How can housing associations create more inclusive workplaces and communities?

Bunmi Atta, 30 November 2020

Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in our sector won’t be achieved by just a campaign or an initiative, it requires each of us to make fundamental and lasting changes. To help the sector move forward we need individuals and organisations to share their experiences and one such person is Bunmi Atta, Director of Construction at Optivo and a member of the NHF's EDI in Housing group. 

Bunmi is a big advocate for organisational and resident inclusivity, and this is especially relevant to Optivo as around 23% of their residents are Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME). Below, I found out more about how Optivo strives to be a more inclusive community.

Tell us a bit about Optivo’s roots, what challenges was it created to solve?     

Following World War Two there was a huge housing shortage and many families and communities had become homeless overnight. 75 years ago Joan Bartlett started work on tackling this and, during the further housing crisis of the 1960s, John Howes and Jack Griffin joined Joan on this mission. Our founders sought to give those most in need a roof over their heads and today we are no less ambitious. Our passion has grown to building sustainable homes, building communities and helping our residents lead full and vibrant lives.

Today, we house around 90,000 residents over a range of tenures including shared ownership, general needs, leaseholders, independent living, keyworkers and students.

What success has Optivo had in building strong connections with BAME community and why is this so important? 

Co-creation is a key part of our strategy. We bring residents into governance and decision making as well as involving residents in our community projects because we know how important it is to listen to them. Involving our residents throughout the journey of any project will bring an even richer wealth of diverse experience to all that we do.

A good example of this is our recent Black History Month celebrations. Taking coronavirus into account, we held a number of online events, from history talks, to poetry and music, to haircare and cooking tutorials.

Why is this important? When we involve our communities we’re able to create events, activities and projects that make them feel included, listened to and valued.  

How have you been able to influence the relationship between housing association and residents within your role?

I am the Chair of our Resident Design Quality Forum, who provide feedback into our new build’s design and specifications. Speaking to our residents and listening to their needs allows us to be dynamic in our planning and design. This’ll be where they and their family call home and where they will become a part of our community.

As a Construction Director, what changes have you been able to make to allow for better housing for BAME communities? 

As a black person - I have the natural disposition that everything I do promotes inclusivity and it also helps that I’m in an inclusive environment at Optivo. My team are always evolving and learning from each other, our residents and our communities.

Being open to lived experiences that are different, we use that approach in decision making and that translates into the delivery of good and inclusive design. In the first few months of a resident moving into one of our homes we engage with them and encourage them to tell us what we’ve got right and wrong with their new home.

Listening is essential but it’s not just about getting the feedback in the first place. It’s about getting the different views and implementing change and doing things that make a positive difference to our residents and our communities.

What change would you like to see in the sector?

I want to see more housing - especially affordable housing and mixed tenure – and more flexibility of movement within the different affordable tenures. What we need to remember is that the supply of housing is bedrock of true Equality, Diversity and Inclusion itself.

The sector is moving in the right direction, but I’d like to see more diversity at senior leadership level and chief exec level, more data around movement out of sector and what we can do to keep talented people and more opportunities for career progression. I’m proud that Optivo are a key member in creating the Leadership 2025 programme which is a leadership development programme available exclusively to BAME senior leaders in the housing sector.

In addition to this, we’ve signed up to The Five Point Plan. These are recommendations designed to facilitate cultural change and tackle unconscious bias. This includes reports annually on key diversity statistics and interviewing more diverse pools of candidates as well as developing the leadership pipeline. It’s this inclusive action that will mean a future with more BAME leadership.

Here at the NHF we’ve been working with members from our EDI in Housing group to drive a shift in culture in delivering inclusive workplaces. The group have been fundamental in pushing forward the publication of our insight report

The report has been created in partnership with the Housing Diversity Network and offers a critical analysis of the current state of play, considering the main challenges and opportunities and relevant case studies. The group have also been integral in ensuring EDI is core to the new NHF Code of Governance.