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.”
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.