In this first interview, John Hannigan – CEO of Circle Voluntary Housing Association and Vice-Chair of Housing Alliance, is interviewed concerning the Housing Alliance and Circle VHA. For both organisations, their governance is discussed, alongside recent mergers, alliances and partnerships. 

Circle VHA and the Housing Alliance
Circle VHA is a social housing organisation that is active in Ireland, Dublin area. The organisation has around 2500 households in their portfolio and plans on delivering up to 2000 new homes in the coming 3 to 5 years.

The Housing Alliance is a different organisation that includes Circle VHA. The Alliance consists of the six larger housing associations in Ireland. These are Circle Voluntary Housing, Clúid Housing, Co-operative Housing Ireland, Oaklee Housing, Respond and Tuath Housing. In total, the Alliance manages about 24.000 homes between the associations, having a national spread. The supply of the Housing Alliance ranges from general housing needs to special needs for vulnerable groups, including care services.

The Housing Alliance came together when the separate associations realised that their combined portfolio provided over 85% of the social housing in the housing sector in Ireland, making them the driving engine in housing delivery. Adding to this, their combined sizes make the associations significant partners for local authorities. The Alliance is therefore recognized by the Irish government as one of the key stakeholders in the national housing delivery plan, aiming at delivering 30.000 new dwellings within 10 years.

Governance of the Housing Alliance
The Alliance can be regarded as a company limited by guarantee. This means that there is no specific shareholding, however, the members are guarantees and serve as the corporate organisation. Each one of the six partner associations of the Alliance has a separate share.

At the head of the company stands a board of directors. This board consists of all the chief executives of the six different organisations. The day to day running of the Alliance is for the board of directors. The authority of the Alliance is delegated to the chairs of each separate organisation, these chairs represent the organisations on a member level. Then there is also an executive director appointed, this director carries out the day to day operations of the whole Alliance.

Governance structure of the Housing Alliance

Activities of the Housing Alliance
One of the key objectives of the Housing Alliance is to remove the barriers to social and affordable housing. The Alliance works together to ensure this across the whole organisation, the government, and the national department of housing. To be able to guarantee this objective, the Alliance looks at funding streams, bureaucratic procedures, and acquiring additional funding from the private sector to finance development. Next to this, the Alliance also looks at how housing is managed within the six organisations. The best strategies are shared between the associations and then built up upon. Special attention is paid to a vulnerable group falling right between social housing and general housing. The Alliance is at the forefront of advocating for this group and their needs.

Looking at the advantages of working within an alliance, one advantage is knowledge sharing. To stimulate this, peer groups are used, where the participants are from different organisations. In this way, all organisations learn from each other, and as a result, a better way of working is ensured. Different peer groups in place are (but are not limited to): housing management, housing delivery, finance, and reclassification (this phenomenon is explained below). Next to the peer groups, different information sessions and conferences have also been organised for the whole sector. 

Reclassification: All housing association’s activities in respect to income, expenditures and borrowing, are considered part of the economic elements of the Irish government and are therefore present on the governmental balance sheet. This limits the borrowing capacities of the associations, as each euro now counts as debt and the government, therefore, determines what can and cannot be done. There is an action plan going on to get off the balance sheet to get rid of the restrictive nature of this measure.

There is some collaboration throughout the Alliance on the subject of human resources. Actual sharing staff is not relevant, however, there is an HR subgroup active to ensure a level playing field in the sector and throughout policies. This HR subgroup has especially been relevant during COVID times when managing working remotely and connecting staff. 

Not only the support of the HR subgroup has been valuable during COVID. Knowledge sharing and general shared support have been a significant positive influence on the different organisations during COVID. With weekly meetings, connectivity, support in IT and staff management all organisations benefited. A great example is the switch to remote working, which had been in the pipeline for years. This change happened overnight due to the extensive collaboration. 

New housing regulation Ireland

Since 2021, there is a nationwide mandatory code of conduct for housing organisations, including (but not limited to) risk assessment, compliance standards, rehabilitation and organisation support. This code of conduct is as we speak still being embedded in the law as statutory regulation. This legal backup will grant parties such as funders, the public and others more confidence in the building process. In history and recent years, the majority of the housing organisations did act in a fair way. However, legal regulation to fall back on is an improvement and holds organisations accountable. 

Governance of Circle housing

The governance of Circle Housing can be described as follows; Circle housing is a registered charity and is organised as a company limited by guarantee. The members of Circle VHA are the board members, a total of nine. The organisation is governed by this voluntary board of committed professionals. This board provides guidance, support and strategic direction for the organisation. There are different committees operating under the board. Each committee consists of two board members and additional other professionals, all reporting back to the board. This can be seen as a two-tier board (voluntary board and voluntary committees). Below this board, an executive team operates and reports back on the day-to-day activities of the organisation. 

A special element of the governance of Circle VHA is the focus on the representation of tenants. There is a special tenant engagement strategy in place. This ensures fair and clear communication from tenant to board and back. There is a national tenant advisory group, representing tenants from different localities. This group revises policies, looks at communications and other impactful actions. There is a ‘tenant approved’-logo in place, which communicates to all tenants that the tenant advisory group has approved a certain action or policy. In the future, tenants will take a position within the board. 

Governance structure of Circle VHA

Housing association structure in Ireland and the tendency to merge

There has been a tendency in the last few years for more mergers, joint ventures or alliances in the sector. 

The housing sector in Ireland is divided into 3 tiers, tier 1 being the smallest organisation and tier 3 the biggest. With the restructuring of the sector, the weight and cost of regulations are more pressing. As a result, smaller organisations within tier 1 cannot keep up and seek refuge with bigger organisations. The smaller organisations have been given around 3 years to restructure themselves in this way – continuing on their own is no option as there are too high of governmental standards to keep up with. 

The organisations in tier 2 are considered fairly large and they often have other services than housing at their core. Companies like this branch out their housing portfolios to another housing provider. This is often done in the way of an alliance/partnership, where the original company focuses on their core business, and another company manages their portfolio. Circle VHA offers this service to other companies. 

In tier 3, the biggest tier, there are considerations to get the different housing associations together and in this way create greater economies of scale, lower costs and better services. Right now, economic drivers and regulations may sometimes act as a ceiling for possibilities. The collaboration between organisations might create more flexibility in these issues and mitigate gearing problems. 

The management services that Circle VHA offers to tier 2 generate a revenue stream. The prices of this service are based on the income of the tenant (differential rent) and an additional small fee. Within the partnership, this fee and the definitive charge is discussed. This additional income stream for Circle VHA is directed towards new services that are not profitable on their own; having the value of ‘not-for-profit’ at the core. These additional incomes account for around 15-20 per cent of the total revenue stream. 

Partnerships Circle VHA

Circle VHA works with different partners, catering to different specific needs that tenants might have. This service is mostly focused on retaining housing for vulnerable groups, and in this way slowly closing the path to homelessness. Current partnerships in place are on the topic of mental health, intellectual disability, homelessness, domestic violence, etc. 

The partnerships are based on a legally binding collaboration, however, the mutual way of working towards a common goal is an important part of the partnership as well. The partnerships ensure that all tenants are able to get the expertise that they might need, moving along with the demands and changing needs of tenants through the years. 

Last things to share

Ireland has a very innovative drive, this is especially visible in the housing sector and the recent changes in this area. There is not a change towards commercial business within social housing organisations, but a change towards increased professional levels. A current need is to work past the present ego issues of large organisations and change this to pragmatism and a proactive stance. There is still a lot to learn but the positive change journey has begun.