Although the shortage of housing was a major issue in the recent Irish general election, it is also a major challenge in Northern Ireland. For some reason, there is much less focus on this north of the border. PPR – the Participation and Practice of Rights – is keen to correct this, as its housing activist Marissa McMahon explained in the latest Holywell Trust Forward Together podcast.
It is important to consider the statistics when placing the housing crisis in context. As at March last year, there were nearly 38,000 applicants in Northern Ireland on the social housing waiting list, of which more than 26,000 were recognised as being in ‘housing stress’, while 12,512 households were accepted as statutorily homeless. With less than a thousand new social homes built in 2018/19, at that rate it would take more than a decade to house just those who are accepted as homeless. It is fair to talk of a housing crisis in Northern Ireland, which is getting worse.
What is more, housing stress is connected to broader social problems – it can trigger depression and can be a factor in suicide. It is also related to relationship breakdowns and a range of other social problems. “There are over 15,000 children, under 18s, living in housing stress in these six counties,” says Marissa. “That is an awful lot of children growing up in accommodation that is not suitable. It’s overcrowded, in hostels, in single lets. Children have become institutionalised and don’t know any different. I don’t believe that in the 21st Century, in one of the six richest nations, that there should be that many people, including children, living in housing stress. There’s something seriously and fundamentally wrong.”
PPR is specifically targeting the site of the former Mackie’s textile factory in West Belfast, which they want used to build new social homes. “It’s a massive piece of publicly owned land in the highest area of need in Belfast. Within a few miles radius there are five homeless hostels, that includes women and children and single males. Not one of those people in those hostels has been consulted on whether they would like to see homes built on the Mackie’s site. Instead people in government decided that homes weren’t needed. Yet there are plans for private developers to build homes, build apartments, on a site adjacent to Mackie’s. That doesn’t make any sense.”
Marissa is also concerned about the Tribeca development proposal in the centre of Belfast. The city’s councillors “didn’t consider what the young people, the children, the women in those hostels, their views, or what they needed in that area,” she argues. “They are in social need.”
Instead of the construction of large numbers of new social housing, there has been a growth in the private housing sector. According to analysis by the House of Commons library, Northern Ireland has become the only part of the UK where the private housing rental sector is larger than the social housing sector. In some instances, that private housing is of very poor quality. “There needs to be a total reform of the private housing sector,” says Marissa. “There needs to be much more consistent and stringent policies in place.”
She expresses concern at the conditions in private accommodation in which refugees fleeing violence in Syria, for example, have been placed. “They are not for purpose, at all,” says Marissa. She instances “extreme dampness”, which can be very difficult to resolve, even though the lets have been arranged by the Housing Executive. “First of all they shouldn’t have been placed in homes of that standard and they shouldn’t have to go through these loops to get the basics… We have so many families who have tried to set up homes in private rental homes because that is all they can access and they are told we want you out within a month. Where do they go?”
While most homeless households are not sleeping rough, there is also a problem in Northern Ireland of street homelessness. Marissa believes this is not being properly addressed, even during the Covid-19 pandemic. “In comparison with England, the emergency changes to our legislation have been quite minor. The minister for housing in England has formed a task force, has made it a duty for local councils to house homeless people in B&Bs and hotels. Here it is much more ad hoc.”
Marissa adds: “I have an example of that. This is a frontline worker, working as an interpreter for the NHS, who was basically sleeping rough, who was put into what was being deemed as a single let. Then I was told that this may cost up to £750 per month. She can’t afford that. So while they’ve lifted the people off the street and put them into accommodation – which is absolutely fantastic to see – there is this worry about what happens afterwards. Is it going to be rolled back, back onto the street? Where do these people go?”
This latest podcast in the second Forward Together series is available here on the website of peace and reconciliation charity Holywell Trust. It is funded by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme
Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.
Paul Gosling is editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects and is Parliamentary Assistant to Sinead McLaughlin MLA, the SDLP’s economy spokesperson.