Housing, said it was the age of the housing stock the association had inherited that was to blame.

“Those houses were built a long time ago and basically the issue is they are not built for modern living — that is the problem we are trying to address,” he said.

“It’s a problem with ventilation as much as anything else.

“If someone tells us a house is not habitable we will move the tenant. We have to act on professional opinions.

“The last time these houses were in a development phase was in 1999 — there are lots of properties to be improved and development phases run in 15 to 20- year phases.”

He said Helm Housing would be criticised by the Housing Executive if it did not follow strict guidelines.

“The social housing programme is dictated to us. We’re told where the priorities are.”

He urged tenants to follow the complaints procedure.

“We are concerned about the issue generating a health hazard to people in our properties — as the previous MD did as well.

“Rather than someone’s child getting sick, to other people who say they have issues with their property — as with private landlords — we want to know about the issue and any allegations that are made against our members of staff.”

A Department of Social Development spokesman said: “The department has raised these specific cases with Helm and is advised that the association is taking urgent steps to address the worst of these conditions and understands that contractors can begin work if they can gain access.

“Whilst the maintenance of its houses is the responsibility of each housing association, if there are failings the department seeks improvement immediately.

“The minister is committed to ensuring that the properties of all tenants are maintained to appropriate standards.”

Helm’s figures indicate that in the year ending March 31, 2010, its turnover was £16,523,311 with a surplus of £3,832,144, which goes back into the social economy business.

It spent a total of £2,397,920 on day-to-day repairs and £558,770 on major repairs.

Helm Housing’s staff received salary increases of 5.1% in 2008 when inflation was 3.6%, 4.6% in 2009 (inflation 3.1%) and 5.3% in 2010 (3.8%).

MLA Michael Copeland said: “If these figures are correct it is not beyond logic to assume that some of the accrued money could and should be used to improve the living conditions for some of the most vulnerable in society.”

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