Hearth Housing Association is a small charity which aims to maintain local tradition whilst providing much-needed housing for its tenants.
One of its tenants works for a similar small charity. Gerry White runs the John Hewitt bar in Donegall Street, Belfast, which is owned by a charity, the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre. Any profits from the bar go towards the work of the charity.
Gerry relishes the fact that the John Hewitt is based in a unique old building that was once the administrative offices of the Belfast Newsletter. He takes a similar pride in his flat in Hearth flat in Camden Terrace – it was the first block of houses to be built on Camden Street in 1849-52 shortly after Queen’s University was built nearby.
Originally occupied by well-to-do merchants, the houses were three storey plus basement kitchens and servants’ rooms in the attics. Over the years they fell on hard times, with one house latterly used by the university drama group for building and storing stage sets, and another occupied by a rag and bone lady.
The flats were eventually acquired by Queen’s and there were plans to demolish them for car parking but fortunately they were listed and Hearth bought them in 1982, converting them into flats, dealing with extensive dry rot, restoring plasterwork and replacing railings that had been removed during the war.
In 2010, Hearth re-improved the flats, updating services, fire protection, thermal insulation and sound proofing while still retaining its historic plasterwork and Victorian joinery details. The front windows are mostly original and over 150 years old.
Marcus Patton from Hearth says that the restoration of buildings and the provision of housing are compatible aims for the organisation. He comments: “We look at a building that is blighting an area because of its dereliction, restore it to its former glory and create a home for tenants from the common waiting list, in the same way as every other housing association. Over 80% of our tenants say they prefer living in old houses to new ones – indeed many of them take a considerable pride in their buildings.”
Gerry has lived in the same flat for nearly 30 years and is content in his home, he has considered buying a home but has decided against it. He explains: “About 20 years ago, all of my friends were buying houses. They told me it was the thing to do and it would be a nice pension for me when I got older. I did think about it and looked at a few houses, but in the end I decided against buying.
“I live in a social home, which is overseen by a housing association, and they are brilliant landlords. If something goes wrong with the apartment, then I report it to them and it will get fixed.”
Gerry adds: “I like where I live and love my neighbours. If I move I could end up in another street with different neighbours, so I’ve never felt the need to move. I was given the option to buy my apartment a few years ago and again I thought about it, but decided against it.
“The Housing Association is so good to rent property from, as if I bought the apartment and took it out of their hands, then someone who needed somewhere to live wouldn’t get the opportunity to have it after me. I have plenty of friends who bought houses and are now in negative equity.
“Also, if something goes wrong with the apartment, I would have to be responsible for that. Currently, the housing association has responsibility for maintenance and repairs.”
Gerry says: “The rent is also quite low, especially given that I live in south Belfast. I don’t think I’ll ever buy a house – my amazing neighbours are one of the reasons I want to stay put. We have a wonderful community here.”