It’s a busy time for Paddy Gray. Arguably the North’s foremost authority when it comes to housing, the Magee professor is the speaker of choice at countless conferences, meetings and press calls. Everyone wants an expert voice on the topic on everyone’s lips.
From the Housing Executive tenant to the thousands living in private rented property, the unfortunates who are mortgaged up to the proverbial neck or the beginners trying to get a foot on the continually shaky property ladder, they all want to know when it will get better and when they can start living happily ever after in that two up and two down with a garden and off street parking.
Thirty years of experience have taught Paddy a lot of things about housing, but most importantly, that there’s no such thing as an easy answer or a quick fix solution on any matter when it comes to roofs over heads.
Now based in Derry, Paddy, who was born and bred in Armagh, grew up with a strong social conscience. His self described formative years included a stint as President of the University of Ulster’s student union at Jordanstown. It was, he says, far from the usual student union attendances and far from what he had initially expected but undoubtedly gave him a grounding in terms of exercising diplomacy and crucially, listening to the issues people were experiencing at grass roots level.
“When I became president of the Students Union it was at the very beginning of the Hunger Strikes and our average turnout at meetings went from being around 30 to 1400,” he recalls. “It was daunting. We had fairly charged meetings but at the same time it was a great way to get experience in terms of listening to both sides and it was certainly confidence building. It was a great thing to do during those formative years. It was a hell of a time to be growing up in,” he adds.
Being in the middle of such volatile politics didn’t send Paddy hurtling back to the French and English degree he’d left to pursue a career in more social issues. Determined to affect change on the ground, his first job was with the Housing Executive in Belfast. Anything but a desk job, one of his early roles saw him sent into Belfast’s loyalist heartland, working on the ground to help Housing Executive tenants in the Rathcoole estate.
That too was a challenge, but something that - as part of job he was paid for - Paddy set about doing.
“Of course it was daunting,” he says.
“The location was worrying. For a start, I had to become known as Peter rather than Paddy for obvious reasons, and I suppose when I think back every time you knocked on a door, as a Catholic, you wondered if somebody was waiting behind it for you. But I just got on with it, that was the job and I never had any problems with anyone in the area.
“What you find is, that when it comes to housing, the issues are generally the same. Whether it’s protestant or catholic, people in social housing have the exact same questions and problems and at that point the job was to try and listen to everybody, regardless of the politics, and try and resolve the issues.”
Best known in Derry for his role as chair of the city’s Citizens’ Advice Bureau, which he’s been an integral part of over 20 years, Paddy, recently spoke publicly about the severity of the welfare reform cuts which lie ahead for people here in 2013.
He’s concerned about changes being made to the Housing Executive but says that mainly a lack of understanding about the numerous social problems stemming from housing issues, is crippling already vulnerable members of society. It isn’t just a theoretical reference for Paddy, who grew up in a single parent family in a prefab home in Armagh in the seventies. “My mother Josie raised four sons on her own, in what would have been known as one the tin houses during some of the worst years of the Troubles. I know what it’s like, I’ve lived in housing like that. I have so much respect for my mother who did what she did in an era where it wasn’t widely accepted to be a single parent.
“Now of course, things are very different but I honestly don’t think people realise the massive problems which lie ahead when we talk about things like welfare reform and in particular changes to housing. We’re talking about bedroom tax and the changes in store for the Housing Executive. These changes are put down on paper in a government department and I honestly don’t think the government realise the ripple effects that follow. These decisions will inevitably lead to an increase in depression, people suffering anxiety and relationship breakdowns. Those are all the aspects of housing that don’t necessarily make the headlines but they are real and genuine concerns for thousands of people who have less and less money in their pockets. The reforms we’re seeing in terms of housing are putting the most vulnerable - be they adults or young people - under pressure,” he says.
From his lectures at Magee to commenting in the local media and speaking at a number of international conferences, Paddy admits that he pretty much lives and breathes housing. “Housing is my hobby,” he smiles. It’s been a pretty successful pastime at that. In 2010 the Magee lecturer became the first ever Irish President of the Chartered Institute of Housing. His proudest achievement to date, it saw him at the head of the organisation which oversees housing in the UK and Hong Kong. He was also head of a progressive initiative which was responsible for the regeneration of social and private housing areas in Belfast. A number of other roles within local and regional housing associations have taught him more and more about bread and butter issues and led him beyond his chosen profession to play a key role the local community here.
His association with the Citizens Advice Bureau is something he’s enjoyed immensely. He’s eager to emphasise just how integral Derry’s CAB team are in terms of helping people facing increasing challenges in the current climate.
“Jacqui Gallagher and her team have done phenomonal work in the city and I’m very happy that I’ve been able to be involved there. I still really enjoy that aspect of tackling grass roots issues head on and that’s exactly what the Citizens’ Advice Bureau is all about. For me it’s about keeping that awareness of poverty and debt and I have no doubt the bureau has impacted either directly or indirectly on the lives of everyone in this city and that’s a credit to everyone who works there,” he says.
Well travelled and networking comfortably in the worlds of sociology and academia and with a genuine desire to affect change locally and nationally, Paddy seems a likely candidate to appear on the voting slip one of these years. He hasn’t to date, held back by a climate of politics where he says, he’s never quite fitted in. “I probably would have gone into politics but I just didn’t think politics here in the North was the place for me,” he says.
“I often look at the Senate in the South and think that would be a great place to affect change but that kind of setting has never existed here,” he says.
For the next few years the Armagh born father of one knows he’ll be busy. Numerous dates have already been made at conferences around the UK and beyond with the emphasis of keeping housing and issues arising from welfare reform at the top of the agenda. “It’s going to be a busy time,” says Paddy. But then that’s probably the case when your job is understanding, discussing and affecting change in an area which literally impacts on every man woman and child in the country.