A Sunderland charity is transforming some of the city’s most run-down homes as part of a drive to revitalise its neighbourhood.
Back on the Map has snapped up dozens of vacant or landlord-owned properties in Hendon and used Government cash to turn them back into much-needed family homes, with the rents generated used to carry out more refurbishments and fund the charity’s other work.
Back on the Map began in 2001 as the New Deal for Communities Partnership and is now based in the Carnegie Community Corner - the former Hendon Library - which it took on from the city council and renovated in 2014.
The bustling multipurpose centre, run by four staff and 29 volunteers, offers a variety of services, including classes, meeting and activity spaces, an IT zone, and the largest community library in Sunderland.
Director Jen McKevitt said the decision to concentrate the trust’s work on regenerating the area’s housing stock had been very much a locally-led decision.
“When the New Deal programme was coming to an end we carried out a large local consultation exercise, asking residents what they would like a new charity to focus on and housing came out top,” she said.
Back on the Map identified the large proportion of cheaply-bought, poorly-maintained, often empty houses in the hands of private landlords, as a major problem which it could tackle head-on.
Local streets in middle Hendon and the area known as the ‘Long Streets’ were run down, tenants were not being properly vetted and the neighbourhood had begun to suffer from criminal activity, with drug dealing and related anti-social issues commonplace.
“A once thriving and friendly community that had grown up together across generations had become totally fractured,” added Jen.
“This is why we got into housing.
“We felt that someone needed to recognise the problem and do something about it, so we financed a selective licensing scheme for private landlords in the area from 2010 to 2015, and over a few years we bought 62 empty or landlord sale properties and refurbished them using empty homes grants from the Homes and Communities Agency.
“We aim to create a better standard of housing and higher standard of service for local residents; returning what were previously well-maintained houses back into a good state and back into local hands.”
Originally working with housing association partner Gentoo to manage the lettings, the Back on the Map team later took the decision to control this themselves, handled by Finance and Housing Manager Elaine Sherriff.
A third of the revenue generated by the rents, all set at affordable levels at or below Local Housing Allowance rate, goes back into property improvements and repairs with the remainder supporting Back on the Map’s wider community activities.
Elaine said: “Prospective tenants have to go through a vetting process with the council first, and we ensure they don’t have any criminal history or financial arrears, and also that they have some links to the local area.
“We want people to stay long-term, to be part of the community, so we aim to get our tenants along to the centre to get involved. A number of our new volunteers are also our residents and they love it.”
Many residents have had poor experiences of previous housing, including Martha Potter, a mum of four.
She described what life was like before discovering Back on the Map: “Either side of the place I lived there were problems with drugs. It got to the point where my children, including my daughter who was three, were picking up syringes from the garden.
“I was living with damp, beetles, and the floor collapsed but the landlord wouldn’t repair it.”
After moving into a property with Back on the Map, the family has a new lease of life and hasn’t looked back.
“I’m so much happier, it’s affordable, warm, and I can’t fault Back on the Map. If there’s a problem they listen and act straight away,” added Martha.
“The community here feels much closer, people are getting together and getting involved more. I drop in to the centre and the kids love it.”
The programme is hugely successful, and highly rewarding for Elaine.
She said: “The biggest feeling of reward is when people turn the house into a home. That gives us all a sense of pride and achievement, seeing someone happy and enjoying living there, looking after it and wanting to stay there.”
Retired couple Sandra and Bill Thompson found Back on the Map when their world was turned upside down in later life.
For 45 years they had lived without worry in a house they bought from the council and expected to stay there for the rest of their lives.
But when seven years ago Bill became ill and had to undergo a triple heart bypass, financial difficulties followed and they struggled to pay their mortgage.
Their son stepped in to take over the mortgage but then got into his own financial difficulties and, no longer able to pay the mortgage or his own rent, the couple were evicted.
“It was heart-wrenching to have to leave,” said Sandra. “We had nowhere to go and were desperate.”
Bill said of the trauma: “Losing our house was a tremendous shock and hit us both hard. I was depressed and I’m still on medication now.
“It turned everything upside down and you feel ashamed to tell anyone. It also caused a rift between us and our son.”
Through volunteering in the centre, Sandra found out more about Back on the Map’s properties, which proved to be the turning point.
“I got in a bit of a state and spoke with Elaine who asked if I’d be interested in a property that was becoming available,” she said.
“When I saw it I was over the moon, l knew it would become my home.
“We’ve been in this house for a couple of months now, the people here are very friendly and there’s a great community spirit.
“There should be more work like this done to bring houses back into use for people in need.”
Having been born in Hendon, Bill has come full circle and the couple are now looking forward to celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.
“This house has given us a new life, we can move on,” he said.