Changing of the guard as Gerry Kelly hands Apex reigns to Sheena McCallion

From left, outgoing Apex CEO Gerry Kelly, with the incoming boss Sheena McCallion and the Apex chairman, John Meehan.
From left, outgoing Apex CEO Gerry Kelly, with the incoming boss Sheena McCallion and the Apex chairman, John Meehan.

Fifty three years ago the Derry Housing Association was established under the guidance of the late Father Anthony Mulvey, to tackle the slum housing conditions which existed in Derry at that time.

Half a century and several name changes later, the acorn sown by the ex-Administrator of St. Eugene’s Cathedral has grown to become one of the ‘big four’ housing associations in the North and a huge contributor to the Derry economy.

At the end of this month there will be a changing of the guard at the association when after 38 years its current Chief Executive Gerry Kelly retires and hands over the reigns to its Director of Housing and Care Services, Sheena McCallion.

Since Mr. Kelly joined the association on New Year’s Day, 1980, when it was based in a small office in Glenowen and had about 150 houses under its management, it has undergone massive change and growth and now manages 5,500 homes, which will grow to over 8,500 when its current building programme is complete.

Reflecting on his early years with the association when the provision of family housing remained very much within the purview of the Housing Executive (NIHE), Mr. Kelly recalled that the organisation was a much smaller operation than it is today.

“The role of housing associations back then in 1980 when I joined was relatively small.

“We did sheltered accommodation for older people. We did accommodation for homeless people. We did hostel type schemes but it was quite a restricted role. The NIHE at that time was doing all the family housing on a very, very large scale. When we started off we built the ‘House in the Wells.’

“That’s was the first scheme I did, for men with alcohol difficulties.

“We converted a number of old houses around the inner city, Magazine Street, Great James’ Street, and converted those into apartments for single people. We built our first sheltered housing scheme at Abbey House in the Little Diamond,” he added.

Over the next few decades, Mr. Kelly witnessed a number of key developments that radically transformed the association’s reach.
Cosmetically, it was renamed, of course, first as the North and West Housing Association in 1993, and later, as the Apex Housing Association in 2010, in order to reflect its growing geographical base.

But more important than that were two separate structural changes within social housing and health and social care in the 1980s and 1990s which helped make Apex the employer of over 650 people it is today.

“We’ve come from very small beginnings but have built ourselves up over the years. The opportunities arose when the NIHE stopped building housing in 1993 and associations took over that role,” explained Mr. Kelly.

“Prior to that when the health service wanted to move people out of institutions into the community with the Care in the Community programme [a progressive deinstitutionalisation drive in mental health] in the late 1980s, we embraced that and delivered a lot of new housing projects for people with learning disabilities and people with mental health issues to take them out of the institutions and into the community. We manage over 1,000 units of that type of accommodation,” he told the ‘Journal.’

Three years after the NIHE stopped building houses and housing associations started playing a greater role in that area, the incoming Apex boss, Sheena McCallion, joined the then North and West Housing Association as a housing manager in 1996.

“At that stage the housing association was really starting to expand significantly into general family housing,” she observed.

“In the last 22 years we’ve grown significantly on that side of things and our focus is not just on the city here.

“We now work right across Northern Ireland and into Donegal.

“At the minute we have about 5,500 homes that we provide and that’s really across a very broad range - general family housing, sheltered accommodation, hostels.

“We provide accommodation, care and support services for people with learning disabilities, mental health issues, older people, housing with care and we also provide nursing care as well. Any need that is there, Apex has sought to provide it over the years,” she confirmed.

Of the four main housing associations in the North, which includes Radius, Choice and Clanmill, Apex is the only one headquartered this side of Belfast.

And it had the largest development programme of any of the ‘big four’ last year and is likely to build more houses this year too.

This means jobs, as well as roofs over heads, as Mr. Kelly explained: “We’re developing very significant schemes right across Northern Ireland. We’ve 1,000 houses going to the Skeoge. We’re delivering a major scheme of 300 houses in Newry, 500 houses in West Belfast, 130 houses in Dungannon and 130 houses in Lisburn.

“If you consider the cost of houses - the average cost to deliver a house is £130,000 - 1,000 times that is £130m.

“That’s the development programme that we are bringing forward and we are doing that and involving a lot of local contractors. In terms of the local economy we have had a huge impact.

"We directly employ 650 people. In terms of salaries per month that’s about £1.3m we pay out on salaries to our staff every month. We then pay out to the contractors. Our sites, a typical site, will employ 300 people on site during the construction period. So it’s a huge impact we have on the local economy because the majority of our activity is here in the North West,” said Mr. Kelly.

Ms. McCallion, who will take over the reigns when Mr. Kelly retires on his 65th birthday at the end of the month, is looking forward to the new role.

“I’ve been with the organisation a long time. It’s a very good organisation. It provides a lot for the community but it’s also very supportive of its staff. So I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

And despite the name changes and the exponential growth over the decades Apex remains as true as ever to the vision of self-help first articulated by Fr. Mulvey when he set up the Derry Housing Association in 1965.

“It was and is a community based organisation. Fr. Mulvey was the first chairman. He pulled together a group of local people who formed a committee, all on a voluntary basis, but we are no different from any other housing assoication.

"All the board members are voluntary and we are a not-for-profit organisation,” concluded Mr. Kelly.