Hero color social housing day 1 image
The Detail investigates: The crisis facing Northern Ireland's social housing sector
Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

Amid concerns around rising levels of homelessness, a financial crisis and the future impact of welfare reforms, The Detail today launches the first of a two-day special report exploring the challenges currently facing the social housing sector.

THE number of households in priority need of social housing in Northern Ireland is at the highest level on record.

An investigation by The Detail has revealed more households are in housing stress than ever before as homelessness levels continue to rise.

It has also emerged that the number of public housing tenants falling behind with their rent is rising as welfare reforms are being rolled out across Northern Ireland which experts fear could make people "too poor for social housing".

Our examination of the current social housing stock, waiting lists and Stormont’s new social homes programme shows that housebuilding is not keeping up with demand and officials are being forced to explore other options amid ongoing budgetary pressures.

Today we are also publishing a special report examining data relating to repairs and other jobs carried out by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) on its properties over a six-month period. Click here to read more.

Our key findings from day one include:

  • There are around 127,400 social homes across Northern Ireland with only 18,000 located in rural areas;
  • There were a total of 37,859 applicants on the social housing waiting list at the end of March;
  • Seven out of every 10 households waiting for a social home were deemed to be in priority need of housing – officially described as housing stress;
  • Of the 26,387 applicants in housing stress, 74% (19,629) were officially considered homeless;
  • The NIHE is obliged to provide temporary accommodation for homeless applicants until a permanent social home becomes available and the average length of stay during 2017/18 was 282 days;
  • There were 3,943 homeless people on the housing waiting list for more than five years at the start of the year;
  • The average waiting time to be offered a social home in 2018 was just over a year. However, the NIHE confirmed some people have been on the waiting list for several decades;
  • Last year 7,680 households were allocated a social home in Northern Ireland, with the highest number of allocations (958) in the north Belfast parliamentary constituency,
  • As of March 2019, more than 123,600 homes had been removed from the social housing stock since 1979 as a result of tenants buying them at a discount price.

Ulster University Emeritus Professor of Housing Paddy Gray told The Detail: “There is a shortage of housing and we need to think about new ways of supplying housing for people who are in need.

“The homelessness figures have been rising and it’s not just about people who are sleeping on the streets but also people in temporary accommodation who don’t have secure permanent housing. That is a major problem now.”

A spokesman for the NIHE said the data featured in today's report "points to the highest levels of homeless households and those in housing stress in Northern Ireland since the formation of the Housing Executive".

He added: "This is something that we and our colleagues across the housing sector are aware of and are working hard to address."

Stormont’s latest published progress report for its Programme for Government commitments noted the “challenge in seeking to reduce the number of households in housing stress”.

The Department for Communities (DfC) said The Detail’s findings “reiterate the extent of the housing challenge facing Northern Ireland”.

A spokesman said this is why the department prioritises the supply of new social homes within its capital budget with £144m allocated this year – up from £121m last year.

He added: “This should increase the number of social homes available by a further 1,850 this year – on top of similar increases in recent years. In 2018/19, the department also invested £50m to deliver 1,100 affordable homes through the Co-ownership Scheme. It has reviewed the housing allocations scheme to ensure that the list functions as well as possible and proposals for change await ministers.

“However, the need for more housing and the pressure on the existing supply of social housing continues to grow. Housing stress has increased despite the significant rate at which new social homes are being built. A greater range of interventions will be required to meet this challenge. That will have to be a matter for the next programme for government.”

Data source: Northern Ireland Housing Executive as published by the Department for Communities.

Data source: Northern Ireland Housing Executive as published by the Department for Communities.


Stormont officials have worked for a number of years to find a solution to meet Northern Ireland’s housing needs but the current political impasse has made it difficult to progress their plans.

However, some experts believe political consensus on the way forward might not be achieved even if there was a functioning Government in place.

Concerns have also been raised about the impact of welfare reforms on the sector, particularly when a system of top-up payments for social tenants affected by the changes ends next year.

As a result of the reforms, Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is being replaced with the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), support with social housing costs is now calculated on the number of bedrooms a property has and a new Universal Credit payment is being introduced which merges six benefits into one.

There is also a cap on the amount that can be claimed in state benefits for working age recipients.

Social housing accounts for around 16% of Northern Ireland’s total housing stock of approximately 790,300 homes and is defined as affordable housing provided by either housing associations or the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE).

Established in 1971 as a result of the civil rights movement of the late 1960s, the NIHE owned around 174,500 properties at its peak and was once the UK’s largest landlord. However, this figure has since more than halved to just over 85,100 as a result of stock transfers and tenants buying their homes.

The Department for Communities (DfC) confirmed that civil servants at Stormont have drafted legislation relating to Northern Ireland’s version of the Right to Buy Scheme and officials at Westminster are considering when this could be introduced at Parliament.

DfC said it would not be appropriate “to set out the content of draft legislation that is subject to ministerial consideration” however it is believed this could end the practice of social tenants buying their homes at a discount in Northern Ireland. Scotland and Wales have already closed their schemes.

The NIHE last built a home in the early 2000s with Government incentivising private not-for-profit housing associations to deliver new social housing since 1998.

However, The Detail can reveal that the NIHE is currently working on a business case for a pilot scheme which could see it build social homes again but this plan would need to be approved by Stormont.

It has also emerged that a land mapping project to identify surplus areas of public land that could be developed for housing is still ongoing three years after it was initiated by the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

A spokesperson for the NIHE said: "We feel that the time is now right to explore the possibility of the Housing Executive once again building new homes where this involves the redevelopment or regeneration of stock in our estates. Not only to deal with growing housing need, but also to ensure that our homes are kept up to standard.

"It is our view that the introduction of social housing reform will help to unlock investment that will benefit our existing tenants and, with powers to build homes again, households in housing need."

As previously revealed by The Detail, the NIHE is considering plans that could include the future decommissioning of around half of its social housing stock if it cannot find a solution to plug an estimated £140m annual budgetary shortfall in order to prioritise the maintenance of its remaining homes.

The NIHE receives around £290m each year from rental income and has sought to increase this however this requires approval by DfC which told The Detail it has rejected a proposal for a rent increase in the 2019/2020 financial year in line with “UK Government policy on social rents”.

The last time the NIHE increased its rents was in 2015. Meanwhile rents on social homes elsewhere in the UK have been rising, with average monthly rates for local authority homes in England and Wales around £20 a week more than in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Rents in the social sector are typically cheaper than the private sector at £66.60 a week for an average NIHE home and £77.65 a week for an average housing association property during the 2017/2018 financial year.

Latest available figures from DfC show an average privately rented home cost around £98 a week during the 2016/2017 financial year. The private rented sector has seen significant growth over the past 25 years and accounted for around 19% of Northern Ireland’s housing stock in 2016, according to a House of Commons Library analysis.

Hero color day 1 social housing
What do social homes look like?
Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

Most social homes are in urban areas (around 86%).

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) owned over two thirds (85,162) of the stock at the end of March with the remainder belonging to housing associations.

More than three quarters (77%) of social homes have two or three bedrooms while there are over 289,200 bedrooms across the entire social housing stock. Just under two thirds (62%) of homes are located across 10 towns, with the most in Belfast (38,688) followed by Derry (10,781) and Newtownabbey (5,143).

This is according to an analysis of data provided to The Detail by the NIHE and Land and Property Services (LPS) - which is the Government body responsible for collecting land and property information in Northern Ireland.

The data analysed by The Detail accounts for approximately 97% of Northern Ireland’s social housing stock.

Housing associations emerged as social landlords in the mid-1970s and there are now 20 registered bodies operating across Northern Ireland.

Their homes tend to be newer than Housing Executive stock which includes 33 tower blocks built in the 1950s and 1960s now earmarked for demolition over a 20-year period.

A table outlining the length of time the tower block demolition plan is expected to take. (Source: Northern Ireland Housing Executive.)

A table outlining the length of time the tower block demolition plan is expected to take. (Source: Northern Ireland Housing Executive.)

The Housing Executive believes it would otherwise cost £308m over the next 30 years to maintain its tower blocks which comprise of 1,931 flats.

The project, which includes demolishing and rebuilding the lost homes, is estimated to cost £225m.

More than 1,600 of NIHE’s stock is over 100 years old with over half of its properties built during the sixties and seventies.

Over half of NIHE homes are houses whereas apartments are the most common type of properties owned by housing associations, according to our analysis.

Just under 1% (795) of the NIHE’s stock was empty at the start of December when it had 85,414 homes. Planned improvement schemes was the most common reason homes were empty while properties being difficult to let was the second highest reason.

The Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA) confirmed fewer than 2% (732) of its members’ social stock was empty during the 2016/2017 financial year which is the latest figure available.

Hero color no place like home
Who lives in social housing?
Picture by Lorcan Doherty for Press Eye.

Just under a third of people renting homes from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) during 2017 were retired and more were in employment than not – 22% in work compared to 15% unemployed.

This is according to the latest annual survey of a sample of NIHE residents which found that more than one fifth of tenants were permanently sick or disabled with the remaining 10.5% not working for reasons such as looking after family or in higher education.

The questionnaire was answered by 2,600 tenants which is just three per cent of households renting from the NIHE at the time although it does provide a snapshot.

Belinda Lawlor has rented a home from the NIHE for 40 years.

Now aged 58, Belinda still lives in the New Lodge tower block in Belfast that she first moved into.

She said: “The tower blocks were only just put up back then. It was exciting as there was underground heating and we’d never had that before.

“Coming from the old houses where you had an outside toilet, it was great to have a bathroom with a toilet all in one, and two bedrooms.

“It was all mixed with children and older people living there. I thought it was great until I had children myself and realised it wasn’t ideal for them.

“Young children can’t go up and down the lift on their own – you have to go with them – and the cries from them when you went to bring them in. It’s completely different from living on a street or somewhere with a garden where you can lock the gate and let them play outside.”

The mother-of-two now lives on the third floor of Eithne Lodge which has been earmarked for the final phase of the NIHE’s tower block demolition plan, meaning it will be at least another 10 years before it is replaced.

Belinda, who pays around £56 a week in rent, is hoping to be moved to a bungalow before then as she has a number of health issues and uses a mobility scooter.

She added: “It’s a good thing to pull the tower blocks down. They are too old. We need to have social housing but we need good social housing.”

Hero color leanne dunlop and bobby
How does the Northern Ireland Housing Executive allocate social homes?
Student nurse Leanne Dunlop lives in a Radius Housing Association home with son Bobby. Picture by Lorcan Doherty for Press Eye.

Applications for social housing are managed by the NIHE and families can be offered either a NIHE or housing association property.

A housing officer will assess the applicant’s housing needs and award points which determines their position on the waiting list. Homes are offered to the person who has expressed an interest living in that area and has the highest number of points.

This includes families, single parents, couples without children, people living alone and the elderly.

Under the current system, applicants are awarded points on the basis of health and social needs, housing conditions, whether they are homeless and if they have been subject to any intimidation.

In late 2017 the Department for Communities (DfC) consulted on amending the points system by giving more recognition to some categories and abolishing intimidation points.

The consultation document said intimidation points, which were introduced to address sectarian violence associated with The Troubles and are the highest number of points available, can disproportionately prioritise these cases ahead of other housing needs.

Student nurse Leanne Dunlop moved into her Radius Housing Association home in Derry in June last year with two-year-old son Bobby after more than two years on the waiting list.

The 32-year-old said: “Everybody kept saying you need 200 points or over to get a house. I only had 170 points [and no intimidation points] so I thought I would never get it.”

Leanne, who lived with relatives and friends while on the waiting list, added: “For over two years I was looking for a house, and having a baby, it was so stressful. Trying to go to school and doing all that in between, it was draining.

“Every time I phoned the Housing Executive, they would say they couldn’t tell me where I was on the list because it changes on a daily basis. If I was tenth today, someone could have a change in circumstance and could be in front of me in an hour’s time.”

Leanne could not be happier with her new home: “All I ever wanted was my own front door and a drive. My house is 10-years-old but it’s in a lovely quiet estate. I love my house.

“All of my friends who rent privately, and are paying more than me, if anything goes wrong, they have to wait to get it fixed but I ring Radius and they come out and they get things sorted. It’s far better.”


Emeritus Professor Paddy Gray has called for the NIHE to use a choice-based system to allocate social housing. This allows tenants to view and apply for homes when they become available, similar to when properties are advertised online in the private sector. This model is used elsewhere in the UK and the NIHE currently uses it in areas of low demand.

However, there are concerns this could disadvantage older and vulnerable people who might be less tech-savvy but Professor Gray said they could be helped by additional support mechanisms, such as assistance from a housing officer or advice provider.

The department has also consulted on plans to change how the NIHE deals with homelessness cases and said it will publish its findings after analysing the responses to a consultation which ran from September to December 2017.

The NIHE has a statutory duty to offer temporary accommodation to anyone in need of immediate rehoming, such as with intimidation cases, and said there were 2,104 households in non-permanent accommodation on March 4.

Along with those sleeping rough on the streets - which makes up a small number of those presenting and/or accepted as being homeless - the NIHE also considers people living in temporary accommodation to be homeless. This includes individuals staying in the houses of friends or family, in B&Bs, in hostels and in unsuitable or overcrowded conditions.

Reasons for presenting as homeless include issues with accommodation and relationship breakdowns as the table below shows.

Unlike in England, those deemed to be homeless in Northern Ireland will remain on the social housing waiting list until they are allocated a home even if they are rehoused in private accommodation paid for by the state.

The NIHE confirmed to The Detail that it would like to be able to discharge its statutory homeless obligation to the private sector – meaning those households who are rehomed in private rented accommodation will be removed from the social housing waiting list - and legislation already exists to allow this to happen, according to the body’s homelessness strategy.

However housing advice service, Housing Rights, has warned against this.

Policy and practice manager Kate McCauley said: “In our view it would be premature to consider discharging the homeless duty by placing people in private rented sector accommodation. Loss of rented accommodation is one of the top reasons why people present as homeless in Northern Ireland.

“While many social landlords have increased the level and type of practical support they provide to tenants on low incomes, the same support infrastructure does not exist for private tenants. One third of the calls our advisers take every day come from people living in the private rented sector.”

The NIHE said preventing homelessness is a priority and it established a new Housing Solutions service in April last year to support those who have already lost their homes or are at risk of becoming homeless.

A spokesman added: "The number of households presenting as homeless has been relatively consistent over the past two or three years. However, the percentage of applicants accepted as statutorily homeless is increasing year on year.

"Each year around 3,000 temporary accommodation placements were provided by the Housing Executive. We recognise that people experiencing homelessness and having to live in temporary accommodation for any length of time is stressful and difficult. We actively work with all our partners to attempt to get people rehoused in permanent accommodation as quickly as possible.

"It is important that our efforts to reduce homelessness are part of a bigger picture, which includes tackling the causes of social and economic exclusion and improving access to health and social care services. To achieve this in the current economic climate requires greater emphasis on prevention and early intervention through multiagency working including sharing of resources and continuously looking for creative and innovative solutions."

A range of short-term accommodation is available to the NIHE for homeless cases through what it calls its ‘bed bureau’, including hostels, hotels, B&Bs and private landlords.

There were 1,245 privately-owned homes in the bed bureau provided by 252 different landlords at the end of January.

Hero color social housing day 1 pic
The welfare reform 'cliff edge'
Picture by Lorcan Doherty for Press Eye.

Concerns over the impact of welfare reforms - which involves a complete overhaul of the benefits system - have prompted calls for a £0.5bn funding package, designed to support those affected by the changes in Northern Ireland, to be extended beyond the end of March 2020 when it is due to finish.

Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs and Work and Pensions Committees are holding a joint inquiry into welfare policy here. This includes looking at issues around Universal Credit which replaces six benefits including Income Support, Jobseekers' Allowance, Housing Benefit and Child Tax Credits.

It has heard evidence that social tenants in Northern Ireland could be unfairly penalised by the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ – officially known as the Social Sector Size Criteria (SSSC) - due to a shortage of smaller properties within the social housing stock. This is despite a pledge in Stormont’s 2012-2017 housing strategy to increase the supply of smaller homes.

Under the new welfare system, social tenants will have to pay more towards housing costs if they have additional unused bedrooms in their homes and could see their benefit payments reduced by either 14% or 25%.

An analysis by The Detail of 97% of Northern Ireland’s social housing stock shows just 17% of homes have one bedroom. The Westminster inquiry heard it is 18% of all social homes.

The Department for Communities (DfC) said NIHE research estimates around 33,000 social tenants could face a combined weekly shortfall of around £410,000 as a result of the bedroom tax when the top-up payments end. It said 34,000 tenants currently receive the mitigation.

A spokesman said: “Figures collated by the NIHE show that approximately 30% of Housing Executive tenants and 25% of housing associations tenants in receipt of Housing Benefit will be impacted by the Social Sector Size Criteria (SSSC). While this shortfall is currently mitigated by welfare supplementary payments, it points to real potential difficulties for both tenants and landlords when mitigation ends.

“Recent qualitative NIHE research with tenants also suggests that many households are unprepared/unlikely to pay the shortfall in the rent if SSSC mitigations end.”

Social tenants who have not changed address since the introduction of the new-style benefits are currently protected by the £585m mitigation package which was negotiated by the Stormont parties as part of the Fresh Start Agreement.

Last week DfC's Permanent Secretary Tracy Meharg told the Westminster inquiry into welfare policy in Northern Ireland that she has no power to extend this fund beyond March 2020 because it requires legislation.

A departmental review of the welfare mitigations, published in March, said this “would present significant challenges in the continued absence of a functioning Assembly”.

It added: “Any decision to continue with welfare mitigations would not only require the allocation of further substantial funding but would also require new legislation in an uncertain political environment.”

The report said those affected by the bedroom tax could potentially access support through discretionary housing payments from next April and that officials could "in principle" amend existing legislation to facilitate this in the absence of an Executive “if agreement on all other issues including budget had been reached”.

The Westminster inquiry heard last week that Northern Ireland's existing discretionary housing payment scheme is only open to a small number of specific groups of people compared to similar support in the rest of the UK that all social tenants can apply for.

Senior civil servants at DfC told the inquiry they could amend the Northern Ireland scheme but that "there is no money for it" and the additional workload would be operationally challenging.

Ms Meharg added: "Operationally, we would have to make that decision by October at the latest if we were to go down that route. I will be honest with you, we have talked to stakeholders. This is not seen as a particularly good move. Is it better than nothing? Then the question is: are there other things in place? Do we have the budget? Do we have the policy cover? The fact is people would have to apply for it."

The department told The Detail any decision on the provision of future mitigation measures from next year will be a matter for incoming ministers.

A spokesman said officials are “aware of the challenges likely to arise from the termination of the welfare mitigation package and the issues are being considered by officials to ensure that appropriate advice is available for an incoming minister”.

The Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA) believes around 8,000 of its members’ tenants could be burdened with an additional £5.5m to cover a shortfall in rent costs each year when the mitigations end.

NIFHA deputy chief executive Patrick Thompson said housing associations have started to help their tenants find homes without surplus bedrooms.

He added: “Universal Credit claimants are struggling with the changes and housing associations are having to deploy additional resources and staffing to assist tenants though the process and help them manage when payments are delayed.

"Added to this is the 'cliff edge' many social tenants will face next year when the package of welfare mitigations comes to an end.”

In the distance are four NIHE tower blocks on the Rathcoole Estate. Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

In the distance are four NIHE tower blocks on the Rathcoole Estate. Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.


The Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) warned in January that welfare reform is likely to have a major impact on housing due to the high number of social housing tenants who rely heavily on benefits.

Around three quarters of the Housing Executive’s 85,081 tenants received benefits to help pay their rent at the end of March, according to figures provided to The Detail by the housing body.

Of these, 4,130 had already transferred over to the new Universal Credit benefit, which incorporates housing costs, while the remaining 59,494 still received the old-style Housing Benefit. The NIHE confirmed the number of its tenants claiming Universal Credit has since increased to 6,855.

Analysis by The Detail of Housing Executive figures shows the number of households in rent arrears is rising again following a downward trend in recent years, with over 16,200 more households now behind on their rent than five years earlier. Total arrears as of the end of March were £14.4m, affecting 38,647 current households and 2,661 former tenants.

Image title

DfC said 17 housing associations reported average rent arrears of £462,000 in 2016/2017 with this increasing to £582,000 between 20 housing associations in 2017/2018. Early indications show average rent arrears for housing associations may have increased by 6% for 2018/2019 however this information is based on accounts that have not yet been audited, the spokesman added.

The NIAO has said the introduction of welfare reforms could affect the ability of DfC to meet its Programme for Government housing commitments as “potential increases in rent arrears pose a risk to both the building and maintenance of social housing in the future”.

Its report, published in January, added: “The shortage of smaller properties in Northern Ireland may result in increased deductions for under-occupancy. This may in turn lead to increasing levels of homelessness, use of payday lenders and impact on the tenant’s credit worthiness.”

Almost 39,000 social housing tenants received £22m in mitigation payments during 2017/2018 - an average of around £570 per household – according to the NIAO.
The welfare reform subsidy does not follow the tenant to their new home if they move which experts believe could be deterring people from transferring to new accommodation.

Eileen Patterson, director of communities at Radius Housing Association.

Eileen Patterson, director of communities at Radius Housing Association.

Radius Housing Association director of communities Eileen Patterson said she was “very concerned about the impacts of welfare reforms” and believes the end of the mitigation payments will have a “devastating impact on many households who will be expected to fund that shortfall themselves from a very low income”.

Ms Patterson, who was appointed chair of the Chartered Institute of Housing Northern Ireland this year, called for the welfare reform subsidies to be extended and for the introduction of a discretionary housing payment system which assists benefit claimants affected by the bedroom tax.

She added: “These types of payments are in place in other parts of the UK and, if they are not put in place in Northern Ireland, we will be allocating homes to people that they will not be able to afford. This will lead to an increase in poverty and could actually result in some people in our society being too poor for social housing. That would be a real housing crisis.”

  • Read about the hundreds of thousands of repairs and other jobs the Northern Ireland Housing Executive dealt with over a six-month period here.
  • Tomorrow The Detail will explore what is being proposed to help the NIHE attract additional investment and how pressures on public finances are affecting the number of new social homes.
Receive The Detail story alerts by email